When I moved to Albania, I had never heard of rakia. Soon I became quite knowledgeable about this popular Balkan beverage.
What Is Rakia?
Rakia is a fruit spirit that is popular in the Balkans. It is so popular, in fact, that in many Balkan countries it is considered to be the national drink. (The Balkans include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. Some parts of Greece and Italy are also considered to be part of the Balkan region.)
Rakia is made by distilling fermented fruit. It can be made from almost any fruit, but since I've lived in Albania I've usually been offered honey and walnut varieties. Friends, it is some powerful stuff! A common type of local rakia made with honey, called medica, has an alcohol content that ranges from 45 to 65 percent.
My First Encounter With Rakia
When I moved to Albania, I had never heard of rakia before. Ouzo? Yes. Rakia? No. On my first morning, I went to a local cafe a few blocks from my apartment. I ordered a coffee, and when it arrived it was served with a small metal glass containing a clear liquid.
Hey, I was a foreigner, and I wanted to do what the locals do . . . so I drank the liquid down. My gosh, I was shocked to realize it was alcohol! Who would have thought alcohol would be served in the early morning hours? I can't even tell you what it tasted like because I felt like my body was instantly on fire down to my toes. Welcome to the Balkans!
As I spent more time in Albania, I learned much more about rakia.
- It's a cultural treasure. Rakia is not just alcohol; it's a cherished part of the national culture in the Balkans. You are drinking a time-honored tradition with each swallow.
- Homemade is best. Homemade rakia is what the locals drink; according to them, store-bought rakia is far lower quality. Even in cafes, taverns, and restaurants, you are probably being served someone's home-brew.
- It's an all-day beverage. Rakia is drunk from the start of the day until the end of it.
- It's enjoyed by all ages. It is drunk by young and old alike!
- It's used medicinally. If you have a cold, a stomachache, a sore tooth, Covid, or any ailment for that matter, you'll be told by the locals to drink rakia. I was given a couple of bottles with instructions to drink some each morning with my coffee; it was explained to me that drinking it daily would keep me healthy.
- The name is used generically. Although rakia can be made from many different fruits, and although each variety has its own name, traditionally they are all called rakia. When you order rakia or are offered one, you will be told simply that it's rakia. This is true unless you specifically ask what fruit it has been made from or you specifically request a certain variety.
Social Norms: Dos and Don'ts of Rakia
- Don't ever turn down rakia when it is offered to you. This will insult your host, whether it be a restauranteur, a friend, or your landlord. it is a symbol of friendship and communication. It's a cherished national tradition.
- Don't compare rakia to any other alcohol. This beverage holds a very special position in Balkan culture, and no other alcohol can compare!
- Don't drink rakia on an empty stomach or if you are overly full.
- Do drink rakia straight up. Don't mix it with soda or any other mixer.
- Do pay attention to how it is served. If it is served by itself, drink it straight down in one shot and toast in the language of whatever country you are in. However, if it is served with beer, water, or any other beverage, you should sip it.
Making Rakia in an Albanian Village
How to Make Rakia
The process of making this traditional drink is centuries old.
- The fruit (the marc) is fermented in a barrel for a month or more.
- After the fruit has fermented, it is boiled in a special kettle called a kazani. The kazani has three basic parts: the pot, the lid, and a pipe that is used to transfer the steam. The kettle is placed over an open fire. Fire is a critical part of the process of making this beverage, and the fire cannot be too strong or too low. The heat of the fire is important so that the pomace is not burned.
- Once the liquid reaches the boiling point, drops begin to come from the vaporizer. These first drops are almost pure alcohol. A good temperature to maintain while brewing is about 20°C.
- During the distillation process, three distinct liquids are produced: the head, the heart, and the tail. I discuss these three terms below.
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The Head, the Heart, and the Tail
As the product distills, there are three parts that are distinctly different.
- Head: This is the first liquid that is produced. It has a very high alcohol concentration.
- Tail: This does not have quite as much alcohol concentration as the head, but it has a strong taste and aroma.
- Heart: This is the only part intended for consumption. It is thinned, matured, and bottled.
The head and tail are used in the next batch of rakia, much like a starter.
Once the distillation process has begun, the process takes about three hours. The distiller gets the perk of tasting the product during the cooking period. It is complete when the desired taste has been achieved.
It's important to note that while rakia is enjoyed as a national drink in the Balkan countries, it's also found in other countries. Also, each country, even within the Balkans, has its own specialty.
As I mentioned above, this beverage is very strong. While I know many people who have made a night out drinking rakia, my experiences have been much more sedate. When I am offered a glass, I accept and drink it. But I never could get used to drinking it every morning with my coffee. God knows I try to adopt the local customs, but this was one tradition I couldn't manage!
I have tasted some rakia that I really enjoyed—that was smooth and had no "burn." At the same time, I've had other varieties that were much stronger and harsher. It depends on the brew, the fruit, and the individual distiller's preferences.
How About You?
One of the joys of traveling is being exposed to new and different things. Some experiences you will bring home with you because you enjoyed them so much, whereas you may look back at other experiences and say, "I tried it, but it wasn't for me." And you know what? That's perfectly ok! It was like that for me. I tried rakia, and I will drink it in certain situations, but it's really not my cup of tea. However, I am happy to have learned so much about this important national tradition.
Learn More About Rakia
- A Brief History of Rakia, Bulgaria's National Drink - Culture Trip
Discover the history of rakia before you taste this strong Bulgarian alcohol for the first time.
- The Balkan Spirit Having a Revolution - BBC Travel
With a new generation of drinkers coming of age – who are less affected by the Balkan wars of the ‘90s – Serbia’s traditional fruit brandy is making a comeback.
- How to Drink Rakia the Balkan Way - The Balkans and Beyond
Rakia is the most popular and beloved drink in the Balkans. But how do you drink it and what on earth do they put in that stuff!?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin