I always assumed that my proclivity for chopped liver, pickles, and kasha varnishes (a delicious combination of bowtie pasta, buckwheat, and onions) branded me the American descendant of Eastern European Jews. And while those dishes do represent my heritage, they are also staples of larger communities. The same can be said for the “Jewish” spirit used to wash down my stuffed cabbage—a neat pour of Slivovitz, the plum brandy popular in Eastern Europe for centuries.
Slivovitz—the name comes from the Slavic word for Damson plums, which are plentiful in that region—remains wildly popular in places like Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia. Although commercial production of Slivovitz dates back to at least the mid-18th century, it has remained fairly esoteric to the US market throughout the years.
“It still feels special.”
Some Slivovitz lovers like that it flies under the radar. “It is one of the only spirits that’s consumed by such a wide variety of people that hasn’t seen giant commercial success,” says Joe O’Sullivan, head distiller at Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, which has been making Slivovitz and other award-winning fruit brandies for decades. “It still feels special.”
With brandy’s recent surge in popularity, Slivovitz has begun to appear in bars and distilleries around the US as well. Part of the allure is the variety of styles on the world market. The rules are limited to one: “The Damson plum is the only requirement,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s my favorite thing that we make, hands down.”
What’s it Taste Like?
The word Slivovitz doesn’t often conjure adjectives like craft or artisanal. That’s because much of what’s been available over the years has been difficult to swallow. The juice is often higher in proof and sometimes fermented without pitting the plums, which can generate an acerbic bitterness—an acquired taste that has been likened to gasoline and limited its appeal.
But there is plenty of good Slivovitz out there. It should evoke almond, marzipan, and, yes, plum or prune on the nose. Traditionally made as an unaged eau-de-vie, many distillers age it which brings out more of the baking spice and nuttiness.Smaller craft labels like Old Falcons from Croatia and the Yellow Jacket (or Wasp) from Serbia are surging in the US. But the most recognizable brands in the States are produced by R Jelinek, a Czech company that has been producing Slivovitz in one form or another for almost 100 years. They produce an unaged “silver” variety that includes pits in the mash and is Kosher for Passover as well a 5-year old clear Slivovitz aged in stainless steel and an amber-colored 10-year-old Slivovitz aged in oak barrels. These bottlings represent the classic aromas and flavors that many have grown accustomed to with Slivovitz—strong stone fruit and almond notes, with a mix of a grappa-esque chest-warming 100 proof and a bitterness from the pits in the fermentation.
A popular brand among many cocktail bartenders in the US is the unaged, pitted-plum Slivovitz produced by Clear Creek. It is rested and bottled at a lower-octane 80 proof. They never barrel-age it, in keeping with the earliest production methods.
The Matzoh of Spirits
Well before the recent fetishization of everything craft, Slivovitz had humble beginnings as a cheap moonshine distilled for the masses. Fruit-based spirits have been produced in southeastern Europe at least since it became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, beginning with the Balkans and spreading north.
During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Jews were heavily involved in the liquor trade in the northern countries of Eastern Europe. And because of a perception that they were good bookkeepers who didn’t drink to excess, landowners would lease them their properties—or “taverns”—where Jews (who were prohibited from owning land) would distill their own spirits and supply travelers in the region with very basic lodging, food and drink.
The Jewish relationship with Slivovitz was borne from necessity. Unlike the wheat- or rye-based vodka that had originated in Russia and Poland, the plum-based Slivovitz with its Balkan ties was considered kosher for Passover. Because the taverns were run by Jews, it was the only drink being served to everyone during the annual week-long holiday; it effectively became the matzoh of alcohol. “Non-Jews were dependent on the Jewish-run tavern in the smaller towns and villages,” says Glenn Dynner, PhD, author of Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland and chair of the religion department at Sarah Lawrence College. “So you’re drinking Slivovitz, too, during the week of Passover.”
Unlike matzoh, though, Slivovitz gained traction among the wider population in places like Poland, Hungary, and what’s now the Czech Republic. Inexpensive wine was hard to find and the prevalence of the Damson plum made it a natural choice for an unaged homemade spirit. “The wide availability of plums made it more difficult to regulate than, say, rye-based vodka,” says Dynner.
Slivovitz has remained popular all over Southern and Eastern Europe and plum distillates have also developed a tradition in Western Europe.
The Rise and Fall of Jewish Distilleries in Europe
As the product spread to a wider audience—aided by the introduction of mass production capabilities in the late 18th century—Jewish-owned distilleries thrived. Unfortunately, this golden age was short lived.
Beginning in 1804, the Jewish-owned Haberfeld Distilling Company in Oświęcim (Auschwitz), Poland—which became the largest employer in town—was one of the first in the region to industrialize the distillation of vodka, rum, and other spirits (Slivovitz certainly among them). Meanwhile, another Jewish-owned company—R Jelinek—was successfully supplying Slivovitz to countries across Europe from its home in what is now the Czech Republic.
But the end of Prohibition coupled with a rise in Eastern European immigration to the US provided an even larger opportunity. In the six years between the end of Prohibition and the start of World War II, these Jewish-owned distilleries gained an audience in the US. In 1934, R Jelinek began exporting kosher Slivovitz to the newly available market of New York.
And in 1939, Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld left their 2-year-old daughter, Francziska Henryka, in the care of Felicia’s parents and sailed to New York to promote their brands in the newly fertile American market.
But before they could return home, the Germans invaded. Their distillery was closed by the Nazis who would use their grand residence, Haberfeld House, as an Army outpost. But far worse was the fact that soon after Felicia’s parents (and daughter) fled to their home in nearby Krakow, they were all moved to a Jewish “ghetto” and eventually sent to the death camps. (After several months stranded in Britain without any word from their family, Alfons and Felicia made their way to the United States, resettled, and had another child.)
“Rudolf and [the] rest of the family were sent to the gas chambers in Osvetim [Auschwitz] and died in 1944.”
Meanwhile, Rudolf Jelinek, owner of the popular (and still operational) Bohemia-based R. Jelinek—along with most of his family—met a similar fate. “The whole family was Jewish,” says Ladislav Kohn, R Jelinek’s brand ambassador for the west coast of the US. “Rudolf and [the] rest of the family were sent to the gas chambers in Osvetim [Auschwitz] and died in 1944. From [the] Jelinek family only their 2 sons Zdenek and Jiri survived the war and concentration camp.”
After the war, the company was nationalized by the newly formed communist state and all Slivovitz in the former Czechoslovakia was produced under its name.
In 1994, the company was finally privatized again. “The grand daughter of Rudolf Jelinek got the financial compensation from the State Restitution Fund, as she claimed no interest to take back the company,” says Kohn.
From Moonshine to Craft?
Slivovitz has always been super popular from the Balkans to Belarus. But the gruff old sipper has gained a new following among cocktail bartenders.
“Our customers are mostly restaurants in California, Oregon, and New York,” says O’Sullivan, who thinks they are mostly serving it in cocktails. “Personally, I think Slivovitz should be drank neat.”
At Banzarbar on the Lower East Side of New York City, Eryn Reece has created the Moonraker Sail, a frozen drink that combines Shochu, gin, vermut, apricot liqueur and saline with a bit of Clear Creek Slivovitz and a Japanese umeboshe plum as garnish. Reece says that a little Slivovitz goes a long way. “With aggressive ingredients like this I tend to treat it as more of a modifier. So usually using 1/2 oz or less in a drink so it’s more of a nuance.”
The opening menu at Bar Goto in the nearby East Village included a plum Sazerac that also incorporated Clear Creek Slivovitz. “Plum is an ingredient that is important in Japan, so I wanted to utilize it to create a cocktail,” says Bar Goto owner and native of Japan, Kenta Goto. “However, Japanese alcohol products with plum are often at a lower proof, and I needed something higher. Slivovitz was a good option for this.”
Like Reece, Goto chose to use Slivovitz as a modifier in the cocktail. “I used a full-bodied Bourbon as the base and added slivovitz and a touch of pastis,” he says.
Despite the trending popularity of the brandy, the brutal backstory remains ever present. What we choose to drink with family and friends on special occasions often pays homage to the past, even if it wasn’t always pleasant. And evoking Slivovitz’s association with the Jewish experience is still a calling card.
At Blue Quarter in New York City, just a few blocks from where Yiddish theatres used to thrive, co-owner Max Green hosts a kitschy party called “A bitter Jewish Christmas” where he serves 50/50 shots of Slivovitz and Cynar. “It tastes like Ovaltine,” says Green, who has been throwing the popular party for several years now. “On a day you would presume to be one of the slowest of the year, we always have an amazing showing.”
Moonraker SailThis frozen cocktail was created by Erin Reece for the fall 2018 menu at Banzarbar, a discrete den upstairs at Freemans on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where the cocktails are the star of a 5-course tasting menu. While the pairings are mostly low ABV, this cocktail is decidedly not.
- “We batch it completely, add the olive oil, freeze it over night, then skim off the frozen olive oil,” says Reece. The frozen ingredients are then poured into a Nick & Nora glass and a sidecar is garnished with an umeboshe (a Japanese pickled plum). A white cup is included for the plum pit.
The Plum SazeracThis Kenta Goto cocktail was on the opening menu of the celebrated Bar Goto in the East Village of New York. Here, the Slivovitz is used as a modifier while Bourbon is the base.
- Combine all ingredients in a glass with ice and stir 60 times.
- Strain into a snifter. No garnish.
Brett Moskowitz writes about therapeutic cocktails of the medicinal and alcoholic varieties. He has contributed to Food & Wine, Liquor.com, Esquire, Saveur, Thrillist, Punch and others. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @bmoskowitz and Instagram @bsmoskowitz.