My Bloody (Drunk) Romania: Beyond the moonshine

People are often taken off guard when I tell them that I’ve spent about 17 cumulative months in Romania. Inevitably, wooden stake at the ready, they start digging about what the hell kept me here so long.

Is it the low cost of living? Initially yes, but with the US dollar tanking and the Romanian lei gaining, I could almost live cheaper in Miami these days.

Is it the scantly clad girls? Well, duh.

Is it the orgy of high-speed file sharing going on that’s better than any software store, CD shop and on-demand satellite service combined? I don’t know what you mean detective.

But, there’s a bunch of non-financial, non-depraved and non-somewhat illegal reasons as well. Though hardly pious, a primary incentive to get good and comfortable here for a while is the availability and shocking low price of decent alcohol, namely wine.

With the exception of parts of Transylvania that inexplicably lean toward German wines, there’s enough Romanian wine on offer here to keep you woozy for months. Big names include Bucium, Cotnari, both based in Moldavia, and Murfatlar based in Dobrogea. Bottles from US$2.50 to US$6 range from one step above table wine (Bucium) to bottles that routinely win awards abroad (Murfatlar and Cotnari).

Prahova will probably sound familiar to UK readers, as it makes up 70% of their Romanian wine distribution. Despite being highly respected (and relatively highly priced) within Romania, I haven’t been able to find the page on their web site that lists their awards. I’m sure it’s just an oversight.

Alternatively, avoid Vampire Wine, a hokey bottle of wine-flavoured poison marketed to vampire fanatics that appears to be acquired from the dregs and ‘oopsie barrels’ from reputable wineries. I’ll admit though, it makes a fun souvenir. But you don’t need to come all the way to Romania to buy a bottle. The winery appears to be owned and operated out of California. You can get a bottle on their web site for US$9.99.

A popular variety of desert wine that I’ve only recently discovered is busuioaca de bohotin made by Vincon Vrancea, among others. Unlike many desert wines, it doesn’t have that syrupy taste that coats your tongue and turns your eyeballs orange after only a single glass. Granted, it’s not the type of thing you want with your fillet mignon, but it was great for multiple glasses later in the evening while we watched a shaky copy of “Superbad” that may or may not have been acquired in an unscrupulous fashion.

Also, not to betray my hosts, but the availability of super yummy and cheap Moldovan wine here in Romania cannot be ignored. Big names like Milestii Mici, Acorex and the self-proclaimed mother of all Moldovan wine Cricova are easy to find in most supermarkets, but keep an eye out for feisty bottles of perfectly drinkable Cojusna that seem to only find their way into tiny, corner shops here in Romania, probably secreted across the border in someone’s hollowed out prosthetic leg.

Closing out the wine category, though it will offend and alarm serious wine drinkers, I have to mention must, a low-alcohol, sweet, fizzy almost-wine concoction that is only available for a few weeks each year after the grape harvest. Some wine makers convert a bit of their stash into must and feed it to their employees to keep them congenial yet still productive. However, must production is big business for some, as tanker trucks of the stuff are enthusiastically gulped down at Romania’s innumerable autumn street festivals, being particularly popular with teenaged girls (and pansy-assed travel writers that don’t dig beer).

Now for the harder stuff. Ţuică and pălincă are two kinds of brandy usually made from plums. Though some people freely swap these terms to describe the same drink, they are, as your tongue will tenderly note, distinctly different. Pălincă is essentially ţuică, distilled twice. Ţuică is about 30-40% alcohol, while pălincă is 45-55%, sometimes dangerously higher. One time I got my hands on a bottle that could’ve dissolved lead.

You’re not going to find these two beverages in most stores as they are in fact that moonshine I teased in the title of this post. Ţuică and pălincă are almost exclusively produced in stills on private farms or in people’s tool sheds. Though this is technically bootlegging, the Romanian government tolerates this production, probably for the same reason that cats tolerate humans: unabashed personal gratification.

Traditionally, a shot of ţuică/pălincă is consumed right before a meal to ‘open up’ (or alight depending on the potency) the palette and help with digestion. Yet, if you ride down the main street of any village in the winter months, taking note of the large number of people who’ve only half successfully dressed themselves, weaving down the road singing folk songs to the neighborhood and you’ll get a sense of exactly how much moonshine gets consumed as a matter of course.

Though a few communities have negotiated dubious production licenses, making moonshine for restaurants and high-end tourist shops (complete with a whole pear at the bottle of the bottle), you’re more likely to find it for sale on folding tables by the side of the road in recycled soft drink bottles along with cheese and honey products. These roadside vendors will probably charge about 15 lei (~US$6) for a 0.5 liter bottle, but I hear tell that if you have the right connections in places like the Maramureş region, you can get a two liter bottle for as little as 10 lei (US$4). If the Romanian parliament is any indication, a two liter bottle of pălincă goes a long way.

On a closing note, while there’s innumerable ways to get happily loaded here in Romania, I have yet to be introduced to any national hangover remedy. Romanians don’t do brunch, so I’m not able to invoke my preferred antidote of an Everything Omelet doused in Tabasco, washed down with three Cokes and a chocolate shake, followed by a two hour nap. I’ve just had to suffer quietly with mediocre coffee, fruit and pastries. If someone would only open a 24 hour breakfast café, this country could be the next freelance writer’s ultimate retreat.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more ways to tie on a dignified drunk and why that’s OK as long as you emphasize the word ‘dignified’.