From Poland, Liquid Sunshine in a Bottle

Nalewki, traditional homemade liqueurs wrapped in an aura of mystery, are becoming more popular than ever in Poland, and their charm is hard to resist

Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered

“Let us pour and pour from the clear and from the golden and from the crimson, and let us wash away all the sweet, savory and fatty tastes with the real drink that ignites tongues and excites throats, and let us raise a toast of Le’hayim to one another” − from “The People of Shklov,” by Zalman Shneour ‏(in Hebrew‏)

Each year in early spring, Karol Majewski goes out to the forest to gather tender fir-tree shoots. He has a brief window of time in which to act: After just two weeks of the new growth, the young, brush-like twigs begin to dry out and lose their precious sap, which is used to make the poetically named “Aroma of the Forest” liqueur. In years like this one, when Eastern Europe was hit with an especially long, cold winter, the time to gather the shoots is even shorter, just a few days.

Like his ancestors before him, Majewski puts them into thick glass bottles, arranged in crowded rows in his yard, and covers them with sugar. For seven months, the twigs and needles steep in the sugar, which helps extract the small amount of liquid in them. One whiff of the resulting rich aroma and you immediately understand how this incredible elixir got its name. In December, Majewski adds clear alcohol to the bottles, and over the next two months, the sugar-pine mixture gives the essence of its flavor, fragrance and soul to the alcohol. At the end of the process, the liquid is strained, and the firm paste that remains is squeezed so as to extract every last drop, and then put into aluminum tanks for aging.

“Right now I’m selling Aroma of the Forest liqueur from 2004,” says Majewski. “And I’ll never sell a liqueur less than three years old.”

Production of Aroma of the Forest, which involves a long, slow and complicated production process, is just one of the liqueurs that has given Karol Majewski a national and international reputation. Another liqueur, based on milk and lemon and made according to a late 19th-century recipe, has also gained renown and been widely embraced by the local Slow Food movement. ‏(“I’m the only one who still makes it. When you add acid to the milk a curdling process begins, and the process of turning the milk into an alcoholic drink is slow and complicated. In all the years this liqueur has been out there in the world, just one person, a French chef from a three-star Michelin restaurant, has been able to identify milk as a main ingredient”‏).

Besides these two liqueurs, Majewski makes dozens of other kinds each year: nalewka pigwowka ‏(made from quince‏); nalewka rokitnik ‏(made from sea buckthorn‏); nalewka mirabelkowa ‏(made from wild plums‏); and many, many more. Every kind of liqueur has its own distinct recipe and production time. For example, the cherries used to make wishniak are usually steeped with sugar for just two days, so that they don’t ferment, and then the alcohol is poured onto them. All of Majewski’s liqueurs, however, are made with a similar technique and aged for long periods of time.

Nalewka Staropolskie ‏(Traditional Polish Liqueurs‏) is the name of Majewski’s label, and he is just one of a number of small-batch producers who have made the transition from home production to legal commercial production while carefully preserving traditional methods. “I’ve been making nalewka for 40 years, and in the past decade [I’ve done so] with an official manufacturer’s license that took three years of red tape to obtain,” he says.

His production is deliberately small-scale − about 5,000 liters per year − in order to maintain flavor and quality. The entire process takes place in the backyard of his home, in a dreary-looking suburb about 40 minutes from downtown Warsaw. Many of the wild plants he uses come straight from the nearby forests.

In several of the homes where we stayed on our recent trip to Poland, the hosts offered us homemade nalewki, proudly showing off their jars of liqueur on the windowsill. Indeed, just about every restaurant here, fancy or not, boasts a collection of nalewki from small, boutique producers ‏(Majewski’s liqueurs appear on the menu of Atelier Amaro, the first Polish restaurant to receive a Michelin star, and Majewski also prepares special liqueurs just for the chef, to go with specific dishes‏). Moreover, every serious gastronome in these parts is ready to whisper in your ear a secret nalewka recipe that’s been passed down in his family for generations, or the name of a special nalewka maker shrouded in mystery and legend.

The secrecy is not just a matter of ego, but because the nalewka market operates largely in a gray area Besides the simple homemade variety − usually quite sweet and with an unrefined taste and texture − and inferior mass-produced versions, there exists a whole world of small, unlicensed manufacturers who make a wide variety of aged and complex nalewki.

Soaking, not distilling

“In the last decade nalewki have returned to public consciousness and have become more popular than ever,” says Piotr Bikont, a leading Polish food writer and cookbook author. He says that the renaissance in Polish cuisine and the quest for local culinary traditions that predated the communist era are just part of the reason for the current interest in these traditional liqueurs. (One of our hosts described the meager offerings of communist times by saying, “They had one kind of bread, one variety of cheese and one vodka.”)

“In Poland,” Bikont explains, “unlike in neighboring countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia, distillation of alcohol at home is forbidden. It’s true today and it was true throughout long periods of Polish history. Nalewki, which originated around the 17th century, after the technique of distilling alcohol reached Eastern Europe, does not require distillation per se, but rather the soaking of fruits, roots and herbs in distilled alcohol. The name, which comes from the Polish word for ‘to pour’ or ‘to ladle,’ refers to the production method of pouring alcohol over the basic ingredient, and essentially that encompasses the whole story.”

Like traditional liqueurs made in other countries and cultures, nalewki were initially considered a kind of medicine, for one thing because of the use of sugar.

In the premodern age, sugar was a precious ingredient that played an important role in the science of pharmacology. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the golden age of Polish nalewki, the liqueurs were put in small bottles and stored in home apothecary cabinets.

“There’s a popular saying that refers to nalewka as ‘sunshine caught in a bottle,’” says Bikont, citing another important role of such traditional drinks: in preserving fruit and other natural ingredients for the long, cold winter.

Only someone well-acquainted with the snowy, frosty weather that descends on this part of the world for many months of the year can truly appreciate the way the flavor of spring and summer can be captured in jams, pickled foods and different liqueurs. From nearly every part of certain plants ‏(leaves, flowers and fruit‏), such as the black currant, different types of liqueurs are made.

Bikont served as a judge in the first national nalewka contest held in Poland a few years ago. “Today there are at least 15 different competitions,” he laughs. “I sit on the judges’ panel of four of five of these competitions, all of which purport to name the best nawleka of all. We do a blind tasting of 50, or sometimes as many as 100, different varieties. The best nawleki are not too sweet, contrary perhaps to what the general public might think, and they have a smooth taste and texture that comes from being aged for a number of years.”

What's a poor Jew to do?

“Yes, Gentlemen, let us not forget to give due respect to the drinks: To taste the simple samekh brandy and the tzadik brandy, left over from Passover, that has the appearance of translucent amber and an aroma that is simply fantastic. And a dark red plum brandy, and here is the plum-and-orange brandy, the one that the aunt kept from the important ‘Pomeranz’ of Purim, it too awaits its honor. And the Zubrowka? In which the wild bison-grass is steeped and which has the aroma of the forest ... Every drink its own reward! And the pepper-and-twig brandy?”
− from “The People of Shklov”

The “Shulhan Aruch” chapter alone of Shneour’s book could form the basis for an entire cookbook. More than 30 types of foods − sweet, savory, cold, hot − are described as appearing on Aunt Feigeh’s table on Simhat Torah, and no reader can remain indifferent to the descriptions of the various delicacies: honeyed sweets, fried walnuts with dark plums, horseradish and radish jellies, cakes with blueberries and black currants, herring with bay leaves and onion rings, an array of casseroles, all sorts of rolls, meat patties, potato pancakes and so on.

After a meal of such foods, when guests are ready to flee for their lives from the house of gluttony, Shneour suggests balancing out the extravagance and abundance of desserts with a healthy round of digestifs ‏(the Hebrew acronym used in the book − yash, for yayin saraf, or sap wine − exerts a special charm here‏).
In addition to the classic digestif of vodka made from grain or potatoes, with varying percentages of alcohol, and spiced vodka like Zubrowka, he urges people to try what sounds like a variety of nalewki: dark red plum ‏(made from wild plums and rare apples imported from North Africa‏), or a type made from twigs ‏(could this be the ancestor of the liqueur made from pine shoots?‏). Later on he talks rather disparagingly about the blueberry liqueur that women are fond of ‏(“Only females have the custom of eating dessert without drinking. And when they do dare to risk their souls and drink, it’s nothing but blueberries with sugar”‏).

“The text probably is referring to different kinds of liqueurs,” agrees Prof. David Assaf from Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Polish Studies, “and the theory is boosted given the fact that the Jews of Poland and Eastern Europe were closely identified with producing and selling wines and liqueurs. The connection to wine is obvious: Jews needed wine for purposes of religious observance − for Kiddush and Havdalah, and the four cups of wine on Passover − and so they were involved in producing and selling kosher wine. A well-off Jew from Eastern Europe, a northern area without a local wine culture, would buy imported wine from Hungary or the Balkans. A really wealthy Jew might drink imported wine from Italy or France. But how will a poor Jew from a village make Kiddush? He’ll cook his own wine − that is, he’ll soak raisins in water until they ferment. The taste is awful, but it’s still wine made from the fruit of the vine, as per the halakha ‏(traditional religious law‏).”

Digestifs, which are made by the distilling process, are not permitted to be used for ritual purposes, but they became identified with the Jews because of the occupations involved in producing them.

“Distiller, alcohol producer and pub owner − these were Jewish professions,” says Assaf. “In the premodern Polish economy, property was exclusively in the hands of the king and the nobility. Once a year, it was put up for lease − [this could mean] anything from a bridge to an entire village, or a distillery. And the Jews, who did not work the land, would lease the properties. As soon as you would lease the pub in a village, all the tenant farmers would have to consume their alcohol in the same place, and thus this identity emerged and traditional know-how was amassed.”

The age-old nalewki and liqueur culture did not, however, survive the move to Israel, a different geographical region with a different climate and different flora, and was practically forgotten.

Some of Karol Majewski’s nationally and internationally famous liqueurs.Credit: Dan Perez
Quinces. Used in making nalewka pigwowka.
Sugar and fir-tree shoots, used in making “Aroma of the Forest” liqueur.Credit: Dan Perez
Liqueur ingredients during the soaking process.Credit: Dan Perez