For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terrain, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is known to most New Yorkers as The Polish Neighborhood. Most of the stores on the blocks of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues have signs that flaunt lots and lots of consonants, taunting you with their utter lack of assonance. Honestly, how does a culture get away with putting szcz in a word, and expect you to pronounce every letter? Thank god kielbasa is easy to pronounce. Our love affair with Greenpoint began many years ago, before the car was totaled, when, on a lazy late Sunday afternoon, we motored North to the neighborhood that beckoned us with its siren’s promise of stuffed cabbage, prune pierogi (plums are practically synonymous with Polish confections) and meaty tubes of unpronounceable Polish sausages. Steve once got a round of good-natured laughs from a lovely menagerie of middle-yeared panie behind the counter at Polam International market when he asked for some kiełbasa wędzona and it came out sounding like vagina. They quickly taught us how to pronounce the name of the sausage properly, then helped us pick out some succulent ones. We usually get a variety pack of smoked weselna (wedding), which is terrific accompanied by some hard-cooked jajki (eggs) and perhaps a little horseradish or mustard condiment; and some wiejska (village) for grilling (our favorite way to prepare them).
Near Polam are some pastry shops that remind Paul of the Polish bakery his grandmother used to work at a long time ago, smelling of resting bread and powdered sugar. It is not uncommon for marbled babka (sweet yeast cake), makowiec (poppy seed cake), and pączki (doughnuts filled with prune) to end up in our shopping bags, and usually for less than two or three dollars.
You’re probably asking where the Polish liquor store is. Rest assured, it’s across the street. Upon entering, we always see the same group of thirtysomething Polish guys in either Greenpoint grunge or immigrant hip-hop, engaged in a heated discussion with occasional gentle jabs, pointing us to the bottles of Żubrówka (bison grass vodka), Jeżynówka (blackberry-flavored brandy), and Krupnik (honey liqueur). Some of our earliest cocktails, like the Z Martini and the Silesian cocktail, shine because of these three unique spirits. But one spirit that we mix more than any other is Slivovitz, otherwise known as plum brandy, śliwowica to Poles, or rakia in the Balkan region. Perhaps you’ve seen a bottle at your grandparents’ place, hidden under the sink, awaiting babci’s cocktail-hour thirst. Our go-to brand is Polmos from Poland. It’s extremely smooth, and because its character is slightly muted (it really tastes like plums), unlike some spicier Balkan slivovitzes, it mixes well.
We make this enticingly tart cocktail with Slivovitz simply called the Slivovitz Sour. It’s chock full of fresh dark plum puree and lemon juice, and sweetened with some maple syrup, which plays off the gentle muskiness of the plum, adding a light richness to the drink. The mouthfeel is velvety. With every sip you get a slight sweet-tart pucker. Perfect with aggressively spiced salty or meaty party food, the Slivovitz Sour pairs well with pigs in a blanket, bacon-wrapped dates, sweet-potato crisps, and even chips with salsa. And depending on the ripe plums you puree, the drink can be orangey-pink to a deep magenta. We just had one last night with some chips and salsa and almost ended up eating the whole bag of tortilla chips.
If you’re not pairing the Slivovitz Sour with a little nosh, you may want to adjust the ratio of lemon juice to 3/4 ounce for a plummier, less tart drink. But we warn you, if you serve it to your guests, you better have some nibbles on hand to satisfy their craving for something salty. If you only have a bag of pretzels in the house, offer it up post haste.
2 ounces slivovitz (plum brandy)
1 ounce plum puree (darker, sweeter plums work best)
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce maple syrup
Shake with ice for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon wheel. If you’re using a rakia or a Balkan slivovitz from, say, Macedonia, your drink may taste as if you added aromatic bitters. This is not a bad thing at all. And if your plums are not dark and sweet, you may need to add a little more maple syrup to the drink, or less lemon juice. Your choice, as always, dear cocktail enthusiast.