Europe distilled: from bottled moonshine to sunshine

BY RICK STEVES Modified: May 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm •  Published: May 7, 2012
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Finishing dinner at Rome’s Ristorante da Fortunato, my friend Stefano explains that his greatest joy is an after-dinner drink called grappa. I try my best to enjoy the local firewater and fail.

Sipping the grappa, Stefano instructs me: “You must not be in a hurry when taking a grappa!”

He savors it carefully, sniffing the aroma and lingering over every taste. He then tells me that his ultimate joy is to have a glass of grappa — and a Tuscan cigar — while cruising on his sailboat to Corsica.

And so it goes all over Europe. Each nation has its own brand of moonshine — a distilled concoction that burns your throat, waters your eyes, and clouds your mind till you think you can drink like you’re a native.

Trying these regionally produced spirits and liqueurs can be a great cultural experience — and brings out fun and fascinating facets of my favorite continent.

While many Americans are familiar with whiskies and brandies, there's a cornucopia of other specialty spirits in Europe, many made from fruits. Italy's grappa, for example, is made from winemaking leftovers — skins, pulp, seeds, and stems — distilled into a clear, potent brew.

If you can't take it straight, try a shot of it in a cup of espresso, which the Italians call "caffè coretto" (corrected coffee).

"Ginjinha" is one of my favorite Portuguese drinks. This sweet liqueur is made from the sour, cherry–like ginja berry, sugar, and alcohol. It's sold for less than $2 a shot in funky old shops throughout Portugal.

Buy it with or without berries ("com elas" or "sem elas" — that's "with them" or "without them") and "gelada" (if you want it poured from a chilled bottle — very nice).

In Greece, cloudy, anise-flavored ouzo, supposedly invented by monks on Mount Athos, is worth a try even if you don’t like the taste of black licorice.

Similar to its Mediterranean cousins, French "pastis" and Turkish "raki," ouzo turns from clear to milky white when you add ice or water (don’t drink it straight). Greeks drink it both as an aperitif and with food.

Each Eastern European country has its own distinctive firewater, most of them a variation on slivovitz — a plum brandy so highly valued that it’s the de facto currency of the Carpathian Mountains (often used for bartering with farmers and other mountain folk).

In Hungary, for a more straightforward spirit, try "pálinka," a powerful drink made from various fruits, most often "szilva" (plums) or "barack" (apricots).

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