Drink Your Way Around Eastern Europe

Nadia Latif is site editor of Gap Daemon, a social network and advice site for gap year travellers.

With loads of traditionally distilled spirits, great beers and surprisingly sophisticated wines to sample, it’s little wonder backpackers love the former Communist Bloc. And with cheaper living and warmer weather than its western neighbour, figuring out why Eastern Europe is so popular isn’t rocket science. Especially when you see what they have to offer the boozey backpacker…

Beer & Absinthe in the Czech Republic

Let’s kick things off with a relatively soft option: beer. The Czechs are proud of their beer (pivo) and have had plenty of time to master it; they’ve been brewing the stuff since the 12th century after all. The most well-known brands are Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar.

Where should I visit?

Prague is the obvious choice. It’s packed with pubs, but try to avoid the rampaging stag parties and get into the right frame of mind with a trip to the Beer Museum (which is actually a bar, albeit one with a lot of beers on tap!).

And of course, no visit to the Czech Republic would be complete without trying its second best-loved drink, Absinthe (aka the Green Fairy). Be warned: Van Gogh cut off his own ear following an Absinthe binge. That should warn you off drinking too much of the stuff.

Head to the Hemmingway Bar (who loved Absinthe as much as Van Gogh, it would seem). There’s no claim the great writer actually drank here, rather it pays homage to him with a great selection of Absinthes to boot. Don’t forget to book a cheap Prague hotel to collapse in after.

How to drink Absinthe!

Traditionally you mix absinthe with water and sugar. But how you do it separates the amateur from the pro… You’ll need a glass, water, sugar, a spoon, absinthe, and something to measure it all out with. Measure out 25-50ml (a shot or two) of absinthe in your glass and using the ratio of 1:3-1:5 add some water to your absinthe.

If it’s too bitter add a bit of sugar, but wait, there’s a traditional way to do that too. Dissolve a sugar cube by placing an absinthe spoon over your glass and slowly dripping cold water through the cube. If you don’t have all this absinthe razzamataz just mix in some granulated sugar like it’s tea – either way will do the trick. The key to drinking absinthe is moderation!

Wine and pálinka in Hungary

Hungary is the place to head if you like your wine white and sweet, and Tokaji is a popular choice. It seems to be drunk casually, at all times, but to my palette tasted a lot like dessert wine; not that I was complaining!

Where should I visit?

Head to Pecs, a city in southern Hungary. It’s really beautiful: lots of museums, art galleries and cafes, plus some lovely bars dotted around the main square. It’s here that you can get a glass of good quality vino for a euro or two.

Another great is a Hungarian brandy called pálinka. Drunk in straight shots, or on ice, it’ll knock your socks off. Small bottles of the stuff make great presents (as long as you have checked-in luggage; you can’t take carry-on bottles of alcohol in your hand luggage on the plane home).

There are pálinka tasting sessions run by BARbár Cafe in Budapest. You can choose from pálinka with chocolate or pálinka with traditional Hungarian sausage; tasting sessions cost around £15.

Tuica in Romania

The Romanians love their tuica – a strong spirit of up to 60% proof, made from plums. It’s really common for families to distil it themselves, so if you’re travelling around, there’s a good chance you’ll be offered what is basically moonshine.

Where should I visit?

Traditional restaurants (where you can have a shot as a digestive or aperitif), or smaller towns or villages are your best bet – you’re unlikely to find the real McCoy sold in shops.

Rakia in Serbia

A shot of rakia before breakfast sets you up for the day. Although I’m not actually sure how common this is. When I visited the country my hostel’s owners asked me to take a shot with them every morning; it made for some interesting sightseeing.

Anyway rakia, which is originally from Bulgaria, is another strong spirit distilled from fruit – most commonly grapes, apricots or plums. The taste is very similar to the Romanian favourite tuica; the difference is in the geography, as far as I can tell. During EXIT festival in Belgrade you’ll find the locals selling this homemade in water bottles on every street corner. It’s powerful stuff, you’ve been warned!

Where should I visit?

Belgrade is the obvious choice – it has a dedicated chain of Rakia Bars which offer a range of brandies made with different fruits.

Thanks to Double–M (formerly DoubleM2), savagecat, Terwilliger911 and e skene for the excellent pictures from Flickr! Please note all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.

What’s your favourite international drink? Let us know in the comments box below…

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