Borovička is technically referred to as a juniper-flavored spirit, and takes its name from the Slovak for juniper (borievka). It is made from fermented ground juniper berries being steeped and distilled (often several times) in a variable base spirit. Traditionally (from the 1500’s to the 1700’s) this base spirit was made with malted barley and hence was (and sometimes still is) referred to as Genever. However, today the base may be made from fruit (such as apples or plums), potato or grain, and has given rise to it being variously thought of and called Juniper Brandy (eau-de-vie), Vodka or Gin.
Several brands, while certainly being the exception to the rule, do include 1 or 2 other botanical ingredients. Apparently, when made from a malt wine base (like Genever), Borovička was said to taste a little unpleasant and so additional botanicals were incorporated to improve the overall flavor profile. Like Gin, within the European Union Borovička is required by law to be produced at a minimum of 37.5% ABV, and most are found to be from 38% to around 45% ABV (although there are stronger versions). Interestingly, the Slavic Food Code (think along the lines of the FDA in the US) only requires Borovička to be made at a minimum of 35% ABV. Although not a requirement, some brands also rest their Borovička (but not usually in wood barrels) for around 3 - 6 months.
The strong presence of juniper in this spirit has resulted in locals using a colloquial name for it: “Revenge of the Forest”. When tasted, Brandy and Vodka drinkers would not readily mistake Borovička for Brandy or Vodka, whereas Gin drinkers could be easily forgiven for thinking of it as Gin. Not only does it look like Gin (white or golden yellow in color) and smell like Gin (with strong piney juniper and herbal notes) but also tastes like a tart (albeit harsh) Distilled Dry Gin. Borovička can be hard to differentiate from Gin especially when compared with single botanical versions like: 33 Portland Dry, Crater Lake, Master of Malt’s Origin series, Segarra and Williams Chase Single Botanical.
It is believed the use of juniper berries, to create Borovička, originated as a means of improving the taste of potato based spirit (Vodka). Its earliest beginnings are attributed to the Liptov region of North Slovakia during the 1500’s, under the reign of the Habsburg (Austrian) Monarchy. This monarchy was centered in Vienna and lasted from 1526 to 1918, becoming known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. Across this time, the various lands of this Empire (often referred to as the “Crownlands”) included: Austria, Bohemia (Czech Republic and Slovakia), Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Ukraine and for a short time parts of France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands (including Belgium and Luxemburg). Made in a part of this Empire, it was not surprising to find Borovička being exported to many of these countries, especially along the Danube River and it’s contributory, the Váh River (which runs for over 250 miles through Slovakia).
Today Borovička is the national drink of Slovakia, with recent surveys indicating it is the 10th most popular alcoholic beverage in the region. Like Genever it is meant to be drunk neat and may not always do well when mixed, although some find it feels at home in a martini. Besides Slavakia, Borovička is popular in the neighboring countries of the Czech Republic and Poland. There are also two similar types of juniper flavored spirits: Brinjevec in Slovenia and Klekovača in Serbia, which although made differently certainly appear to have developed their roots from Borovička. You might be interested to note: “Brin” in Slovene and “Kleka” in Serbian both translate as “Juniper”.
The first commercial producer to make Borovička in modern times is accredited to the Old Herod Distillery. Based in Istebník, part of Trenčín on the Váh River, in NW Slovakia (close to the Czech Republic border), it was established in 1933, and (as part of the Czech Republic at the time) they became the first to export Borovičková to the USA. While Old Herod has continued to produce this spirit, their export trade was short lived as World War II took its toll and the country was to become a Communist State (1948 -1989).
Borovička has entered into medicinal folklore within the Slavic regions and is considered an every day preventative drink. Extolled for it’s positive effect on the digestive system, it is used to aid the bowels (detoxification, constipation, flatulence etc.) and urinary system (kidneys, bladder etc.). It is considered a cure for arthritis, gout and rheumatism plus is used to ease toothache, and is thought to be particularly effective in combating menstrual pain. This view mirrors many of the attributes of juniper and the historic origins of Gin.
Under European Union legislation there is a degree of protected status for Borovička. This is provided for several names or brand names that may be used, but only if made within Slovakia:
Inovecká Borovička – Referring to Mount Inovec (part of the Považský Nature Reserve) near Trenčín in NW Slovakia.
Borovička Juniperus – Referring to the key flavoring ingredient of juniper.
Liptovská Borovička – Referring to the County of Liptov in Northern Slovakia (surrounded by the Tatras Mountains, the tallest in the country).
Slovenská Borovička – Referring to Slovakia.
Spišská Borovička – Referring to the County of Spiš in NE Slovakia this particular style has been made since the second half of the 1700’s.
It is not unusual to find homemade versions of Borovička, especially in more rural environs throughout the country. It is an important social ritual to share a toast with your host, with any declination viewed as a slur upon them and their family. There are a few commercial distilleries that produce Borovička and these are the brands people will generally find available, including:
Based in Košice, South East Slavakia, Frucona was established in 1972 as a State-Owned enterprise and produces a range of spirits and soft drinks. Their products are widely distributed throughout Slovakia and the Czech Republic including two versions of Borovička: a 40% ABV Spišská Borovička and a very strong 55% ABV Borovička Juniperus called “Borovičkový destilát.”
Established in 1994 by Ladislav Gurega and his son Marián and although this may be a relatively new company it is surrounded by history. Based in the 13th Century Royal city of Stará Ľubovňa, it is a traditional and beautiful part of Spiš, found in the North of Slovakia at the feet of the High Tatras. These mountains provide particularly pellucid water from natural springs, which GAS Familia make good use of in their spirits. They produce two versions of Borovička: their Spišska Borovička Original (40%) and their Spiš Original Borovička (40%), which is known for containing a juniper twig in each bottle.
Established in 1933 and based in Istebník, Trenčín, NW Slovakia, this was the first distillery to gain protection with a patent for Slovak style Gin (Borovička) in 1952.
They produce a range of Borovička, including: Borovička Juniperus Original (their oldest and the oldest commercially produced recipe in the country); Horum and So Zubrovkou (two types of Borovička Juniperus) both of which include gentian root and bison grass (Zubrovka grass stalk) in addition to juniper berries; and Koniferum (an Inovec Borovička) identified by it’s mild flavor, with several flavored versions (Cranberry, Grapefruit and Lime) also available.
The Nestville (Hniezdne) Distillery, owned by the BGV Company, was established in 2001 and produce Old Times Borovička. Like GAS Familia they are based in the North of Spiš, near the beautiful village of Stará Ľubovňa, and they too make use of the calcium, iron and magnesium rich spring waters. They have a visitor’s center in Hniezdne village, with exhibits providing a history of distilling in the area.
One of the few Borovička producers outside of Slovakia, the company is based in the Vizovia region found in the SE of the Czech Republic, on the northern side of Mount Inovec (part of the Považský Nature Reserve). They produce a brand they have been making for over 100-years, Slovácká Borovička, at 45% ABV. This Borovička is rested for 6-months, but not in oak barrels, and even they debate if this is a Brandy or a Gin!
This company is the largest producer of
spirit in Slovakia and they have several sites throughout the country. Their
37.5% ABV Liptovium
Borovička is made in Liptovský Mikuláš, in the
old county of Liptov, found in the North of Slovakia. Besides national sales it
is distributed throughout the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. We suspect we
may see this go further afield as the company has distribution ties with Mexico
and India and more recently with the Spanish company González Byass who have a
strong distribution network in Spain, Italy, Chile and Argentina and many other
Founded in 2000 by husband and wife team Joesf & Marcela Žufánkovi with their three sons Martin, Jan (John) & Joseph. Grand children have been added to the family, creating the potential for a third generation to run this business. This is another distiller based in the Czech Republic and are based in the village of Borsice u Blatnice, found in an area known as Slavkov in the South East of the country. They offer a brand known as Borovička Žufánek, first launched in 2011, which is 45% ABV and uses juniper berries sourced from both Slovakia and Italy.
Markets have already been opening up in the Slavic area and there is no foreseeable reason why this should not continue to build. On this basis alone we could expect to see Borovička to begin to appear beyond where it currently sells. This might be pushed along by increased education regarding what it is and how in “fits” into the world of spirits. It would also help if a bold, adventurous and cash rich producer/distributor took a gamble to promote Borovička.
Fortunately with the world of Gin in full revival mode, there are many interesting developments occurring and this includes experimentation with the base spirit. We have seen some distillers move away from the traditional grain base to use different types of grain, grapes and other fermentable carbohydrates. What if they used brandy grapes (or fruit) to make a Brandy (or eau-de-vie) base and then flavored it with botanicals, to create something similar to Borovička? Well, we’d end up with something like Old Hollywood Ginn, made by Napa Spirits Distillery in San Francisco, California, USA. Technically this is a Brandy and is flavored with 9 botanicals (plus oak chips) to create what is very similar to Borovička, and can only be described as Gin…or to get around Californian liquor laws…Ginn!
These changes are really something for Gin drinkers to look out for; they could develop a greater presence and more of us might come to enjoy these Brandy “Gin” hybrids.