Sunday, January 07, 2007

Rakija - Drink of the Serbs

Popular throughout the Balkans, rakija is a hard liquor similar to brandy and vodka. It is made by distilling fermented fruit. Typical alcohol content is about 40%, but homemade rakija is sometimes up to 60% alcohol. Rakija is considered the national drink in countries making up former Yugoslavia as well as Bulgaria and Hungary. Its most common form, šlivovitz, is made from plums. Grapes are often used in Bulgaria and Montenegro. Other fruits used include peaches, apricots, mulberries, pears, apples, figs, and quinces. In a special type of rakija known as Vilijamovka, a small pear is pressed through the bottleneck into the bottle, continuing to grow on the tree. After harvested, rakija is then poured into the bottle, gradually acquiring the special aroma and taste. Sometimes plum and grape rakija includes other ingredients such as herbs, honey, sour cherries, and walnuts.

For an added aroma and golden color, the normally colorless drink is kept is wooden barrels. Rakija is served in special small glasses holding from .3 to .5 dl., with the bottom of the glass wider at the bottom and tapering at the top.

The first alcohol was distilled by Arabic doctors in the 10th and 11th centuries, with Europeans readily adopting the drink. It was prescribed as an excellent medication during the Middle Ages. It is thought that rakija arrived in Serbia during the arrival of the Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries. Others date its regional origins back to the time when Serbs arrived as Old Slavs to the region from their original homeland, capitalizing upon the available vineyards planted by ancient Greeks and Romans.

No country produces more šlivovitz plum rakija than Serbia. About 70% of plums in the region (average 424,300 tons per year) goes into šlivovitz. Sometimes this brandy is distilled twice, called prepečenica and with an alcohol content exceeding 60%. It typically is made from trees older than 20 years. The type of plum known as pozegaca used originally came from Asia, but was brought to Serbia from Hungary. In Serbia, particularly in the regions of Valjevo, Kraljevo, and Èaèak, growing conditions are ideal, producing rakija unequalled in any area. The fruit skin is dark blue, it contains much more meat and sweet juice than other plum varieties, and a specific aroma derived from the skin and pit all contribute to its unique taste.

Rakija is part of Serbian culture. It is part of many special occasions, including baptisms, marriages, joining of the army, and visiting of friends. At funerals, custom demands that a bottle of rakija be left on the grave of the deceased who liked to drink it, or at least to sprinkle a drop or two during the memorial service for peace of the person’s soul. For some peasants, a flask of rakija is one’s only luggage. Poor peasants many even offer the village doctor, policeman, judge, tax collector, or minister a flask of rakija as a gift of payment. Many folk songs have been composed during rakija production. Apart from Russian vodka, šlivovitz, according to the book “Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, is the only drink that prompts Serb farmers to piously cross themselves before drinking. I’ve seen bottles of rakija for sale at monasteries, right next to iconography paintings.
Although rakija is consumed in villages and cities alike, most of my encounters with the drink occurred in the small village of Sirogojno. At the ethno village, an old-fashioned cooker and distiller was part of the museum’s artifacts display, along with large wooden barrels for storage. Outside the local church, the “chaffeur” of a horse-drawn carriage merrily sipped the clear drink while waiting for the wedding party. Others joined in after the wedding, alternating drinks with cigarettes. At the home of a local couple, the husband proudly offered his guests some of his 7-year old šlivovitz after giving us a tour of his rakija-making facility. Read more on my website: and