Serbian producers will often be very mindful, judging whether the buyer will fully appreciate their brandy. If the buyer doesn’t seem keen enough, they will give them the famous answer, “I don’t even have any for medicinal purposes”.
Love is often expressed by baby talk. It is a certain indicator that someone or something evokes special emotions in you, for example “mamma’s little boy”. “Little bacon” and “little rakija” (brandy) are special categories of such expressions. This reveals the extraordinary passion for these gastronomic pleasures, which awaken the palate.
Hospitality is expressed by the question, “Shall we have a little brandy?”. Even though the count rarely stops at the one little brandy, this welcome could be put up on road signs, upon entry to almost all the countries in the Balkans. While the spirit is also served in Hungary (pálinka) and Romania (rachiu/răchie), Slavs refer to it as “žganje” (and have not been known to baby talk to it) and the Italian grapa is unparalleled, in this part of the world, brandy is given a special importance. Montenegrins refer to the first morning coffee as “the widow”, if it is unaccompanied by a loza (“vine”, grape brandy).
The word “rakija” (pronounced “rakya”) is Arabic in origin, from “a-raq”, loosely translated as “sweat”. It came to our part of the world together with the Turks, presumably in the 14th or 15th century.
It is common knowledge that it is produced by a single or double distillation of a mash produced by alcoholic fermentation of fruit, rye, potatoes… If it is produced from fruit with a somewhat lower percentage of sugar, such as apples, the mash is redistilled several times, to get the desired alcohol level and purity. Fermented apple mash is usually distilled three times, yielding a brandy with 45% alcohol.
So-called “soft” brandy is obtained after the first distillation, with a lower alcohol content. If the “soft” brandy is redistilled, you get a “double distilled” brandy. Sugar is occasionally added to accelerate fermentation, increasing the volume of the distilled product but reducing its quality. The person who dares to add sugar is considered a blasphemer!
Serbian plum brandy, “šljiva” could be a world-renowned brand, but unfortunately, it has yet to become one. A recent exhibition by Josif Vacić, the Curator at the Ethnographic Museum, entitled “Making and drinking brandy” showed just how far back the tradition of distilling this spirit goes. Visitors had an opportunity to see specially constructed stills for the distillation of this spirit, together with photos and other artefacts. Two different types of stills were in use in the 20th century. The first is the “farmer’s still”, manufactured by the farmers themselves or by handy men from villages, while the other was “lampek” or “engineered still” manufactured by craftsmen. The fire pit for the farmer’s still was built up from mud and earth and all parts were often built out of wood (except for the still itself, in which the fruit mash was boiled). In the south of Serbia, clay was used for manufacturing individual parts: tops, pipes, condensers and even the stills themselves. Nowadays, the Lampek is the only type of still used for distilling rakija at home.
When it comes to the true, home-made plum brandy, foreigners will pay quite a sum to get at least a bottle; with the spirit so deeply rooted in Serbian tradition, the producer, limited by the amount they have available, will be very mindful of who they sell it to, weighing if the buyer will fully appreciate their product. If it seems to the distiller that the buyer is not appreciative enough, they will give them the famous evasive line: “I don’t have any, even for medicinal purposes”.
And, truly, healing properties are assigned to rakija. What else could ever do a better job lowering a fever than rakija-soaked towels?
Distillation of rakija is a bit of a special event in every homestead. The process usually takes place in the autumn. All male members of the family, from old men to older boys, will gather around the still; they will be joined by neighbors, friends and relatives. The boys’ presence during the distillation process gives them a glimpse into the adult world, giving them a chance to lose their “fire water” virginity.
There can be no real celebration without rakija. When a child is born and people come to congratulate the family, a bottle of rakija is a mandatory offering, in addition to presents. When drinking the first shot, a toast is raised to the newborn and its parents. At weddings, the guest of honor offers other guests a flask of rakija to drink from. At the table, it is always served in glass shot-glasses. It is unavoidable even at funerals, where it is drunk “to rest the soul in peace”, with a small quantity spilled to the ground before drinking, addressed to the deceased.
And whenever you are enjoying a friendly conversation at the local pub and you really don’t want to part ways, when you really have something else you want to say, you say: “Go on, one more.”
By: Aleksandar Đuričić