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 combined 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 translated into Latin letters like 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 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, tradition, legal requirements and even habits are so many 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 producers 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 spanless, 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 those variety of styles and diversity that predispose for the 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 a totally different end result.
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 from my point of view many differences between the different regions and countries in terms of styles. It is hard 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 lacks sometimes just a bit, sometimes more in terms of a 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 side is the use of many herbs in the production of rakia. Basically the picture in Croatia has 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), Croatian (generally Herzegovina) and 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 quite relaxed. The only requirements pretty much are that rakia must be produced from grape or fruit and it is prohibited to add sweeteners like sugar (or its substitutes) honey and so on to it, otherwise it may not be called rakia. It is popular practice to add honey to different kinds of rakia, but then the end product may not be called rakia, but Medovina, Medena, etc 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 there have been attempts to produces high quality drinks based on this methodology, but the success is very arguable. It is quite typical for certain regions of the Balkans to add all kinds of different, in many cases very strange things like certain kinds of bonbons and so on to homemade and especially grape based rakia.
There are also no legal requirements when it comes to grape varieties or sorts of fruits that may be used for the production of rakia. The use of particular grape varieties or special sorts 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 armagnac). In terms of aroma and taste characteristics, as well as style those three kinds differ of course substantially from each other. When it comes to rakia based on other kinds of fruit except for grape, like plum, apricot, pear, etc a major role play the exact sort of the particular fruit used as well as the concrete methodology of production and they in term are again very different very local and based most 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 basically on each particular producer choice and availability of technology. Continuous distillation in column stills is rarely practiced and even when that would be the case, like for instance in Vinprom Troian, the systems used are quite specific and 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!
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 has almost extinguished and there is currently no experience to work with that kinds of wood. The kind of oak used, just like anything else depends mostly on the local tradition and the availability of wood and craftsman 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 before that for 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 in general 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, apricot (limited potential) are generally not matured in oak.
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 produces from fruit instead of grain, und all other things equal its productions 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. Doing so they apply various practices like mixing 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 entry of those 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 the local people have a very good attitude and they 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 some bad image in the people’s heads created over the last decade which fortunately has started to change of 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 by number of inhabitants. Due to that fact much of the demand for particular products comes from abroad like for instances Serbian rakia in Bulgaria or Bulgarian 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 both. 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 combination 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 and aroma and taste coming from the maturation, but aroma and taste coming from the fruit and complexity built on top of that basis.
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 it is suitable for a different kind of food, methods of maturation etc. Second, it all depends on the local traditions.
In any case, 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 which 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 though 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 though the topic of another long article or discussion as they have their own specifics.
This is a minor summary of the topic of rakia with all of its specifics across the different regions and countries.
All that you have read above is my personal point of view which reflects my own long experience based on the passion I have for rakia. In no way would I like to impose my point of view on anybody else especially since rakia is such a topic of heated debate and also a slightly political issue between the countries and peoples.
A lot of articles regarding rakia are also available on our website www.rakiashop.eu, some of them currently only in Bulgarian.