So What Is Nalewka?
In Poland, an aged liqueur or cordial is known as nalewka (nah-LEF-kah) (nalewki when plural), and literally translates to "tincture." They are primarily made with fruit, sugar, honey, molasses, herbs, and spices macerated in vodka or rectified spirits known as spirytus rektyfikowany. But coffee, flower, honey, and specific spice nalewki like kardamonka (cardamom) exist.
Nalewki names come from the type of main ingredient used to produce them or the town where they originated. A popular nalewka named after a town is Nalewka Tarninówka, originating from the town of Tarnów near Kraków in Małopolska (Lesser Poland). It's made with sloe berries and is ruby red in color.
Many recipes are closely guarded secrets, passed down from generation to generation. The type of spirit used renders them either benign concoctions of about 40 to 45% alcohol or knock-your-socks-off varieties as strong as 75% alcohol.
Common Polish Nalewki
- Anyżówka - Anise
- Morelówka - Apricot
- Porzeczkówka - Black Currants
- Wiśniówka - Cherry
- Imbirówka - Ginger
- Orzechówka - Walnut
- Śliwówka - Plum (a stronger, amber-colored version is śliwowica)
- Piołunówka - Wormwood
- Konwaliówkaall - Lily of the Valley
- Jałowcówka - Juniper
- Jeżynówka - Blackberry
- Pigwówka - Quince
- Cytrynowa - Lemon
- Kawówka - Coffee-based
- Porterwówka - Porter beer-based
Nalewki is always drunk from little glasses and often served after a meal, at celebratory occasions like weddings and baptisms. A nalewka should be sipped, not bolted down like a shot of vodka so that its virtues can be appreciated. It should be allowed to linger on the tongue and then swirled around the mouth much like one would do with a fine wine.
In the old days, and to some extent today, nalewki were made by the women and sometimes men of the households. Adequate quantities of many different types were stored in cellars or barns because it was a tradition that every guest should be treated with a glass of mead or nalewka. Additionally, nalewki were considered to have medicinal properties, as in walnut nalewka for the treatment of stomach problems, elderberry for fever, garlic to build up one's immunity, and mint and anise for intestinal distress.
Families would create and bottle a batch of nalewka on the occasion of a child's baptism and then open the bottles at the child's wedding. Another old custom was for maiden girls to make a rosehip nalewka (zenicha kresowa) with honey, chamomile, mint, and cloves, and offer it to the suitor of their choice.
How Nalewka Is Made
Popular commercial brands of nalewki are Babuni and Szambelan and they tend to have a lower alcohol content than those created at home. Recipes vary from region to region and family to family but, basically, two methods are recognized.
In the first, alcohol is poured over fruit or whatever ingredient is going to be infused and is allowed to macerate for about six weeks. It is then strained and sugar, sugar syrup or some type of sweetening agent and any spices are added and, again, the liquid ripens for another several weeks. It can then be strained and bottled and drunk immediately or held for longer storage. In the second method, the fruit, alcohol, and sugar are mixed together and allowed to sit for 60 days and then strained and bottled.