Rakia or Rakija is the collective term for fruit brandy very popular in Central Europe and Southeast Europe. Practically every country on the Balkans widely considers rakia to be the respective country’s national drink. In its essence it is the same drink – grape or some other kind of fruit based brandy, which is produced according to the local customs, tradition, legal requirements and so on.
In the following article, Svetlin Mirchev, founder of the Rakia Shop in Sofia, is giving his personal point of view which reflects his long experience based on the passion he has for rakia.
Talking and thinking about rakia, we need to first consider what rakia really is as a drink. In reality, the genuine, well-made rakia is a very fine and complex drink, which, on one hand, has a huge potential to be paired with different kinds of food and, on the other hand, to be part of interesting and well-balanced cocktails.
There are different names in the respective languages on the Balkans using even different alphabets transliterated into Latin letters to spell rakia, rakija, raki, etc. and even tsipouro. Rakia production on the Balkans started in ancient times and practically every country on the Balkans widely considers rakia to be the respective country’s national drink. In its essence it is the same drink – grape or some other kind of fruit based brandy, which is produced according to the local customs, tradition, legal requirements and so on. The issue is that those local customs, traditions, legal requirements and even habits are so numerous and so different that at the end of the day there are so many different styles of the drink that there may be barely any similarity between the rakia produced by a certain producer in a particular region and another one produced by a different producers in a different region.
The many different kinds of fruit that may be used for the production of rakia as well as the large variety of styles (depending on region, tradition, producer, etc) make the world of rakia so large and boundless, so that it is very often difficult, even for the people familiar with this traditional for the Balkans drink, to find their way. At the same time it is exactly the variety of styles and diversity that predispose rakia to have such a huge potential. The fact that fruits are used as a basis make rakia so easy to combine with different kinds of food and use in various kinds of cocktails. Considering the matter through the perspective of cocktails, even using the same kind of rakia, for instance Williams pear, but one of a different style, combined with the other components, you will get to an entirely different end result.
The many different kinds of fruit that may be used for the production of rakia as well as the large variety of styles make the world of rakia so large
The two main kinds of fruits used for the production of rakia are grape and plum (blue plum, otherwise it is called differently depending on the exact kind of plums used). While grape is the main basic product for Bulgaria and Macedonia, plum dominates the Balkans overall by far as plum based rakia is also produced and consumed in Bulgaria and Macedonia and it generally either dominates or is a major part of the production in the rest of the Balkans. Even though plum and grape are the main basic products for the production of rakia, there are other ones which completely dominate certain regions and are also consumed elsewhere like for instance apricot (typical for the Northeast of Bulgaria as well as other parts of the Balkans), quince (typical for some regions of Serbia as well as other parts of the Balkans) and so on.
Thinking about styles there are many differences between the different regions and countries in terms of styles. It is difficult to summarize them all but in general here is what I can share based on my experience:
Rakia produced in Bulgaria and Macedonia is more about aroma and not so much about taste. Especially Bulgarian rakia is highly aromatic with the use of local grape varieties like Misket becoming more and more favored. Macedonia is also about highly aromatic rakias but spiciness is a major characteristic. At the same time though both Bulgarian and Macedonian rakias sometimes lack just a bit, sometimes more, in terms of balance between aroma and taste. Traditionally, Bulgarian and Macedonian rakias are also more fine and exquisite. Serbian rakia is generally better balanced between aroma and taste. It is also in general far richer and far more complex. One can generally say that Serbian rakia is more about taste and complexity than the Bulgarian and Macedonian products. The picture in Croatia is also quite complicated – the typical for Croatia is the use of many herbs in the production of rakia. Things in Croatia have changed a lot in the recent years. When it comes to Bosnian rakias, based on my experience we should make a difference between the Serbian (Republika Srpska), the Croatian (generally Herzegovina) and the Muslim (Federation) part of the country. Republika Srpska generally sticks to the Serbian style of rakia. The Herzegovian part is more to the Croatian styles while the Muslim (Federation) part is more about homemade grape based rakias.
Legal base / Requirements
The legal base for production of rakia is generally fairly relaxed. The basic requirements pretty much state that rakia must be produced from grape or other fruit and it is prohibited to add sweeteners such as sugar (or its substitutes) honey and so on to it, otherwise it may not be called rakia. It is a popular practice to add honey to different kinds of rakia and then the end product may not be called rakia, but Medovina, Medena, etc. instead depending on the country and local customs while such kinds of drinks are legally classified as liqueurs. Maceration of fruit in grain and other kinds of distillates is traditionally not typical for the Balkans. In recent years, however, there have been attempts to produce high quality drinks based on this methodology, but their success is very debatable. It is rather typical for certain regions of the Balkans to add all kinds of different, in many cases very strange, things such as certain kinds of candy and so on to homemade and especially grape based rakia.
There are also no legal requirements when it comes to grape varieties or the varieties of fruits that may be used for the production of rakia. The use of particular grape varieties or particular varieties of fruits is mainly driven by the respective traditions for the local region of production. In general, traditions play a major role in the production of rakia instead of legal requirements which is a system different from the ones applied in many Western European countries. When it comes to grape based rakia there are three kinds of it – rakia produced from the grape pomace (remaining skins and hard substance after the production of wine), which is basically quite similar to grappa; rakia produced from grape pomace and remaining grape juice; rakia produced from wine (quite similar to Cognac and Armagnac). In terms of aroma and taste characteristics as well as style, those three kinds differ substantially from each other. When it comes to rakia based on other kinds of fruit except for grape, such as plum, apricot, pear, etc., a major role plays the exact variety of the particular fruit used as well as the particular methodology of production which are, in turn, again very different and based most of all on the local traditions.
Methods/technology of production
Rakia is traditionally distilled in pot stills. There are no specific requirements and/or exact shapes for the pot stills to be used. The exact kind and shape of the still depend on each particular producer’s choice and the availability of technology. Continuous distillation in column stills is rarely practiced and even when that would be the case, like for instance in Vinprom Troyan (a Bulgarian producer), the systems used are very customized – designed and produced for the particular producer. In recent years it has become very popular among the producers to use pot stills with a short distillation column on top. Once again, it is very important to remember – when it comes to rakia, local tradition is the key!
Rakia is traditionally distilled in pot stills, but it is also very popular to add a short distillation column on top.
Currently, almost exclusively oak is used to mature rakia. In the past, especially in Bulgaria, mulberry and acacia wood were traditionally used for maturing rakia but this tradition is almost extinct and there is currently no producers work with these other kinds of wood. The kind of oak used, just like everything else with rakia, depends mostly on the local tradition and the availability of wood and craftsmen to produce barrels. Usually local wood, which is locally assembled, is used. Sometimes though, local wood assembled somewhere else (for instance France) and brought back to the producers is used. Nowadays, many producers are considering and even already trying to mature rakia in oak used beforehand for the maturation of bourbon, rum and so on. While not every kind of rakia is suitable for maturation in oak and, consequently, not every kind of rakia is traditionally matured in wood, it is widely considered that especially the kinds of rakia which are suitable and traditionally matured in oak, should be better and more complex when maturation has taken place. This assumption is generally correct but, once again, it is only true for kinds of rakia which are suitable for maturing in oak and it is also not always 100% the case. After all, keep in mind that williams pear, raspberry and apricot (limited potential) rakias are generally not matured in oak.
Currently, almost exclusively oak is used to mature rakia
Problems / Challenges
There are currently many problems or, as I like to call them, challenges preventing rakia from realizing its enormous potential on the global markets:
The first one is associated with the very high production cost compared to its main competitors. Since rakia is produced from fruit instead of grain, even if all other things are considered equal for its production, production costs are, of course, way higher than the ones for other competitive products on the market. Most of the genuine high quality rakia is produced by small producers which have either zero or very small marketing budgets. Under the current circumstances, many of the producers try to reduce costs in order to stay competitive on the market. In doing so, they apply various negative practices such as mixing rakia with grain distillate, increasing quantity by not separating properly the tails, adding aromas and so on.
When it comes to Bulgaria and Croatia specifically, the accession of the countries into the EU changed the customs laws and regulations completely and made the production of rakia, on one hand, very costly and, on the other hand, technically barely possible. As a result of that many families have been constantly giving up the tradition of producing high quality traditional homemade rakia. There is a massive lack of inheritance and the “craft” of producing rakia is disappearing.
While local people have a very positive attitude and are very open and fond of this excellent local traditional drink, it is also a fact that due to the lack of inheritances and good homemade rakia, combined with the bad practices of many of the producers, rakia also has a bad image in the people’s heads created over the last decade which fortunately has started to change in the last couple of years with the emergence of extremely high quality products on the market.
Another huge challenge for rakia is the trade situation within the EU. Rakia is produced by small countries in terms of number of inhabitants. Due to that fact much of the demand for particular products comes from abroad like for instance Serbian rakia in Bulgaria or Bulgarian rakia demand in Croatia and so on. In other words, there is a limited home market for the locally produced products in the respective countries. At the same time, selling the products to a direct customer across borders is practically impossible especially within the EU. Consequently, the administrative costs for selling rakia are also very high due to the legal requirements for sales across borders.
A very often asked question by the general public is what the difference between rakia and brandy is. In theory, there is no difference between the two. In practice, rakia is a fruit brandy which is based on local tradition and, unlike most of the brandies on the market in terms of style, it is usually not a digestive drink but a drink whose focus in terms of style is on pairing it with different kinds of food depending on the particular kind of rakia. Generally, the point is that with rakia the focus is not on sweetness on the palate, the aroma and the taste coming from the maturation but the aroma and the taste coming from the fruit instead plus the complexity built on top of that.
In Bulgaria rakiya is served with Shopska salad, milk salad, pickled vegetables (trushiya) or any other salads, which form the first course of the meal.
At the end of the day, there are two issues that are very important to remember about rakia. First of all, every different kind of rakia (grape, plum, apricot, etc.) is very specific and is suitable for a different kind of food, methods of maturation, etc. Second, it all depends on the local traditions.
In any case, when enjoying rakia you should keep in mind something very important – it is a drink, that typically for our region, predisposes towards good mood and is consumed in good company. That is the way we do it on the Balkans.
Choosing the most appropriate rakia for the ultimate experience depending on the circumstances (personal preferences, food coming with it, season of the year, etc.) is not an easy task at all. One should be very careful and trust experienced local people for the purpose.
Basically, there is an old saying that it is easy to produce rakia, but it is extremely difficult to produce high quality rakia. I would fully agree with this statement because producing an aromatic spirit based on fruits that is not aggressive (proper fermentation has taken place, heads and tails are properly separated and so on) is not so difficult. It is a matter of knowledge and/or experience, both of which we on the Balkans definitely have. It is extremely difficult, however, to produce a very well balanced from all aspects rakia, which has the complexity that one would expect from a fruit based spirit. On top of that comes the proper and good oak maturation in case the producer wants to go for it. At the end of the day, if everything has been done properly, the end result is a drink which everybody should admire due to its profound complexity and richness of aromas and taste.
In this article we discussed rakia produced on the Balkans which has no anise added to it. The Balkans also have products like the Turkish Raki (very often anise flavoured) and Tsipouro (occasionally anise flavoured) which are both based on grape distillates as well as Ouzo (nowadays based on grain distillates). Those would be the topic of another long article or discussion as they have their own specifics.
Svetlin Mirchev, Founder of the Rakia Shop in Sofia