The saying "bitter like pelin" aptly describes the opinion of a large part of the drinking community, and probably of all teetotallers, in Bulgaria. They believe that this wormwood wine is definitely not to die for.
But the strange drink - neither wine, nor sangria, nor aperitif a la Fernet - has enough fans among the rest of the population. So many, in fact, that the EU has agreed to accept it as a Bulgarian trademark denoting an aromatic wine-based drink.
You can find pelin produced in any vine-growing region of Bulgaria, though the traditional areas are the village of Osmar, situated on the Shumen Plateau, which has been making the drink since 1898, and Sungurlare on the southern slopes of the Balkan Mountains.
Production begins in October because the pelin-making process requires one-year-old dessert wine made from Bolgar and Hamburg Misket. There are two types of pelin. For the ordinary variety, the wine is infused with 12 different herbs and left to mature in oak casks. The total herb content should contain at least 20 percent wormwood (Artemisia absinthium).
To make nalozhen pelin, which is the better and more expensive type, wine-makers add fresh grapes, apples and quince. After steeping them for some time, they add the necessary herbs, the exact components and proportions of which are a secret.
The recipe might be a secret, but the history of pelin's arrival in Bulgaria is relatively well-known. According to the owners of the Osmar winery, its founder, Dyado Penyo, simply imitated the Russians who settled in the village after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. They used to put herbs in anything they drank.
Taking into account the fact that the first Russian troops came to the area of Sungurlare as early as the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, this theory may have more substance to it than just an old wives' tale.
The last important factor in the making of the drink is the cold, because that stops the fermentation process. Winter normally freezes the plateau in mid-November and provides the ideal conditions.