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Slivovitz fans enjoy taste of the old country

Jerry Kortesmaki wants the rest of the world to love slivovitz as much as he does, and that's going to be an uphill battle. But if the fourth annual Slivovitz Festival held Saturday at Lakeview Castle is any indication, Kortesmaki and other fans ...

Jerry Kortesmaki wants the rest of the world to love slivovitz as much as he does, and that's going to be an uphill battle.

But if the fourth annual Slivovitz Festival held Saturday at Lakeview Castle is any indication, Kortesmaki and other fans of the potent plum brandy have made inroads in the Northland.

A small crowd buzzed under a white tent in the restaurant's back parking lot shortly after the noon start time, ready to begin the festival's march toward its midnight finale.

Kortesmaki, this year's festival organizer, said the Slivovitz Festival may be the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Slivovitz is popular in Eastern Europe, its region of origin, but is not so well-known here.

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Its taste might be a reason.

"It varies, literally, from jet fuel to fine red wine and everything in between," Kortesmaki said.

And culture dictates slivovitz (pronounce it SHLIV-oh-vitz), not be consumed on just any occasion.

"It is a traditional toasting liqueur in most Eastern bloc countries," Kortesmaki said. "When there's a baby, a wedding, a funeral, you commemorate it with slivovitz."

"It's not like beer, where you sit around and drink case after case," he said.

Bill Radosevich's father, Tony, passed away in February. Radosevich, a former organizer of the festival, recalls stopping on his way to the hospital to get slivovitz and shot glasses.

Accordingly, it's an important cultural tie for him.

"Slivovitz is just that link to the old country," he said. "At the festival, we hear a lot of sentences that begin 'My granpda' or 'My grandma' as in, 'My grandma made me take a teaspoonful when I was sick.'"

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Tom and Jan Muday of St. Joseph, Mich., stopped by the festival on their way to Lake of the Woods, Minn.

The couple encountered slivovitz on skiing trips in Eastern Europe. Their experience with slivovitz in Bulgaria is particularly colorful.

"You buy it on the street, in little farmer's markets," Tom Muday said.

"It's in used Coke bottles, used water bottles -- it's kind of scary," Jan Muday said.

Melissa Strey and Carl Berglund of Duluth said they appreciate the brandy's somewhat exotic appeal.

"It's a lot like drinking wine," Strey said. "There are a lot of differences between tastes and what's brewed year to year."

"This has got a huge variety, which is a big draw," Strey said of the festival.

Organizers had about a dozen types of slivovitz available for sampling Saturday. Kortesmaki said at a previous festival, a town in Poland sent a bottle of regionally produce slivovitz so Polish brandy would be represented at the festival.

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The festival is also an important event for some distributors, who attend and give out samples to see how their product might be received.

"How do you determine what Americans like?" Radosevich said. "You bring nine cases to the festival and start pouring shots."

Slivovitz Festival organizers bill the brandy as "the new tequila" in the hopes that its famously hard-to-swallow taste might turn out to be a badge of honor for consumers brave enough to drink it.

But even so, they say the fiery liquor's taste is improving for American palates.

"There are micro-distilleries, just like microbreweries, that are making better and better stuff," Kortesmaki said.

On Saturday, organizers were serving slivovitz-marinated pork and had even soaked the wood chips used for the grill with slivovitz.

"I put a little in the gas tank to get over here," Pete Radosevich said.

He was joking.

Probably.

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