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In Praise of Pelinkovac, Violetta Teetor

The fun part comes when all three versions of Pelinkovac are on the table. Pelinkovac Antique holds 35% alcohol and is the sweetest of the three. Pelinkovac Orange, you guessed it, has an orange twist while Pelinkovac Bitter has, you guessed it again, the least amount of sugar added.

This time I had to share the limelight. To be honest, I was nervous. There’s no script and the camera’s on you. And to add to my anxiety, my co-star was mute! By my side was a bottle of booze that had stood the test of time and was still being produced today after 150 years. Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to Pelinkovac, a herbal liquor that has undergone few changes since it was first invented in 1862.

What could be more fitting than a horse and carriage to drive Franjo Pokorny, founder of the original liquor company and I through the streets of Zagreb. Franjo was speaking from the grave through the mouth of Damjen Simić, the actor who turned out to be an excellent tour guide. Details of Art Nouveau architecture were pointed out even in buildings that could have used a lick of paint decades ago, stories of gardens and fountains in inner courtyards were told and people through the ages discussed. The spirit of the man was alive and well in his stomping ground and beyond. Pokorny had none of the airs and graces of the royalty who had fallen in love with his Pelinkovac. He liked delivering his precious liquid personally perhaps to meet the intriguing types who liked to drink it or perhaps because he understood the meaning of the phrase ‘personalised service’ long before it was even coined.

Pokorny’s company underwent many changes and collaborations and is now the state-owned Badel 1862, the biggest manufacturer of spirits and wine in Croatia. Within the walls of the original headquarters, the floorboards creak, that glorious smell of ‘old’ envelops one and the safe where the secret recipe once was kept, is still in place. The secret is still intact and is kept secure in a bank vault. The people that work at Badel are a happy bunch maybe due to the nature of the business, or just because they’re well taken care of? One thing’s sure however, they’re professionals and what Master Blender Vesna doesn’t know about distilling is not worth knowing.

The plant nowadays is in an industrial area on the outskirts of Zagreb. Here we learn that 30 different herbs are used in to make Pelinkovac, the major one being wormwood or absinthe. The fumes that escape the sacks of dried herbs are enough to make me hallucinate! It is carefully measured and then mixed with ethyl alcohol in stainless steel tanks where it stays for some weeks before entering the ‘holy of holies’, the old copper stills lined with the sediment and flavours of many a former batch. No preservatives, colourants or chemicals are added. Tasting the unfinished product is a hairy experience, ultra-bitter and not at all what I expected. Before bottling, sugar is added, thankfully!

But the proof is in the pudding and the fun part comes at Supercaffé in Zagreb when all three versions of Pelinkovac are on the table. The bartender is handsome and deft in his execution of pouring this prestigious drink into the appropriate glasses. Pelinkovac Antique holds 35% alcohol and is the sweetest of the three. Pelinkovac Orange, you guessed it, has an orange twist while Pelinkovac Bitter has, you guessed it again, the least amount of sugar added. Again I am anxious since I’m not a lover of herbal liquors and the counterparts of this product that we know so well from other parts of Europe, are just plain medicine as far as I’m concerned. I’d hate to insult my hosts and happily, phew, I really like it! All three of them have layers of taste and every sip is a surprise when you try and guess what herb is hiding behind the last one you tasted. It’s a smooth drink with perhaps only the bitter (Gorki) one that has any real throat hit at all and then hardly. My personal favorite? Pelinkovac Bitter.

Next on my agenda is to make sure that I never need to be without it. I’m eternally grateful to Pokorny and Badel for teaching this old bitch new tricks. Watch out unsuspecting importers, here I come with samples tucked under my arm!

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