Unless you're really into plum brandy, I'm willing to bet that (a) you didn't know there was an International Slivovitz Tasters Association and (b) you didn't know that the annual U.S. Slivovitz Festival is taking place Saturday at Lambert's, a neighborhood bar and seafood restaurant within spitting distance of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Yes, slivovitz. The rustic Eastern European plum brandy, which is often maligned as tasting like rocket fuel, has an odd reputation. You may vaguely remember it as something your grandmother toasted with on special occasions. But recent years have seen it undergo a comeback, as popular new restaurants like Ambar and Mari Vanna offer dozens of varieties to drink on their own or in cocktails.
If you want to know what's new in the world of slivovitz, you need to head to Lambert's Restaurant in Glendale. From 2 to 5 p.m., master slivovitz judge Gian Cossa will preside over a free guided tasting of six different slivovitzes from around Europe and the U.S. Attendees will vote for the festival's top brandy. (Seriously, there are accredited slivovitz judges. Cossa notes proudly that he is one of only four in the U.S.)
The U.S. Slivovitz Festival is usually held in Two Harbors, Minnesota, where the Radosevich brothers first created it at their family's Earthwood Inn back in 2004. Unfortunately, Cossa says, there's an important family wedding this weekend, so the annual D.C. area festival, which Cossa has been organizing at Lambert's since 2005, will serve as the national festival.
Cossa, a program manager for DC Water, explains that the festival does have its serious side: From 2 to 4 p.m., attendees will taste a new slivovitz every 15 minutes, with a five minute break after each round. For slivovitz newbies, Cossa will teach them which attributes to look for: aroma, aftertaste and mouthfeel, or, quite simply, "This is crap, or this is good, and why." He'll also explain the Tasters Association's judging regulations, which include the provision that a toast is offered before every taste, and that judges should spit after evaluating. (The latter is "a loose bylaw," Cossa jokes.)
While it's not part of the judging, guests also get to sample a special slivovitz cocktail, the Eastern Blockhead, made with a clear five-year-old slivovitz, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
The final hour includes the crowning of King and Queen Slivovitz and the Plum Princess. Another award is given to the guest who has traveled furthest to the competition. You might be surprised how far people will travel to drink slivovitz at Lambert's.
Around 50 people showed up last year, and Cossa is expecting closer to 100 this time. "We've got a big contingent coming from Pittsburgh," he explains. "Last year, we had a couple drive six hours from southern Virginia. They heard about it on the Internet, so they got someone to watch their farm animals."
It's all a far cry from the first slivovitz festival at Lambert's, which involved Costa bringing a bottle of slivovitz to Lambert's and asking the owner if he could share it with his friends. It was "very informal," Cossa says. "To call it a 'first year' is a bit of a stretch."
He explains that the crowd is a diverse one: People who have always enjoyed slivovitz and those who came to it later in life. Cossa, who is of Italian descent, explains that he grew
up making wine with his father and one of his dad's friends – "90 gallons at a time" – and drinking Italian spirits. When he was introduced to slivovitz by Bill Radosevich a decade ago, he thought, "Oh, this is very familiar, like grappa but made with plums."
Still others are regulars at Lambert's, Cossa's local bar, which he describes as a mix of "rocket scientists and upscale blue collar workers," due to its proximity to NASA. Besides, he notes, the tasting is free, and Lambert's offers half-price appetizers all day. "The seafood is great," Cossa notes, "and oysters are like a buck a piece."
The slivovitz doesn't stop here: In January, the country's master slivovitz tasters reunite in Minnesota to taste a couple of dozen different plum brandies. "It is a long weekend," Cossa says.