By Josh Tapper
For many Jews, slivovitz—the Eastern European plum brandy—is wrapped in nostalgia, evoking memories of irascible relatives downing fiery shots over Yiddish banter, or the mysterious bottle at the back of your grandmother’s pantry, revealed only during Passover seders. Over the years, slivovitz has become a distinctly Jewish beverage, one to rival Manischewitz wine, and a popular social lubricant to celebrate the good times and lament the bad. “For Jews it became one of those things that represented the old country,” says Noah Rothbaum, the editor-in-chief of liquor.com and author of The Business of Spirits. “It was something for us, that we had, that was traditional.”
Slivovitz comes from sliv, the Slavic root word for plum, and refers to variants of 100- to 140-proof brandy that remain immensely popular in Slovakia, Croatia, Poland, Bosnia, the Czech Republic and Serbia, which claims it as a national drink. Martin Votruba, a professor of Slovak studies at the University of Pittsburgh who researches the history of slivovitz, suspects plums were first distilled into alcohol in the 15th or 16th century, when Europeans began domestic cultivation of fruit trees. “It looks like there weren’t enough pears, and the apples weren’t good enough [for distillation],” says Votruba. “Plums had the most sugar.”
Until the late 1800s, when commercial production began to spread across Europe, slivovitz was mostly prepared in small batches, by home brewers and village tavern keepers, leading to regional nuances based on the type of plum available and the length and quality of the fermentation and distillation processes. At first, Jewish contact with slivovitz was largely circumstantial, just as it was with other Eastern European staples, such as borscht. “Jews would acquire this local drink after moving into European kingdoms,” Votruba says. “They would simply pick it up as part of the culture.”
But the ties appear to be stronger in the 19th-century Kingdom of Poland, where Jews had cornered the liquor trade. Viewed by the Polish nobility as sound bookkeepers and responsible drinkers, Jews were entrusted with operating the kingdom’s taverns, says Glenn Dynner, a professor of Jewish Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland. As such, these Jewish tavern keepers, says Dynner, would have had an intimate knowledge of slivovitz production, from overseeing the plum harvest to distillation to distribution.
The drink also grew in popularity among Jews out of religious necessity. As a grain-free spirit, slivovitz was—and continues to be—saleable during Passover, when Jewish vendors stopped selling their wheat- and rye-based alcohols. “It was a great drink to make over Passover to keep your tavern running,” says Dynner. “We’re only talking about a week, but a week’s lost business was very significant in a cutthroat economy.”
Slivovitz is the favored poison of Michael Chabon’s Jewish detective in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and is an early-morning jolt for the conniving Senator Andrew Lockhart in the third season of Homeland.
There was, Dynner suggests, another pragmatic reason for Jews to drink slivovitz in the non-wine-growing regions of Central and Eastern Europe. For poor 18th- and 19th-century Jews, wine was an expensive import and thus not always available. Under the rules of the chamar medina, or “drink of the land”—a halachic category developed so observant Jews could use local beverages for sacramental purposes in the absence of wine—the ever-abundant slivovitz was one of the alcoholic beverages Jews would have imbibed during the Sabbath and festivals, says Dynner.
All of these factors dovetailed with the rise of Hasidism, whose adherents exuberantly pursued drinking as a religious ritual. Among the few written references to Jews and slivovitz is the introduction to an 1884 commentary called Hesed le-Avraham, in which Yehiel Shapiro of Tomaszpil describes alcohol as a way to relieve financial hardship. “When a man gives a cup of liquor to his friend to drink it is true charity, for it seizes his heart and restores his spirit,” he writes. As Dynner details in Yankel’s Tavern, Shapiro then claims (spuriously) that tzedakah, which means charity in Hebrew, is “actually an acronym for the Russian phrase ‘plum brandy (Tzlivovitz) is good to buy for a starveling.’”
More than a century later, slivovitz retains that folkloric sensibility—but its widespread reputation remains that of down-market liquor, tantamount to moonshine. Its polarizing, bitter taste—sometimes caused by remnants of plum pit fragments left over from distillation—and chronic incompatibility as a cocktail ingredient don’t help. “The reputation is because people still distill it at home,” says Dusan Varga, co-owner of Rakia Bar, which has two locations in Toronto and three in Serbia. “It’s always been looked at as a grandfather’s drink, never marketed.”
But a sort of New World slivovitz renaissance is afoot. In the United States and Canada, chic Balkan-style restaurants, like New York’s Kafana—which Newsweek called one of the world’s 101 best places to eat in 2012—now serve the firewater, and a host of distilleries, mostly located in the fertile Pacific Northwest, are fermenting their own. Purists consider slivovitz cocktails a form of sacrilege, but experimental mixes, like Rakia Bar’s Galliano-infused Andric, are catching on. Slivovitz has also seeped into popular culture as the favored poison of Michael Chabon’s Jewish detective in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and as an early-morning jolt for the conniving Senator Andrew Lockhart in the third season of Homeland.
It’s unclear what accounts for slivovitz’s creeping popularity in North America outside Jews and Eastern Europeans. One possible answer is that “the range and the quality of slivovitz has improved dramatically in the past decade,” says Bill Radosevich, who in 1994 founded the U.S.-based International Slivovitz Tasters Association, which hosts an annual festival and influential international competition that draws distillers from around the world. “More distillers are making it and making it to a higher standard, so it tastes better than anything you could have bought 30 years ago.”
There are now some 30 labels on the American market—the Orthodox Union certifies seven as kosher, including the 120-year-old Czech-made Jelinek and Zwack, the Hungarian brand known by its pear-shaped green bottle.
While slivovitz is a long way off from becoming a barroom fixture, Varga points to voguish drinks, like tequila and vodka, as examples of alcohols that took years to appeal to the American palate. For the time being, he says, slivovitz’s reputation as a homemade, old-world concoction, combined with a complex flavor ripe for innovative food pairings, is in line with the current inclination toward artisanal and authentic foodstuffs.
“Drinking trends,” he says, “evolve to what North Americans consider socially acceptable.”