Potent, honey-hued herbal liqueurs are popular aperitifs and digestifs across Central and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic makes Becherovka, Hungary produces Unicum and countries like Croatia and Slovenia put out versions of Pelinkovac. We sampled three of these bitter liqueurs that are now on Idaho shelves.
At first whiff, this 38 percent alcohol liqueur smells like grandma's candy from the Old Country. Heavy hints of clove, gumdrops, cinnamon and anise fill the nose, while balanced sweet and bitter notes wash over the palate. The bitterness lingers but in a subtle, enjoyable way. As the Czechs say, "Na zdravi," or "Cheers."
Zwack Unicum Bitters, Plum, $27.15
Considered the national drink of Hungary, Unicum was established in 1790 by Doctor Jozsef Zwack, royal physician to the Imperial Court. Half of this liqueur's 40 herbs are distilled, while the other half are macerated in corn alcohol before they're blended and aged in oak casks. The plum version is aged on dried plums, which gives it a dark caramel color. The 35 percent alcohol liqueur has a fruity, cough-medicine nose. Plum and clove come through on the palate, which has a bitter, medicinal finish.
Pelinkovac Bitter Liqueur, $19.70
Though various versions of Pelinkovac are produced in Europe using wormwood, this particular product is bottled by Luxco, Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., which also bottles Pearl vodka and Rebel Yell bourbon. Pelinkovac Bitter Liqueur has licorice, mint and bubblegum notes on the nose, with a fair amount of heat. On the palate, it's a syrupy sweet mash-up of mint and cinnamon flavors, with little-to-no bitterness.