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Pálinka is a traditional fruit brandy in the countries of the Carpathian Basin, known under several names, and invented in the Middle Ages. Under the 2008 "Hungarian Pálinka Law", only fruit spirits distilled from a mash of ripe fruits produced in Hungary, mashed, distilled, matured and bottled locally can be called pálinka. Fruit spirits made from concentrates, semi-dried or dried fruit cannot legally be called pálinka. The European Union also established exclusive trademark rights for the name. Additionally, the trademark to several specific regional varieties were given to Hungarian brands of Almapálinka, Barackpálinka, Szilvapálinka, and Törkölypálinka (made of apple, apricot, plum and pomace respectively). 
The production of pálinka in the European Union is regulated by order 1-3-1576/89, which took effect on 1 July 2002. According to the regulation, an alcoholic beverage may be called pálinka in the EU only if:
As a consequence of this regulation, a whole family of popular products was rebranded as "szeszes ital" (spirit drinks). Traditional pálinkas mixed with honey were rebranded as "szeszes ital" as well, even if there was no unorthodox steps in the process of distillation. Most of the brands re-categorized as spirit drinks are a cheap mixture of flavorings, water, and rectified spirit.
In 2004 the European Union accepted pálinka as a Hungarian speciality, and hence its production is limited to Hungary (and four provinces of Austria for pálinka made from apricot). This caused some confusion in neighbouring countries, as some claimed that producers of fruit brandies would have to pay a royalty to Hungary. This is however not the case. It is the brand "pálinka" that is protected by Hungarian and EU law, hence producers outside of Hungary are not allowed to use the brand "pálinka" for their products, but they are free to produce fruit brandies and sell them under different names. This is in spite of the drink being historically distilled in most of historical Hungary, many regions of which fall outside the present-day borders.
The production is regulated by the 2008. LXXIII. Law of the Republic of Hungary. Under the relevant EU and Hungarian law, pálinka can be made only from healthy and legally allowed fruits by way of distillation. Pálinka falls under generic protected designation of origin.
Pálinka with protected designation of origin (PDO): Palinka (Hungarian: pálinka) has been officially registered in Europe as a Hungaricum since 2004. Its production is regulated by the 2008. LXXIII. Law of the Republic of Hungary. Under the relevant EU and Hungarian law, pálinka can be made only from healthy and legally allowed fruits by way of distillation, and only in Hungary (with the exception of four provinces of Austria, were the name apricot pálinka can be used for such spirits made from apricot). In this sense, pálinka falls under generic protected designation of origin (Hungarian: eredetvédelem).
Some regions of Hungary are especially suitable for the production of certain fruits, and pálinka of excellent quality has been produced in those regions for centuries. In concreto, only pálinkas produced in these geographical regions, from fruits determined by the relevant law, and representing excellent quality are legally called pálinka with PDO. Only products that meet these criteria receive the official distinguishing label of protected designation of origin (PDO), which then can appear on their packaging.
Pálinkas with PDO include, szatmári szilvapálinka (plum pálinka of Szatmár), a kecskeméti barackpálinka (apricot pálinka of Kecskemét), szabolcsi almapálinka (apple pálinka of Szabolcs), békési szilvapálinka (plum pálinka of Békés), gönci barackpálinka (apricot pálinka of Gönc), újfehértói meggypálinka (sour cherry pálinka of Újfehértó) and göcseji körtepálinka (pear pálinka of Göcsej). pannonhalmi törkölypálinka (grape pálinka of Pannonhalma) was the eighth such product to receive in December 2009.
The first records of the Hungarian spirit date back to the fourteenth century, and refer as "Aqua vitae reginae Hungariae" to the aqua vitae of the wife of the King Charles I of Hungary. This spirit was probably a brandy blended with rosemary, and had its use in medicine, as both the king and the queen suffered from arthritis.
The word pálinka derives from the Slavonic stem "páliť", to burn, to distill. In Hungarian the word is most probably of Slovak origin, as "Tótpálinka" (literally Slovak pálinka) was used in Hungary to refer to alcoholic drinks derived from wheat.
The word pálinka became widespread in Hungary in the seventeenth century, but it still referred to distillates made from grain. The meaning was later transferred to fruit brandies, while wheat distillates were referred to as "crematura". Distillation became a privilege of the landlords, which led to the proliferation of home stills. Law forbade the use of bread-stuffs for distillation, hence the use of fruits. Private distilleries and factories started to appear towards the end of the eighteenth century, which led to legislation and to the introduction of a Pálinka tax.
The patron of Pálinka distillation is Saint Nicholas.
Pálinka has an important role in traditional celebrations and social occasions. A traditional Hungarian greeting is "Pálinkás jó reggelt!" which means "Good morning with pálinka!".
- Kisüsti (literally "Small pot, cauldron") is a double-distilled pálinka made in a copper pot not exceeding a volume of 1000 litres.
- Érlelt (Aged) is a pálinka aged for at least three months in a wooden cask smaller than 1000 litres, or for at least six months in a wooden cask of 1000 litres or above.
- Ó (Old) is a pálinka aged for at least 12 months in a wooden cask smaller than 1000 litres, or for at least 24 months in a wooden cask of 1000 litres or above.
- Ágyas ("bedded") is a pálinka aged for at least three months together with fruits. The fruits can be of the same sort used to obtain the distillate or of another sort. To 100 liters of pálinka at least 10 kg of ripe or 5 kg of dried fruits have to be added.
- Törköly (Pomace pálinka, also Törkölypálinka) is a pálinka made from grape pomace. One of the oldest types of pálinka; it helps digestion, and is usually consumed in small quantities after meals.
A popular saying in Hungary says: what can be used to prepare jam can also be used to produce pálinka. For a fruit to be suitable for jam production it has to contain some sugar. This saying suggests that pálinka can be made from a large variety of fruits, and indeed it is made from most of the fruits available in Hungary.
The most common pálinkas are made from apricots, pears, and plums. Other fruits that are often used are sour cherries, apples, mulberries and quince. Nevertheless, pálinka made from chestnuts is also available.
Barack (pronounced "baratsk") is a type of pálinka made of apricots. The word barack is a collective term for both apricot (in Hungarian sárgabarack, lit. "yellow-peach") and peach (in Hungarian őszibarack, lit. "autumn-peach").
Pálinka made of pomace (törkölypálinka) is very popular as well, and is a typical drink in the wine producing regions of the country.
An unusual way of presenting pear palinka is when the bottle contains a whole fruit inside. The tiny immature fruit and its branch are threaded into the bottle, and the pear matures there to a point where it is much larger than the bottle opening.
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Pálinka is best consumed at 18-20 °C because it is at this temperature when the fine smell and taste of the fruits can be best enjoyed. If served too cold, the smell and the taste will be difficult to notice.
The form of the glass used to drink pálinka has a big influence on the drinking experience. The ideal shaped glass is wide at the bottom and narrow at the rim, that is, it has the shape of a tulip. The relatively narrow neck of the glass leads to the nose the smell released on the relatively big surface at the bottom of the glass, and so it magnifies the smell of the drink.
Modern commercial production occurs in Hungary, Romania and parts of Austria. It is commonly made from the fermentation of plums, but other fruits used include apricots, apples, pears, peaches and cherries. The traditional double distillation process results in a strong alcohol content of 40 to 70 percent ABV.
Commercially available pálinka is always distilled in one of the registered distilleries.
The quality of pálinka is largely influenced by the quality of the fruits used, hence the distiller has to choose good quality fruits with a rich taste.
The first step in the production process is the preparation of the fruit mash. The stony seed is removed from the fruits that have such (e.g., cherry, apricot, plum) in order avoid the cyanide contained in these seeds from ending up in the distillate. Some fruits (e.g., apple, pear, quince) will be ground in order to make the mash soft.
The second step in the production process is the fermentation. Some fruits, like quince, require an additive to start the fermentation process (e.g., citric acid). The fermentation is carried out in an anaerobic environment. The ideal temperature for the fermentation process is between 14-16 degrees Celsius, and the process takes between 10 and 15 days.
The third step in the production process is the distillation. There are two types of distillation processes used: in a pot still or in a column still.
Distillation in a pot still ("kisüsti" pálinka refers to a pálinka distilled in a pot still no bigger than 1000 litres) is considered to be the traditional way of distillation. Pálinka distilled in a pot still is always double distilled. In the first step the alcohol is extracted from the fermented mash, the result is called "alszesz" (low alcohol). In the second step it is the taste of the fruits that is extracted from the fermented mash. The second distillation is the one that has the biggest influence on the quality of the pálinka, and hence requires special skills. During the second distillation one distinguishes between "előpárlat" (foreshots), "középpárlat" (middle cut) and "utópárlat" (feints). The "előpárlat" is not used, even though much of the taste is contained in this cut. The "középpárlat" is the one that gives the body of the distillate.
Distillation in a column still involves a single distillation. The process is faster and cheaper than distillation in a pot still, and hence, the resulting pálinka is cheaper.
The last step in the process is aging. Pálinka can be aged in wooden casks (made of, e.g., mulberry wood) or in tanks made of metal. Not all varieties of pálinka can be aged in wooden casks, because the wood can cancel the fruity taste of the drink.
In Hungary, one can ferment a batch of fruit mash at home, then take the fermented mash to a distiller, who can then legally distill the mash to the desired strength. Legislation legalized small home distillers in 2010.
The most alcoholic pálinkas are (informally) referred to as "kerítésszaggató" in Hungarian, which literally means "fence-ripper" (referring to a drunkard's loss of balance). These potent, home-made, "házi" (home-made) pálinkas are commercially available in small portions and are very common in the countryside.