Before my recent visit to Romania, my knowledge of the country was embarrassingly non-existent and, presumably, fairly typical for an American. Wishing to remedy this cultural blind spot, I endeavored to absorb as much as possible over the course of my week-long trip around the former communist nation. I took in gorgeous vistas of the Carpathian Mountains and the quaint, idyllic villages peppered throughout the foothills. I explored “Dracula’s castle,” ancient monasteries and Bucharest’s underground nightlife scene. More importantly, however, I met countless wonderful, hospitable Romanians who bent over backwards to show me a good time and keep my belly full. But where Romania surprised me the most was with its endless parade of unique beverages, the likes of which I have never before tasted.
My first meal in the country followed a 13-hour flight and a two-hour shuttle to the small town of Cluj-Napoca. While we waited in the hotel for food to be served, my hosts poured me small cups of two incredibly potent Romanian liquors. Captivated at the first sip, I vowed to seek out as many novel drinks as possible, and I undertook an unofficial drinking tour as I was shuttled about the massive country.
One of the two initial drinks that sent me on my quaff quest, țuică, is a clear spirit, distilled from plums, that is dry but sweet, almost like a white wine with bite. With an ABV in the low- to mid-50s, that bite is no joke, which is why this local firewater is poured in shot-sized glasses for sipping. Țuică is often served prior to meals as it is believed to increase one’s appetite. While it failed to have such an effect on me, it did provide a brandy-like warming feeling as it went down my throat, and I began to look forward to its presence at meals after stepping in from the cold.
Almost too sweet for my liking, this blueberry brandy is served as an aperitif or dessert liqueur. You can get commercially produced iterations of this (or its cherry-based counterpart, visinata), but real bev heads opt for the home-brewed stuff, where the fruit and a dump truck’s worth of sugar ferment in the sun for two to three months. This was the other liquor served before my first meal, but my favorite taste of this stuff occurred in an illegal bar operating out of a Bucharest woman’s basement. Though my unrefined palate couldn’t pick up any difference in taste from the other afinatăs I’d sampled that week, something about the middle-aged men at the table behind me smoking and watching Romanian basketball on the wall-mounted TV really added to the experience.
Cold Brew Combos
Far more confounding than the pot coffee was the mash-up approach to cold brew I noticed at a few places. In one Bucharest café, The Urbanist, the barista whipped up two coffee cocktails that, on the surface, sounded as pleasant as a post-teeth brushing swig of lemon juice: cold brew with OJ and cold brew with tonic. While the others in my group didn’t share my enthusiasm, I found these pairings to be nothing short of a revelation, and I’ve been cutting my cold brew at home with these mixers ever since.
Some of the earliest evidence of cannabis being used for its psychoactive effects has been found in Romania. Today, the overwhelmingly religious population has a less tolerant attitude, though they are still cognizant of the softening global stance on the drug, and the country has begun allowing doctors to prescribe medication with cannabinoids in them. While the country is still a far cry from Amsterdam levels of legality, some Romanian proprietors are spending the interim marketing “cannabis coffee” to their younger, edgier customers. I tried out a cup of the stuff at Tucano Coffee in Bucharest. To be clear, there’s no active THC or CBD in the drink—you’re just getting a hempy chai latte with a sprinkle of pot leaf-shaped nutmeg on top of the foam. Baby steps for normalization, I suppose.
Natural Spring Mineral Water
One of the biggest surprises from my trip was learning just how vital a role bottled mineral water plays in the daily lives of Romanians.Partially due to the fact that potable tap or well water is in short supply throughout the more remote regions of the country, and partially because geological events from eons ago have resulted in 60 percent of Europe’s mineral water reserves being located in the country, Romanians pound the stuff down in large numbers. AQUA Carpatica, the country’s most popular bottled water brand, gave me a tour of their bottling facility and tried to explain their filtering process and pH requirements in ways my feeble, unscientific mind could comprehend. Even cooler, they took me to a remote village hillside where one of their natural springs was tapped and being piped directly to the bottling plant. There I was given a glass dipped right into the stream and had the opportunity to drink sparkling mineral water straight from source. I’ll be honest. I had no idea water could achieve such a fizz without human interference, so sampling this as it poured out of a hole in some rocks was nothing short of a trip. Your move, La Croix.