While reporting “If the Slivovitz Hasn’t Killed You Yet, Have Another Shot,” for the Forward’s food and drink section, I talked to a lot of serious slivophiles. Some of them discovered the super-potent plum brandy later in life, but for many the appeal went back to childhood, growing up in families who drank slivovitz in an almost ceremonial fashion.
My experience doesn’t date back that far, but slivovitz and I have crossed paths on a few occasions. My first encounter with the liquor was as a teenager, when my grandmother gave our family a bottle for Passover. I don’t recall the brand, but it was one of the squat green bottles that used to dominate the slivovitz market in North America, and which were usually imported from the former Yugoslavia. Slivovitz reentered my life more recently at The Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, an annual Balkan music event in Brooklyn, where it is celebrated as a regional specialty. But after talking to a good many slivovitz aficionados, it became apparent that my knowledge was seriously lacking. For the sake of journalistic inquiry, further research was required.
(Cocktail video below)
To improve my knowledge (if not my liver), I went looking for some quality slivovitz — or as high quality as I could find without shipping it from overseas, or making it myself. (All slivovitz connoisseurs will tell you that the homemade versions produced in Eastern Europe are far better than anything you can buy in a store.) After visiting some of New York City’s best-stocked liquor shops, I managed to pick up three bottles. The first was the R. Jelinek 10 year, a dark Czech slivovitz from one of the oldest and best known slivovitz distilleries — the Johnny Walker Black of slivovitz, if you will; the second was Navip, an oak-aged, straw-colored, 8-year product from Serbia; and the third was a small bottle of clear, kosher for Passover slivovitz from the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Ore. I also found a bottle of the Croatian Maraska, which I did not buy, apparently for the best. As one Master Slivovitz Judge, Jerry Kortesmaki, put it to me: “If there’s someone you don’t like, and you don’t want them to drink your slivovitz, you can keep a bottle of the Maraska around to give them.”
Slivovitz is traditionally served neat, or perhaps chilled. But could it be used in a cocktail? In my interviews I asked the question hesitantly, sensing a possible blasphemy. You wouldn’t mix a fine single malt scotch, after all. Still, there were a few suggestions. Pete Radosevich, who helped found the U.S. Slivovitz Festival in Minnesota, had heard of mixing it with orange juice and grenadine (a cocktail billed in a 2003 Forward article as the “Warsaw Sunrise”), while Kortesmaki said that the Navip went well in a Bloody Mary. Zach Kutsher, of Kutsher’s Tribeca, told me they are planning on serving a slivovitz-based drink on Passover using lemon, honey syrup and seltzer.
To try out the possibilities myself I enlisted the help of Andy Heidel, the owner of a bar near my apartment called The Way Station. After a few days of experimentation, Heidel was ready to unveil his creations. So, on a glorious March afternoon that felt very much like an early Passover, I headed down to The Way Station with a few brave friends to sample the results.
Heidel’s first cocktail, which he dubbed the “Christopher Plummer,” was a slivovitz- based take on the rusty nail made with equal parts slivovitz, Dewar’s scotch and triple sec. Although on the sweet side, it was more drinkable than its alcohol content would suggest. In the course of the afternoon Heidel also created the “Brownsville,” a slivovitz version of a Manhattan made with slivovitz, Dewar’s, a half-ounce of sweet vermouth and three dashes of orange bitters. Thanks to the vermouth and the bitters this mixture tasted less like it might lead to early-onset diabetes. We also tried a surprisingly refreshing combination of slivovitz and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, a drink one blogger has dubbed the “Serbian Suicide.”
We also sampled each type of slivovitz neat, though not according to the full procedures of an official slivovitz competition. To my palate the Jelinek tasted most like the slivovitz I remembered from home, while the Navip had a stronger, fruitier flavor. My favorite was the Clear Creek, which seemed the most drinkable and, without the smoky or woody flavors of an oak barrel, the most crisp.
I probably find slivovitz more palatable than most people, though I can’t say I attained the enthusiasm of the experts I talked to. But it was more than slivovitz itself that made their fervor exciting. There’s something wonderful about people who are passionate about a very particular thing. There’s a fearlessness to it — the willingness to abandon the mainstream and pursue a specific, individual taste. Anyone can go home at night and watch “30 Rock.” Not everyone gets NASA scientists to join in their strange liquor festival. It’s people like that who make the world a more interesting place — especially once you’ve had a couple shots of slivovitz.