I spent several years of my life writing and editing an online magazine about cocktails (two, actually: Daily Lush and The Bottle Gang.) The one thing I really took away from the experience was a sense that the American drinking palate was absolutely ruined by Prohibition. American's nascent wine industry was decimated, legal imports of European liquors halted, and the quality of locally produced alcohol plummeted. Savory cocktails that highlighted the flavor of good liquor were replaced with sweet cocktails that masked the flavor of bad liquor, and Americans acclimated to this and eventually preferred it.
We're only now crawling out of this catastrophic failure of good taste, even though it is almost a century since the Volstead Act. Americans who previously insisted on drinking sugary vodka concoctions are exploring the world of pre-Prohibition drinking, and, as a result, it's finally possible to get a decent Sazarac pretty much anywhere.
So this might be the ideal time to consider the liquor menu of our imaginary Jewish bar. Ethnic bars always have signature liquors that represent their homelands: tequila in Mexican cantinas, Irish whisky in Irish pubs, Pimms in the better British watering holes, etc.
Jews had their own liquors too, which are suddenly more available than they had previously been. Some of them were manufactured by Jewish distillers, such as Slivovitz, which we will discuss here. Some Jews merely colonized, like Heering cherry brandy, which we will detail later. Some were universally popular in Eastern Europe, but just would feel overlooked if left out of the liquor selection, such as vodka, which author Paul Kriwaczek argues Jews had a large hand in introducing to mainstream Europe.
But it's Slivovitz that I first associated with Jews. There is a throwaway scene in the 1990 Barry Levinson film "Avalon" that stayed with me, in which the movie's first-generation Jewish immigrants discuss their father's eccentricities, such as his refusal to drink tap water. What did he drink, they ask each other, trying to remember. "Slivovitz!" one declares, and they all shake their heads with disgust.
Slivovitz is a plum brandy, and it would be years before I first tried it, at a wedding of a Ukrainian friend in a Serbian Orthodox church. I did not taste the plum in the drink, and, in fact, tasted little other than the burn of high-proof alcohol. But there is a very good liquor store in Minneapolis called Surdyk's, and they had Slivovitz, and so I started to buy it regularly. After a while, I got acclimated to the flavor, and it became a point of pride to me that I could drink it at all. "It puts hair on your chest," I liked to tell people. "Then it sets fire to those hairs."
Over time, better brands of Slivovitz started to make their way to the United States, including some that had been aged 10 years or more. As with most liquors, aging Slivovitz mellows it. What had essentially been a plum moonshine was now quite drinkable, and the plum flavor came out.
So what does this have to do with the Jews? Firstly, because Slivovitz is made from plums rather than grains, it has long been a popular Passover drink. But Jews were also manufacturers of Slivovitz, especially in Poland, where they essentially had a monopoly according to Glenn Dynner's "Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland." Finally, Slivovitz has recently come back into the limelight as a Jewish drink thanks to being the drink of choice for Meyer Landsman, the hard-drinking homicide detective protagonist of Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."
How do you drink Slivovitz? Traditionally, it was treated as being a sort of schnapps, which in Yiddish identifies any strong alcoholic drink, and not the cloyingly flavored neutral spirits we drink in America. These would be offered any time a toast was called for -- which was apparently quite often, according to author Michael Wex. Slivovitz could also be enjoyed as an after-meal aperitif, and the tradition was to serve it in little stemmed glasses that used to be common and were called pony glasses, but seem to have been abandoned in favor of the shot glass.
Slivovitz is notoriously hard to mix into a cocktail, and it is a new enough ingredient that I wasn't able to find many examples of Slivovitz mixed drinks online, although I had one that added in lemon juice, simple syrup, and seltzer to make a sort of plum collins, which was perfectly drinkable. Most cocktail recipes I found online seemed like existing recipes with one ingredient swapped out for Slivovitz, and I tend to be suspicious of this approach.
My own tastes tend toward those espoused by David Embury in his classic book "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," who preferred a cocktail that consisted of a base liquor, a modifying liquor, and a special flavoring or coloring agent. This describes such classic mixed drinks as the martini (gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters) and the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters), and while I am not an utter purist on the subject, I do find this a good starting point, as it tends to produce a drink that highlights the flavor of the base liquor instead of hiding it.
I haven't found a recipe that does that yet with Slivovitz, so there is room for mixological inventiveness. I do have a shot to offer, however, and it is my own invention. Just combine Slivovitz with Heering cherry liqueur, although the Slivovitz tends to overwhelm the drink, so I'd mix it with one part Slivovitz to two parts Heering. I call it the Tkemali, after the Georgian sour plum sauce made with cherry plums.
Serve it in a pony glass if you can.