Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Czech liquor ban spares beloved home-grown brandy

BREZNICE, Czech Republic — It's a cherished countryside tradition dating back to the 13th century. And, in a hard-drinking nation reeling from a deadly wave of alcohol poisoning, it's now the only source of legal liquor.

Early in the morning, locals bring fermented homegrown fruit to makeshift distilleries in kitchens, back yards and garages; by sunset they walk away with vats of slivovitz, a potent plum brandy that many swear by.

Initially, Czechs thought these small brewing outlets — palenice in Czech — were included in a nationwide ban that was recently imposed on spirits exceeding 20 percent in alcohol content. But authorities made it clear that wasn't the case, citing the strict guidelines these outlets adhere to as a matter of pride and that what they produce is for personal consumption, not resale.

What might seem a risky leap of faith came as a huge relief to Czechs who swear by their slivovitz.

"I was getting afraid that they would even ban this. That would've been a tragedy. It would cause a rebellion in the villages," said 69-year-old Oldrich Chmela, one of a dozen people watching all day this week inside Stanislava Chalupova's one-room distillery in eastern Czech Republic.

"It's where alchemy happens," he said.

At least 23 people have died in just over a week from a very different, sinister form of alchemy.

Authorities say a thriving black market in the country's northeastern region is to blame for lacing vodka and rum with methanol to stretch volume and increase profit margins. More than two dozen people have been arrested, and police have seized thousands of liters of tainted and suspicious alcohol.

Exports from the country have been banned, and Poles and Slovaks were among the victims having drunk the bootleg booze that had crossed borders.

An estimated 20 percent of spirits available in bars and restaurants have been manufactured on the black market, often containing illegal substances and carrying fake labels. It has sent shock waves through a nation of alcohol lovers where beer is king but 65 million liters of spirits are consumed a year.

Overnight in mid September, all spirits above 20 percent were cleared from supermarket shelves, bars and restaurants — and boxed up until further notice. The government is reported to be considering lifting the ban once a new certificate is introduced for all spirits to show their origin. But there's no real end in sight yet for the unpopular ban, which even the president has lambasted.

Jiri Vlcek, 70, swears by home-brewed slivovitz. He has a shot every morning and was waiting this week to wheel away 35 liters. "I have enough for the whole year," he rejoiced. "It's absolutely safe. This isn't the trash you get at the stores."

He was among those waiting all day for Chalupova to complete the blending, mixing and alcohol grading. Most choose 50 percent strength.

Finally, the 79-year-old village brewing legend sipped a small sample of crystal-clear liquid from a green metal barrel and proclaimed it "delicious!"

"There's nothing to worry about; it's absolutely safe," she said of her home-distilled firewater, cursing the people who put methanol in cheap spirits to increase profit margins.

Up to 10 million liters of liquors with an alcohol content of 50 percent are made every year in 487 small home distilleries all across the country, said Vaclav Sitler, chairman of a union of distillers.

That means about a liter per capita.

The owners of these locales would seem to be in a position to cash in, but a drought combined with sudden frost in May seriously damaged the plum harvest and so supply is low.

They charge about $10 per liter distilled and are expecting a spike in customers in coming weeks. Due to the lack of plums that proper slivovitz is made of, many are bringing other fruits such as apples and apricots.

Chalupova, who has been distilling for almost four decades, said she expects to make only about a third of the slivovitz she produced last year because of the poor weather.

"People are happy for every single liter," she said.

For Czechs, slivovitz is more than a drink. It's a Czech tradition to make it when a daughter is born — and to only drink that at her wedding.

One customer this week, waiting for his spirit, described how he had slivovitz made when his son was born — but vowed not to partake until he became a grandfather.

"It's one of the most important things in life," said Vlcek.

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