If cognac and whiskey are both kings of all alcohols, then Rakia is the rightful queen. Interestingly enough, given the incredible popularity of this drink in Southeast Europe, it’s pretty much unknown outside of Balkan Peninsula. Although, there’s something slightly resembling Rakia in Turkey and Cyprus, the taste, technology, and drinking culture are very different.
Rakia is a traditional Balkan 35-70 proof drink (40% ABV), which is made by redistilling wort produced from fermented fruits: plums, grapes, wild pears. Less commonly used fruits are apples, sweet cherries, apricots, and quince. Rakia is made from these fruits separately but sometimes raw materials can be mixed.
Put it simply, Rakia is a moonshine from fruits but it’s different from the traditional Russian moonshine in a way that it’s made using wild (natural) yeast without sugar.
In Bulgaria and Serbia, where Rakia is pretty much regarded as the national treasure, the recipes differ a bit, although, in both countries, it is accustomed to age the prepared drink in oak barrels for at least 2 years. That’s why Rakia is also called Balkan brandy. This is not entirely right as classic brandy is produced from squeezed strained fruit juice, but everything goes when it comes to marketing.
Distilled Rakia is colorless, but it gains its yellow shade after aging in oak barrels
Bulgarians know everything about making Rakia. Almost every countryside household has a moonshine still and a family Rakia recipe. Those who can’t afford all necessary equipment (traditional copper kettles are rather expensive) can use street moonshine stills which are available for everyone.
In mid-to-late autumn, right after the grape harvest, each head of the family see it as their duty to produce enough Rakia for the year to come. Cornelian cherries and pears are less commonly used. Actually, the choice of raw materials depends on the geographical location: poor farmers use what they have in abundance. In some cases, fruit mix can be used, although, such Rakia can’t be called an etalon drink and it’s less valued.
Classic Bulgarian distillatory consisting of copper distillation still and water barrel
Sometimes some wine is added to the grape mash—this makes the final product a bit more soft and fragrant. Aside from fruits, the recipe might also include herbs, honey, juniper, nuts, and other flavoring agents.
Bulgarians believe that the «correct» Rakia should go down easy, much easier than vodka and that its strength should be felt later in the stomach.
Bulgarian grape Rakia called “grozdova” is a remedy for many diseases. Bulgarian men start their day with a snifter of this strong alcoholic drink and end their day snatching an opportunity to drink a few snifters at dinner and without a reason. They say that Rakia normalizes metabolism, suscitates stomach work, and battles infections.
Slivovitz: Serbian Rakia
Serbian lands are rich with plums, and up to 90% of harvest there is spent on making the Slivovitz drink. It’s hard to overestimate the value of this drink for the whole country. Suffice to say, it became the first Serbian brand with a confirmed geographical origin, which is officially certified on the European market. Serbians are very proud of this and they claim that you can drink real Rakia only in their country. All other recipes are just wan shadows of the real fruit vodka.
In Serbia, Rakia is not cooked, it’s ”baked.” Only the ripest plums are used to make a wash. The fruits are not hand-picked. Plums are collected after shaking a tree, as this makes only the ripest fruits to fall down. 90 kilos of plums yield just about 20 liters of a soft and “weak” Slivovitz and 10 liters of a real strong Rakia.
Pavel Povolny-Juhas baking Rakia
How to Drink Rakia
First and foremost, Rakia should be drunk with a soul. This drink was not meant to be used to drink yourself into oblivion with. Rakia is an irreplaceable attribute of any Balkan feast, a witness to all human sorrows and joys. Surely you can find a factory-produced Rakia, but self-respecting families prefer making their own drinks in their own family circle to the sound of music and in a festive spirit.
Rakia should be drunk out of small shot glasses in small portions 50 ml each max. Each gulp should be immediately followed up with food—jerky, various cheeses and pickles, but the traditional Shopska salad is the best choice. It is a fairly simple salad to make at home. You’ll need sweet pepper, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bryndza, olive oil, salt, and vinegar to taste.
Rakia shot glass
In winter Bulgarians enjoy a warming glass of hot Rakia with spices, sugar, caramel, and orange peel. The recipe for this drink closely resembles that for mulled wine, only fruit distillate is used instead of wine.
Homemade Rakia Recipe
Real Rakia can only be made in Balkans. And there, in an old granddad’s copper kettle, on crackling firewood and in an atmosphere of lively conversations and exhilaration real Slivovitz, Lozovaca, Dunjevaca, and Kruskovaca are born. But you can still make a similar drink in a classic moonshine still at home.
Copper moonshine still and woods affect the taste of Rakia
- Fruits (plums, grapes, apricots) – 20 kilos
- Water – 5-10 liters
To make Rakia you’ll need ripe or overripe raw materials without any spoilt or moldy parts. The sweeter the fruits, the larger the yield. The amount of water depends on the initial consistency of the wash—it should be liquid.
The fruits shouldn’t be washed as there’s wild yeast on their surface, which enables mash fermentation. For the same reason, it’s better not to pick fruits right after the rain, just wait 2-3 days for a drier weather.
- Crush the unwashed fruits until they are smooth. The classic way to do this is by hands or feet. When using industrial mixers or other appliances be sure not to crush the stones (in case of plums, apricots or cherries) because this will make your homemade Rakia bitter.
- Pour the obtained puree into a container with a wide neck. Tie the neck with cheesecloth and leave the container for a day in a preferably dark place. 8-16 days after there will be foam, hissing, and a slightly sour odor—this means that the fruit pulp has started fermenting. If this doesn’t happen (in some rare cases), you should crush and add a few unwashed fruits into the mash.
- Decant the mash into a fermentation container. Dilute the mash with water to make it more liquid.
- Install an airlock on the fermentation container and leave it at 18-25°C, away from direct sunlight. Fermentation lasts 14-45 days. After that, the airlock won’t be emitting gas, and there will be a sediment layer at the bottom. Also, the wash won’t have a sugary taste. All of this means that fermentation has finished and you can proceed to the next step.
- Strain the wash through cheesecloth to get rid of the pulp and then decant it into a distillation still. Pulp might burn during the distillation process, thus spoiling the taste.
- Distill the wash and collect down to about 25-30% ABV.
- Dilute the obtained moonshine with water to 17-20%.
- Run the second distillation. Collect 100-150 ml per each 10 kilos of the raw materials separately. This harmful fraction called “the heads” contains methanol and other harmful substances and thus it shouldn’t be drunk.
Collect down to about 40% ABV (when the moonshine is no longer burning).
Homemade Rakia without aging in barrels
- Dilute the obtained homemade Rakia to the desired ABV level which is usually 40-45%. After 2 days of “rest” in a dark place, homemade Rakia is ready to be enjoyed. Although, the classic recipe requires it being additionally infused with apples in barrels—something definitely worth trying.