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Slivovitz fest heads to Lakeview Castle

With Two Harbors' U.S. Slivovitz Festival moving to Lakeview Castle for year No. 4, Duluth adds another signature event to its belt. "Who knows, maybe it will take off," said festival judge Jerry Kortesmaki, who also sponsors the event through hi...

With Two Harbors' U.S. Slivovitz Festival moving to Lakeview Castle for year No. 4, Duluth adds another signature event to its belt.

"Who knows, maybe it will take off," said festival judge Jerry Kortesmaki, who also sponsors the event through his business, London Road Rental Center. "Maybe it will turn into a Grandma's Marathon."

Although there are brew fests all over the country (and even some festivals for gin and vodka enthusiasts, Kortesmaki pointed out), there's hardly anything in the United States celebrating slivovitz, an alcoholic beverage made from plums.

The drink -- which is similar to a brandy (and often called "plum brandy") -- originated in the Balkan Peninsula, and is still very popular in the region.

"My daughter went to Slovakia a couple years ago, and she was amazed," Kortesmaki said. "Everywhere she went, they hauled out the bottle of slivovitz and toasted her. Just like we heard in the old days, they still very actively do it.

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"It is still the traditional toasting liquor in all those Eastern Bloc countries over there."

The U.S. Slivovitz Festival was formed by Kortesmaki and members of Two Harbors' Radosevich family -- in part to coincide with the Radosevich family reunion. (To appeal to a broader audience, the festival dropped the Radosevich name from its official seal this year.)

"As part of getting companies to give us slivovitz, Bill (Radosevich) thought, Well, we'll have a judging, and we'll compare the slivovitz against each other," Kortesmaki recalled.

Kortesmaki said "the brothers Radosevich" then contacted a Minneapolis distributor, who agreed to help them secure products for sampling as long as the judging results were published "so people can tell what good slivovitz is, and what the difference is" between the brands.

Kortesmaki then said Bill "teased" him into being a judge, saying things like "You don't have a good enough palate" and so forth. (The two families grew up together, so it's easy to see how this method succeeded.)

"So we took a wine-tasting sheet and adapted it to our slivovitz," he added.

Incidentally, it was also the Radosevich family that turned Kortesmaki on to the potent spirit.

"I don't remember if it was their sister getting married or what," he said of his experience with the traditional toasting drink, which is normally between 70 and 80 proof (and sometimes well over 100), "but there was some occasion where we all had to take a shot."

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Another one of the festival's judges is Dale Kleinschmidt, the head brewer at Lake Superior Brewing in Duluth.

LSB has been a festival sponsor from the get-go, and Kleinschmidt worked his way up from "guest taster" (Kortesmaki joked that there are many of these) to full-on judge.

"It's all really interesting," Kleinschmidt said Wednesday, referring to the ins and outs of judging the numerous slivovitz varieties.

Kleinschmidt had his first slivovitz experience more than three decades ago when he was living with a Serbian.

"Back then there was pretty much only one variety," he said, joking about that first slivovitz's "industrial strength" taste.

In tune with the slivovitz culture, this year's festival will include performances from a variety of musical acts.

"We've traditionally tried to make it an ethnic festival," Kortesmaki said. "... This year we've sworn there will be no country music and no rock 'n' roll."

In addition to the Chmielewski Funtime Variety Show Band and Anoka's Flaming Seamus (according to the group's Web site, these youngsters play "an awkward blend of Irish music, folk, punk and just general mayhem"), local outfit the Singing Slovenes will also perform.

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"We'd like to have them back year after year," Kortesmaki said of the Frank Bucar-led Slovenes, "because it's right up their alley."

News to Use

The U.S. Slivovitz Festival will be held from noon to midnight Saturday, Sept. 8, at Lakeview Castle. The Singing Slovenes, the Chmielewski Funtime Variety Show Band and Flaming Seamus will perform. No admission fee. (Food and drink are extra.) For more, visit www.slivovitz.us .

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