Distilled Jewish Joy | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Distilled Jewish Joy

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While Slivovitz can be rough, some distinctive and rather nice flavors lay just beyond the surface.

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There is an old joke. A Russian traveler enters a tavern, dusts himself off from his long-journey and declares, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have vodka.” Next, a German traveler enters and says, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have beer.” A Scotsman next enters, “I’m tired and thirsty, I must have whisky.” A moment later, a short, disheveled, Jew enters the tavern. He dusts himself off, wipes the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, and says aloud to himself: “Oy! I’m tired and thirty. I must have diabetes.”

I recently thought of this again when I was asked for umpteenth time if there exists some authentically Jewish distilled spirit, or any Jewish claim to some distilled alcoholic beverage as an especially Jewish national liquor.

The short answer, of course, is no. The Jews have tsuris, not hooch. Permit me this small digression; the booze is coming, I promise.

What makes anything Russian or German or Mexican or whatever? Obviously, it is in large measure the thing’s purported connection over time to Russia, Germany, Mexico, and so on.

Until the re-establishment of a Jewish polity in the modern State of Israel in 1948, Jews as a people—distinct from whatever society an individual Jew may have been a recognized citizen or subject of—could not rightly point to any sort of stable Jewish sovereign geography at all. As is painfully well known, even now the Jewish claim to Israel is itself—at least officially—is contested by most of the other nations of the world, either in whole or in part (how many foreign embassies are in Israel’s capital city?).

So, no, there is no authentic Jewish hooch. That said, many Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, especially here in the USA, seem to have a certain nostalgia, especially with Passover here, to Slivovitz.

A distilled beverage made from fermented blue or Damson plums, Slivovitz is simply plum brandy. It is also something of an acquired taste.

“Tastes like a sharp slap in the face,” is how one friend of mine likes to put it. “Repulsive!” is how another friend describes it.

While many a glass of Slivovitz can indeed be rough on first approach, some distinctive and rather nice flavors lay just beyond the surface.

The name Slivovitz is derived from the Slavic word for plum. The beverage hails from many places in Central and Eastern Europe, like Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and even now some minor regional variations persist (there are some distinct regional names too).

Among many Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, Slivovitz was simply the spirit most familiar, and so kosher and kosher for Passover versions were available soon after Prohibition, and widely available after World War II. For many American Jews, immigrant or native-born, the mere existence of kosher-for-Passover certified Slivovitz helped create and sustain a market for it, especially around the holiday.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Even now, much of the demand for kosher Slivovitz remains among these immigrants and their descendants, and the occasional Jewish twinge of nostalgia for what was drunk in the old days, if not exactly in the old country. Jewish affinity and nostalgia do not, of course, necessarily make anything authentically Jewish in any national sense. As I contemplate to what degree any of this sort of nationalist sentiment might matter, I do so while sipping—rather than slamming—shots of the following options:

R. Jelínek, Silver Slivovitz, Plum Brandy, Vizovice, Czech Republic (OU certified for Passover; 50% abv; $26): From one of the oldest and best-known Czech slivovitz distilleries (established in 1894), this is fiery and heady but with distinct notes of almonds and, well, plums; some deeper berry notes in the background too. This offers the traditional assault that you’ll either love or hate. There are kosher but not-for-Passover five and ten-year-old versions as well. The ten is oak aged and significantly better, less of an acquired taste too.

Maraska, Stara Sljivovica, Old Plum Brandy Slivovitz, Zadar, Croatia (Chief Rabbi of Croatia certified kosher for Passover; 40 percent abv; $25-28): Though the initial pungent, heavy nose is a bit overly fusel-oil like, leading to a somewhat rough palate of bitter plum skin and plum pit bite, beneath this are notes of candied plums and toasted almonds. Once you get past the initial attack on the senses, it calms, and then entertains with notes of lavender, ripe blackberries, blueberries, dark plums, and even something a little grapey, with hints of anise ad a peppery finish. It has bite, but also character.

Mosby, Kosher Plum Brandy, Slivovitz (Certified kosher for Passover by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Los Angeles; 43.3 percent abv; $55): Made in California from locally sourced Damson plums, this potent, deeply flavorful Slivovitz seems closer in kinship to the more traditional Eastern European brands, but oh, so much better. With heady aromas of pure plum, and more subtle notes of vanilla pudding, marzipan, overripe melon, and a little pepperiness to tickle the palate, this Slivovitz is fruity, floral, medium-to-full-bodied and surprisingly complex. The finish is a tad hot, but satisfyingly so.

Mosby, Kosher Plum Brandy, Native Pacific Plum (Certified kosher for Passover by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Los Angeles; 40.95 percent abv; $75): This wild plum version is altogether an improvement on the already very nice Mosby Slivovitz, with greater complexity and elegance, and vibrant notes of fresh, sweet, ripe plums, ripe and overripe berries, lavender, marzipan and unsweetened ground almonds, and a little distinct pepperiness, with an absorbing, warm finish. Invigorating and refreshing, yet also contemplative. L’Chaim!

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