The Liquor of Fruit and Fire

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Photo: Finnian Bunta

By: Finnian James

BELGRADE, Serbs will tell you, rakija (rakiya) puts all other liquor to shame. Many love this fierce potion as much as they fear it – and with good reason as it can easily reach 65 percent alcohol content.

Rakia tastes sweet and burns your throat with each sip. Do not let the shot glass fool you; a gulp of this would be like swallowing fire. Sip it with care.

While rakija comes from various fruits, plum is the most traditional, and has long been considered the national drink of Serbia.

More than a mere drink, rakija is believed to have healing properties as well. Belgrader Sandra Oluic said it is typical to “soak a towel in rakija and put it on your forehead…(this) drains the toxins out of you.”

Nestled in the tight streets of central Belgrade is Rakia Bar, where over 50 types of rakija are offered, all from small no-label producers. Surrealist paintings and European folk music cast a charm of originality suited to the drink. A waiter, Marko Imsir, tells punters that “almost everyone in the countryside is making his own rakija.”

Rakia is made from a variety of fruit – plum, grape, apricot, pear, and quince, to name the most popular. According to Imsir, even banana rakija has been created. The Rakia Bar experiments with mixing honey with mint, lavender, cinnamon, and wild thyme to create new exciting flavors, he added.

The drink is distilled by heating a fermented fruit mixture and cooling the vapors to create a potent spirit. It is said that the Ottoman Empire brought this unique distillation process to the Balkans after conquering Serbia six centuries ago. The name “rakija” derives from the Arabic word “al-araq”, meaning “drop of sweat.”

But there are concerns about whether this long tradition will continue for much longer. Another Belgrader, Svetozar Matijas, said Serbia’s candidacy to the European Union entails applying strict food regulations that many Serbs fear threaten homemade rakija.

“You have to register your household as (a rakija) producer even if you are not selling.”

But SerbianBrandy.com, an online portal for producers, quoted the EU’s ambassador to Serbia, Michael Davenport, as saying that even when the country joins the 28-member bloc, Serbs could continue to produce rakija at home as long as it is not for sale. Serbia hopes to join the EU by 2020.

If you come to Serbia, one of the first drinks likely to be offered to you will be rakija. Be sure to avoid the additives and chemicals of the mass-produced brands. Instead, ask for the personal story of each rakija you try. You will not be disappointed.

“Cheers,” or as Serbs would say, “Ziveli!”