Palo, Majorca’s oldest and most famous tipple, was the top preprandial aperitif all over the island 60 years ago. But the tourism boom of the 1960s brought trendy drinks like whisky on the rocks — and palo went out of fashion.
But it has come surging back into the limelight and the El Tunel brand is now supplying in a day as much as it usually does in six weeks. What’s the sudden attraction? It’s all because of the coronavirus. Palo is an ancient drink that has medicinal properties and was first made in the apothecaries of monasteries.
People who had a fever took it. Fever is the operative word. One of the principal symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, is a high temperature. Some people think that if palo is has anti-fever properties it will protect them from the coronavirus.
Drinking palo during the lockdown won’t do you any harm — but it’s not going to stop the virus from creating havoc if it gets into your system.
However, people everywhere are willing to do anything that might keep the virus at bay and they’re now grabbing all available bottles at the supermarket.
Authentic palo is an ancient sweet-bitter drink unique to the island that was first created, like many similar drinks in other European countries, for its medicinal properties.
Palo consists of infused or macerated quinine bark, gentian root, sugar, caramelised sugar and alcohol made from unrefined sugar cane juice. It should have an alcohol content of 25-36 per cent.
Majorcan apothecaries were using gentian root in the 14th century and quinine bark came to Spain in the 17th century. The drink gets its name from ‘palo quina’, an old word for the bark of quinine trees. The original medicinal palos were very bitter, a taste people in those days were willing to accept — especially if it cured their fever.
Like many other drinks of this kind, originally made by monks because they had access to the herbs and spices that were needed, palo became a favourite aperitif — but only after it was sweetened up with caramelised sugar.
The production of palo as we know it today started in Sencelles in the second half of the 19th century. A few decades later, when there was a shortage of sugar, palo was sweetened with fig and grape syrup and even carob beans, which abound on the island. That was why some 50 years ago many Majorcans thought the main ingredient in palo was carob beans.
In the first years of 1960s and earlier, the Majorcans’ favourite preprandial drink was palo, sometimes taken on the rocks but mostly with a splash of soda water — from a syphon, of course, because there were no small bottles in those days.
The palo before lunch custom was never part of my day. I tried it several times but although it has a slightly bitter aftertaste, the caramelised sugar makes it much too sweet for me.
I prefer really bitter drinks, the kind that get the tastebuds kicking into gear. I would have loved those original palos made at the monasteries without the use of sweetening agents.
Before the 1960s palo was the most popular drink in Palma bars and in villages all over the island. But when the tourism boom really got under way in the late 1960s, drinking habits changed.
Young people were especially prone to innovation and they were soon dropping palo and switching to other drinks such as gin and tonic and whisky — on the rocks or with soda.
A gin and tonic, abbreviated to ‘gin-tonic’, was favoured by many because it is extremely refreshing during the hot summer nights. Whisky with ginger ale was also a popular summer drink. At that time many city centre bars stayed open until three or four in the morning.
But most young Majorcans quickly came to think that drinking palo defined them as islanders who didn’t know there were other drinks in the world. In the movies, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant never asked for a palo with soda.
The last time I had a ‘palo con sifón’ was about 35 years ago when it was on offer at a press reception and I had one for old times’ sake. But it was still too sweet for me, although it brought back all kinds of pleasant memories of the old days.
Although I never hear anyone nowadays asking for a palo in Palma bars I still see bottles of it at the supermarkets supplied by the eight distilleries that make it.
The supermarkets of El Corte Inglés and Eroski, which make a special effort to fill their shelves with island produce of all kinds, have good selections of palo that cost up to €12 a bottle. The El Tunel brand is one of the best and the one I used to have in my drinks cabinet.
In the 1960s and earlier, there was a lovely selection of aperitif drinks from France and Italy. The favourite one all over Spain was vermouth, called ‘vermút’ in Spanish. Spanish ‘vermúts’ were so popular that Madrid and some other large cities had specialist bars that sold it on tap.
I was especially fond of the French and Italian vermouths and I always had two or three bottles at home. Byrrh was especially attractive because it reminded me of holidays in France and so was the Italian Punt e Mes.
The Cinzano and Martini vermouths were also very much in demand as was the French Noilly Prat. I was particularly fond of the Noilly Prat white because it was much drier than the others.
Except for Cinzano and Martini, all of the Italian vermouths have disappeared from Palma’s supermarket shelves. The only place I see the Noilly is at the Club del Gourmet of El Corte Inglés. At the Sandro Italian restaurant in Cale Ramon i Cajal there’s a bottle of Punt e Mes on the bar shelves. Next time I’m there I’ll have a glass — and order a bottle from his supplier of Italian products.
All of the preprandial drinks in Palma went out of fashion as the tourism boom surged forward. The ‘caña’, the small draught beer, became the number one tipple because it was so appropriate when eating tapas. Eventually Spaniards were drinking more beer than wine.
But a few years ago Spanish ‘vermúts’ came whizzing back all over the country and were all the rage. Bars called ‘vermuterías’ opened in various parts of the city, specialising in ‘vermúts’ from different parts of Spain. Some even have it on tap.
Will palo make the same kind of comeback as ‘vermút? In our crazy world of Twitter and Instagram and people’s general desire for something new in all facets of their lives, anything can happen. Or not happen. We’ll soon see.