I’m seated on a bench at a long table, in a room filled with about one-hundred smiling, gregarious Slovenians, only about a dozen of whom I know. It is a national cultural holiday in Slovenia, and I am attending an annual homemade schnapps competition. The smart money is on my grandmother-in-law, Mama Tončka, as we call her. She took first prize in her home village competition a few years back, and I’ve been enjoying her schnapps, or žganje as it’s called in Slovene (or rakija in Serbo-Croatian), for a very long time.
The competition is stiff tonight: eleven judges, dressed for the occasion in black judicial garb and matching berets, will taste a whopping 24 different entries to determine the winner. That’s a lot of schnapps to consume and, by Slovene standards, I’m a featherweight.1
In Slovenia, schnapps is a national beverage, much as vodka is in Russia. However, making schnapps at home is also a widespread past-time. When Westerners think of homemade hard liquor, images of Prohibition era speakeasies, bathtub gin, hillbilly moonshine, and beverages that taste like rubbing alcohol come to mind. What is amazing about the homemade Slovenian product is just how good it is: smooth, complex and completely delicious. Sure, you can buy factory-made schnapps in supermarkets. Among my friends and family-in-laws, no one does, because everyone seems to have at least one friend or relative who makes schnapps in their garage and it's usually much better than that you buy in a store.
Schnapps is made by keeping fruit in barrels until it ferments, and then boiling the resulting mash twice, each time catching the steam from the boiling process in a still—hence the term “distilling.” The distillation process purifies and liquefies the fruit mash, and produces alcohol. The first distillation will transform some 80 liters of crushed, fermented fruit into 20-25 liters of liquid, with about 5-10% alcohol content. The second distillation can include flavoring (like the addition of another fruit, for example pears), imbuing flavor but also ratcheting up the alcohol content to the desired 40% or so, for proper schnapps.
There are many varieties of schnapps. I tried a fantastic hazelnut version on a recent trip to Austria. The Slovenian favorite is viljamoka, flavored with Williams pear. You could, of course, make the schnapps entirely with a fruit other than apple, like those wonderful pears, but it becomes very expensive to do so, and the taste doesn’t seem to be that much more intense than an apple schnapps later flavored with other fruit.
Slivovitz is made with plums, a popular Polish variant, which is called slivovica in Slovenian. Schnapps spiked with peach, blueberry, lemon, walnut, and even the medicinal brinovec, made from juniper berries and good for ails of the lower bodily portions, are all popular. Mix apple schnapps with sugar and lemon, and you’ve got limonica, a sweet-and-sour concoction that is a cousin of the Italian limoncello.
Back at the 10th Annual Markovo Village Schnapps-Making Competition, things are heating up. Family friends Brane Poljanšek and Matjaž Rajter are competing, but so are their wives, Mari and Helena: schnapps cooking is an equal-opportunity enterprise for the whole family. Can they beat Mama Tončka?
The evening begins with a welcome from the host, an enthusiastic outdoorsman clad in the forest green hat and uniform of a hunter (by which I mean a jovial, Austrian-style jager, rather than the American-style man with a mullet, red plaid, and a pickup truck, perhaps the first image that came to mind).
Because this is a cultural holiday, a short cultural program kicks off the evening, with several in attendance volunteering to stand up and read poems—some by France Prešeren, Slovenia’s national poet, and others rather more bawdy and fit to an occasion where drinking is the primary activity.
The cultural program dispensed with, dinner is served—huge portions of Wiener schnitzel and fat hunks of roast pork, golden potato salad, raw onions, and mountains of bread, and broad beans in pumpkin oil. This is, of course, followed by all-you-can-eat strudel, potica (Slovenia’s national cake, a sort of marbled walnut loaf) and various other desserts that there really is no place for after the mains, which somehow find their way into my stomach.
Then, rather solemnly (at first) the eleven judges (including my father-in-law) take a seat on the stage at the head of the gathering. They are given score cards in which they must rate each schnapps in four categories: color and clarity (they are all clear, so these categories always seemed odd to me, but I guess they are measuring just how clear and how colorless), scent and taste. Piles of cheese are available as palate cleansers. It’s all quite scientific and well-considered: each schnapps is poured into identical, numbered decanters for tasting, and whichever is tasted first is also tasted a second time, somewhere in the middle, so as not to permit a prejudice for or against the very first offering of the evening.
We in the audience are welcome to “taste along” with the judges. I blanch at the thought of drinking 25 shots of schnapps, but when in Slovenia…