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Brinjevec

What is it?

This is a clear or white juniper spirit made, for at least the last 200 years, in the Karst region of the Republic of Slovenia, Europe. “Brin” unsurprisingly means juniper in Slovene and the spirit may also be referred to as Brinovec, Karst Gin or Karst Juniper Brandy. Although not intended for regular drinking, when sipped it has a very dry, bitter, tart and herbal flavor, and is certainly an acquired taste (a polite way of saying the taste is not particularly pleasant).

Medicinal Use

If this spirit has such a distinctive and unusual taste, and not really made for drinking like other spirits, what is its purpose? Many traditional Slovenes have Brinjevec included as part of their home “pharmacy” making its prime use as a medicinal product. The effects of Brinjevec is known and appreciated by Slovenes because it provides a cure for many complaints:

  1. Stomach aches including gastritis, indigestion and intestinal issues. As a digestive it performs in a similar way to the small bottles of German made Underberg, with most people finding comfort after 10-15 minutes of consuming it (a great benefit after heavy meals).
  2. It is also taken to alleviate rheumatism, arthritis and even menstrual pains.
  3. When used as a topical “rub” it penetrates deeply into the skin stimulating blood circulation and helps relieve bruising.
  4. Inhaling the steam from boiling water with a few drops of Brinjevec added, relieves inflammation in respiratory passages from colds and can help ease asthmatic respiration.

Geographical Designation

In 2003 the Slovenian government identified Brinjevec as a geographically designated drink to the areas of Karst and Brkini, found to the South West of Slovenia. This was ratified by the European Union in 2008 and defines Karst or Kraški Brinjevec as a protected drink within this geographical location i.e. can only use this name if made within this area.

The Karst (or “Kras”) region is dominated by a picturesque limestone plateau and is surrounded by the Trieste Gulf, Vipava Valley, and Brkini Hills. This fusible limestone is affected and shaped by water, creating lakes, springs, swallow holes, potholes and caves, including Vilenica, Lipica, Divača, Kacna Jama, Postojna, and the Škocjan Caves (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Check out this overview of the Karst region, via an excerpt from the Rick Steves Europe TV episode of Slovenia, from You Tube (the full episode can be found at the bottom of this page).

Real Brinjevec?

Brinjevec can sometimes be found for sale in Slovene bars however, it is important to ensure you are buying what you expect! The medicinal digestive bears the name Karst or Kraški Brinjevec (as per the EU geographical designation), whereas Brinjevec (with no prefix) is often a flavored surrogate. Made from a plum or pomace brandy (tropinovec) or even a potato base spirit, it is naturally flavored with juniper berries, and is less expensive, milder and more palatable than the traditional Kraški Brinjevec (and very similar to Borovička). It’s a case of Caveat Emptor (Latin for “Let the buyer beware”) i.e. the product is sold “as is”.

Making Brinjevec

Origin

The production of Brinjevec is thought to have started in the late 1700’s, following the arrival of distillation boilers brought by troops, under the rule of the French Emperor Napoleon. The Karst region has a plentiful supply of juniper berries and so it is not too surprising locals sought to find uses for them, including distillation!

Juniper Berry Harvesting

The berries are harvested as early as August through till November (late summer until first frosts), the aim being to find the time when the fruits contain the maximum amount of sugar. The juniper bushes are agitated (or hit) with a wooden stick causing the ripe berries to fall on to a sheet placed on the ground. This is tiring work: having to walk up and down hills/mountains in order to reach the juniper bushes, beat the bushes and then carry the spoils back. It can take up to 6 hours to harvest around 35lbs of juniper berries – enough to only make 1-2 liters (or 1-3 bottles) of Brinjevec! No wonder many commercial producers of Brinjevec buy-in their juniper berries including those from other Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Montenegro.

Juniper Berry Preparation

The collected berries are run through a sieve to filter out large unwanted twigs etc. and then lighter items such as pine needles etc. are blown off using a fan or naturally in the wind. Juniper berries can contain up to 45% water and if stored for even a few weeks can start developing mold growth, which will come through in the finished spirit as an unpleasant musty smell. The harvested berries are therefore usually processed immediately, and must contain at least 32% moisture and 1% juniper oil.

Fermentation

Cleaned and purified juniper berries are milled (ground), pressed or crushed and put into water (3-4 times the volume of the berries) to create a mash. When maintained at a temperature of 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit, a natural fermentation of the mash takes place, lasting up to 5-weeks but with yeast (and sometimes additional food for the yeast) included this may be reduced to around 3-weeks.

Distillation

The fermented mash is batch distilled in copper pot stills (many intended for Brandy distillation) and sometimes using column stills. It is distilled at least twice, the first separates out the alcohol distillate from the essential juniper oil or “Brinjevo Olje”. This byproduct is sold to pharmaceutical companies, traditionally in neighboring Trieste (Italy) for around $180 per liter, which may sound expensive, but it does take around 200kg of juniper berries to produce this amount of oil. The oil naturally separates itself from the soft alcoholic spirit or “Nang” when condensing after the first distillation. The second distillation carried out on the “Nang” is long and slow, and the resultant distillate must have at least 200 grams of volatile substances per hectoliter of alcohol, and no more than 1350 grams of methanol per hectoliter of alcohol, of 100% alcohol.

Resting & Finishing

The spirit must be rested or matured for a minimum of 6-months. When bottled the permissible sizes are 200, 500 or 700 ml and the spirit must be at a minimum of 40% ABV, although 45 to 50% ABV is fairly common. There are several commercial distillers in the region (see below) although many small-scale farmers produce their own for around $30 for their 700 ml bottles. One thing is for sure; this is a true juniper-flavored spirit! Check out this Slovenia Overview You Tube video clip, you can see juniper berries being harvested around the 3 minute 20 second mark:

Differentiation

Brinjevec is different from other juniper-flavored spirits such as Borovička and Genever. While these juniper spirits are made from a variable spirit base (e.g. grain, malt, potato, fruit etc.), and some may even include ground juniper in their mash profile, Brinjevec only uses juniper berries to create the distilled spirit. Also Genever, and some brands of Borovička, use botanicals to flavor the base spirit while no further flavors or botanicals are added to the base spirit of Brinjevec.

Popular Commercial Brands 

There are several registered commercial distilleries in Slovenia who distil and sell Brinjevec and Karst Brinjevec:

Brinjevec

Dana, based in the town of Mirna, produce natural water and other drinks including Dana Brinjevec.

Kartuzija Pleterje is a Catholic Monastery (or Charterhouse), based in a village called Drča near Šentjernej, who produce drinks including wine and their own brand named Pleterje Brinjevec.

Kmetija Matic make a range of products from their base in Hotavlje, their line of spirits includes their own brand of Matic Brinjecvec.

Prior Fructal are spirit producers based in Ajdovščina, who produce their own brand called Prior Brinjevec.

Karst or Kraški Brinjevec

Finvest are a spirits producer based in Vrhnika and make a brand called Brin Brinjevec. They present this spirit in gift packages including crystal bottles and glasses, with worldwide shipping available.

Kraševka are primarily based in Ljubljana and make a range of products across the country including their own Kraški Brinjevec.

Budič are based in Krška vas and produce a select line of spirits including their own Budic Brinjevec.

Availability

Clearly being able to get a bottle of Brinjevec is easy if you live in Slovenia or visit the country, although you might be able to get some shipped. If you can’t visit Slovenia then watching a travel guide will give you a flavor of what the country is like (but you can’t beat the real thing). Here’s the full TV episode of Slovenia from the “Rick Steves Europe” series:



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