Hungary has a variety of alcoholic beverages that are made exclusively in the country. For a small country, they sure love their alcohol with plenty of wines, beers, liqueurs and brandies that are unique to the country. While I was living in Budapest, I had the opportunity to sample all of their specialties. Here are the best and the worse of them.
Do not expect too much in the beer department when in Hungary. The domestically produced beers are average at best, but they are certainly affordable. A can in a grocery store will set you back 180 to 250 HUF normally depending on which one you get and in a bar a half litre (or 0.4 l depending) of beer can range anywhere from 250 to 600 HUF depending on where you go and what you order. In essence, beer is very very cheap.
There are a couple main domestic beers: Dreher, Arany Ászok, Borsodi, and Soproni. There are also a growing number of microbreweries in and around Budapest. For example, Szimpla Kert sells one called Keserű Méz on tap.
One strange thing I have found is the prevalence of fruit beers. Everything from apple, pear, lemon and sour cherries are mixed into different beers. They have less alcohol content and are slightly sweeter. You can taste the beer in them, as well as the sweetness from the fruit. Very strange.
And while not Hungarian, if you are a lover of other European beers, you can find many imports from Heineken to Leffe from the Czech Republic to Belgian beers. The great thing is that they’re often inexpensive, especially in the supermarket.
What Hungary lacks in beer, they make up for in wine. Did you know there are 22 wine regions in Hungary? I had no idea! Before living there, I didn’t know that Hungary was such a wine country.
Its most famous region is Tokaj in the northeast part of the country. Tokaj produces many different varieties of wine, but it is famous for its dessert wines. The one you want to keep an eye out for is Aszú. You’ll recognize it by its amber brown colour and the thickness of the wine. The grapes are affected by botrytis, a type of fungus, also known as noble rot, which concentrates the sugars in the grapes making them extra sweet. I’ve had a small glass of it myself and I can assure you, it is very very sweet.
You can find wine in most bars and restaurants, but there are a number of wine bars in Budapest. I would recommend visiting DiVino (Szent Istvan ter 3), which is right by St. Stephen’s Basilica in the city centre, and Drop Shop (Balassi Bálint 27) which is by the Margaret bridge.
Ah, the most famous spirit to come out of Hungary. Essentially, pálinka is a fruit brandy. Only pálinka made from fruits that are native to the Carpathian Basin are considered real pálinka. Popular fruits include apricot, pear, plum, and cherry. You can shoot it, or if you’re enjoying an expensive pálinka, do as the Hungarians do and sip.
Many Hungarians consider pálinka to be medicine and a digestif. I’ve heard stories of how older generations of Hungarians would wake up with a shot of pálinka to start the morning off right. Before or after meals, a shot of pálinka is often consumed. And the best cure for a hangover according to a Hungarian? A shot of pálinka! One summer, I made plans to visit the summerhouse of a Hungarian friend. The only problem is that I had a friend visiting from out of town and the night before got a bit crazy. I had a terrible hangover the next day. My friend’s father’s solution? Shots of pálinka! I politely declined and drank copious amounts of water instead.
A word of warning for those who don’t drink much. This stuff is potent! It has an alcohol content between 37% and 86%. The first time I had a shot of pálinka I was seeing triple by the time I finished my meal. I had quite the adventure that night which involved a freak thunderstorm, garbage bag dresses and a cardboard box so maybe that shot was necessary.
Read more: A Day in the Hungarian Countryside
Unicum is another Hungarian spirit which is made from a secret formula of 40 different herbs. It is a herbal digestive liqueur and is similar to Jägermeister so I’m told. Hungarians tell me Jägermeister is Unicum but with sugar. I have never had it as I’m not a fan of herbal kinds of liqueur and I don’t like the taste of liquorice. Depending on your personal preference, it might be worth finding some while you’re in Hungary.
Fröccs are the perfect solution to warm summer evenings spent in the park with friends. Essentially fröccs are wine spritzers with a Hungarian twist – fröccs is wine mixed with soda water.
Fröccs was invented in 1842 in a happy accident when Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik wanted to show off his latest discovery, soda, when visiting his friend, András Fáy, at his winery. Jedlik called it spriccer, but Vörösmarty, a famous Hungarian poet also in attendance, didn’t like the German sounding name, so he suggested fröccs. It isn’t really a word, more onomatopoeia for the splashing sound you hear when you’re mixing the drink.
Based on the different proportions of wine to water, there are different kinds of fröccs. The important ones to note are nagyfröccs (big fröccs) which is a mix of 2 dl (decilitre) of wine to 1 dl of water and házmester (housemaster) which is 3 dl of wine to 2 dl of water.
The way someone explained this magical drink to me was that the water helps keep you hydrated, which helps with tomorrow’s hangover. I don’t know if that is true, but it definitely helped me to drink more! While it is traditionally made from just wine and soda water, I’ve seen versions popping up with different fruit syrups like the one I’m enjoying in the photo above. It has a pump of raspberry syrup mixed into it.
Hungarian Drinking Etiquette
While many online sources will tell you Hungarians don’t clink glasses or say cheers, this is simply not the case. Yes, it was once true that years ago that Hungarians wouldn’t clink their glasses of beer, but palinka and wine were fair game.
Today, the Hungarians that I met have adopted this tradition of toasting, even with beer. Just make sure you make eye contact when your glasses clink! And learn the Hungarian word for cheers: Egészségedre (egg-is-shae-ged-re) which means literally “to your health”. It’s a mouthful, but everyone will be impressed with your knowledge of the Hungarian language and perhaps offer you something more to drink.
Whether you prefer beer or wine, palinka or unicum, or stick with fröccs, Hungary has plenty to offer if you’re looking for a taste of the country. Egészségedre!
Do you like tasting the local brews and spirits when traveling? Have you tried any of these drinks? Would you?