In America, we have a distillate called “White Lightning” made down south where homemade pot stills are hidden in the woods so the “revenuers” can’t find them.
Usually made from corn mash, the hooch is strong stuff, burns the throat and usually tastes awfully bad. It’s clear colored and not aged – you could, I guess, call it hillbilly vodka.
Ah, but when you’re in Poland try sampling the highlander’s kind of bootleg nectar because it’s a smooth and tasty brandy. Although illegal, it’s known and praised far and wide across Europe.
In the wee little village of Łącko a stone’s throw from Poland’s southern border, Śliwowica, the 140 proof plum brandy has a long and proud history with only about 4,000 gallons bottled per year. Though its manufacture and sale remain patently illegal, police have largely stopped pestering producers.
Śliwowica is the fourth strongest alcohol drink in the world, coming after Spiritus (the ancient Polish rectified spirit that is granddad to our Everclear at 180 proof), Absinthe (similarly high), and over-proof rum from the Caribbean.
So legendary is the plum brandy and so short in supply, counterfeiters have been making a knock off version that is sold mostly to tourists that visit the mountain resort town of Zakopane in the snow capped Tatras.
The forgery is made from cheap methanol spirit with added plum flavoring, which means it is potentially deadly. Trying to get your hands on genuine plum brandy requires time and effort since locals are reluctant to reveal their sources.
A good number of folks on the Continent seek plum brandy, and the variety produced in Łącko is the one that wins the international awards despite being illegal. Although the plum based moonshine is frowned upon by the authorities, it is impossible to stamp out.
Śliwowica łącka (meaning Śliwowica from Łącko) has been distilled and barrel aged in small batches by hundreds of home producers for generations. But, only recently has Śliwowica łącka been registered as a trademark by a local association of fruit farmers.
Growers are now allowed to apply to a board for permission to use the name, however at this writing the commission has not been set up. A legal limbo persists, but Śliwowica distillers are carrying on as normal in secret locations.
Polish authorities and local producers disagree about the future legitimization of their famed bootleg brandy. The government wants production at a single distillery in the region. This is a big no-no for local farmers – each one has their own secret recipe for Śliwowica and they want the government to approve individual homemade production.
There is only one man in the Łącko area that need not be afraid of making and selling the highlander tipple. Three months ago, local orchard owner Krzysztof Maurer was granted a permit to produce fruit distillates, including those from plums.
“I wanted to do everything legally, but the reluctance of the politicians has forced me to launch sales on general terms. Because I had to comply with strict regulations, my production is not as cost-effective,” said Maurer, who went through a complicated, three-year legalization procedure. A bottle of his plum brandy costs 70 złoty (about $25), because it is subject to 100 percent excise tax. Maurer’s product is called ‘Brandy from Łącko plums,’ since the trademark name ‘Śliwowica łącka cannot be granted for use until the commission is set up.
“My name is enough to guarantee the quality of the product,” said Maurer. “I’m a local man and my family has known the recipe for generations.”
Though Maurer is confident in the quality of his product, it’s a bit like the situation with bigos (hunter’s stew). Every family has its own recipe and claim for superiority. They are all a tad different but universally excellent.
I believe a sip of Śliwowica łącka would make any Appalachian moonshiner give up White Lightning and think he has died and gone to Heaven. As far as James Bond is concerned, he would abandon the “shaken not stirred” phrase for “straight pour from the bottle, please.”
There is an imported 80 proof Polish plum brandy available in the U.S. Alas, it’s not anything close to Śliwowica łącka. Like they say in Kentucky, “Ain’t the real McCoy.”