Every spring, a competition is staged in the village to determine the best homemade rakiya in the region.
Comparisons of rakiya and other spirits are nothing new in Bulgaria – one such competition takes place annually in Sofia – but those contests consider alcoholic drinks mass-produced by established wineries and corporations. The event in the village, on the other hand, is open to residents of the area who make rakiya in their bathrooms, garages, and cellars. This competition attracts little fanfare and winning is solely a matter of local pride.
"To your health!" Vasil replies, lifting his shot glass to toast his cousin. He stares into Georgi's dark eyes for several seconds and says to him, "Thank you for driving down from Plovdiv."
"You thought I wouldn't come?" Georgi takes down his drink in a single gulp. "I wouldn't miss this for the world. After all, you will be the winner tomorrow. And this is what is going to win," he says, pointing to the clear glass bottle on the table.
"Another! We're just getting started!" Georgi shakes ash off his cigarette and hands his glass to Vasil for a refill.
Vasil laughs, knowing they will soon move on to more serious drinking. He holds the bottle aloft to stare with admiration at the homemade spirit. Perfection, he thinks as the alcohol warms him from within.
Vasil has been making rakiya ever since he was a teenager, when he learned the craft from his father. Vasil's drink is not only strong enough to make your head spin but it also has a pleasant, but not overbearing fruity aftertaste. Made from the finest mountain grapes, Vasil's rakiya is aromatic; its color is golden and appealing. A powerful rakiya, ten times better than anything you could buy in a supermarket, but is it good enough to win?
"You and your drinking!" Vasil's wife complains as she sets down a spread of fresh salads and a loaf of homemade bread. There will be a pork and vegetable gyuvech served in a heavy earthenware pot for the main course. "Georgi, the only reason you come to visit us is to drink with Vasil!"
"The real reason I come is to see you, dear Petya!" Georgi replies, winking at her. "You're getting more beautiful by the year!"
"Sit down and join us," Vasil says to his wife.
"I better go see where Tomas is. Your son is no doubt playing his computer games again."
"Your father would be pleased of your success," Georgi says after Petya returns to the kitchen. "Look at what you've done in the carpentry shop! You've become a master of woodwork, just like him. Everyone says so!"
"Who is everyone?" Vasil asks, but he admits that what his cousin says is not far from the truth. Vasil has made a name for himself and his skills are in high demand. "I have no shortage of work," he says, acknowledging his cousin's compliment.
"And your rakiya. Uncle Kalin would be proud of that as well."
"You mean, my father's rakiya. It's his recipe after all." Vasil has followed his father's instructions to the letter – a family secret handed down from generation to generation.
"Well, whether it's your rakiya, or Uncle Kalin's rakiya, it is worthy of winning. Tell me how you make it." It is not the first time Georgi has made this request.
"If I told you, I would have to kill you," Vasil teases. But this is not a joking matter. The competition is a serious event.
"Your secret will accompany you to the grave! Unless you teach it to Tomas."
"Oh, I will one day. He may know a lot about computers but he's still too young to handle alcohol. Enough about rakiya for the night. Tell me about that girl you've started dating. A real looker, I've heard!"
Vasil has been participating in the village competition for several years and although he has never previously won, he believes he has a good chance this time. Vasil will again face strong competition. Thinking about Bogdan, whose family lives just up the hill, makes Vasil sick to his stomach.
Bogdan has cheated in the past – of this Vasil is certain. His neighbor has stacked the odds in his favor by presenting industrially produced rakiya as his own. Or possibly he has bribed the judges. He must have done something! Bogdan is not an honest man but this year Vasil will show him. This time his rakiya will win!
In Bulgaria, grape and plum rakiyas are the most common varieties but Bulgarians make the stiff drink out of whatever fruit is readily available and cheap. Vasil will be competing against rakiyas based on apples, pears, peaches, apricots, and cherries. But whereas Vasil handpicks grapes in his family's vineyard, many of his competitors buy their fruit in the market. Whereas Vasil mashes his grapes with his feet, the old-fashioned way, many of the others use machines. The process demands patience.
It is in the shed behind his house that Vasil works his magic. Within the shed he carefully measures the sugar content and stirs his fermenting grape mash daily. As he works, he swats away swarms of fruit flies. He smiles as he heats up the copper kazan boiler – a family heirloom. He distills the rakiya twice, adding just the right amount of distilled water to give the finished drink a potent 90 proof, before ageing it in oak barrels. He will teach this hands-on traditional method to Tomas one day.
Occasionally Petya complains about the strong odors that permeate the house. And that he devotes more attention to his rakiya than to caring for his son. Vasil dismisses her concerns with a shrug. Still, this is much more than a hobby for him.
Vasil has tasted Bogdan's rakiya at previous competitions. It is far inferior, he believes. Bogdan has won in the past and the only way that is possible is by cheating.
Long ago, Vasil and Bogdan were the best of friends. Their families had lived side by side for generations but more than that, Kalin employed Bogdan's father in the carpentry shop. And, Bogdan's father helped out at harvest time. When Kalin determined that the ripeness of his grapes was just right – as measured by their sugar, acid and tannin levels – Bogdan's father would join him in the vineyard on cool, crisp September mornings. Vasil and Bogdan would help as well, glad to miss school during the harvest season.
"Work carefully!" Vasil's father demanded. "This is not a competition!"
But for the two boys, it was. They competed to see who would clip the most bunches of grapes, who would fill his crate faster. Which of them would finish the day and still be fit for a race up the mountainside.
"I am the fastest!" Vasil cried as he struggled to outpace his friend.
"No, I'm faster than you!" Bogdan shouted.
"We're both fast!" Vasil admitted as he stopped to catch his breath. "We are equals. We have always been equals."
Kalin sat on his tractor and shook his head. There was no stopping them, he thought, convinced their friendship would last a lifetime.
Most of the grapes harvested in the family vineyard were delivered to a nearby winery but Kalin kept a small portion for personal use. Homemade wine was frequently on the family's dinner table; he only took out his prized rakiya when guests joined them.
And then one day, Vasil awoke to the sound of shouting. Vasil stared out the window to see his father in the midst of a heated argument with Bogdan's father.
"You ebi si maykata!" Vasil had never heard his father swear like this before. The only time he had heard this particular curse was when he witnessed a brawl at school.
"What was that all about?" he asked when Kalin stormed into the house, his face red and his eyes large.
"He stole grapes! He's been stealing all along! That ebi si maykata!"
"Calm down!" Vasil's mother pleaded, but her husband had already taken out a bottle of rakiya and poured himself a large glass. Kalin looked mad enough to kill his employee.
"What's going on?" Vasil asked.
"We've suspected this for some time," his mother told him. "The man's been stashing grapes and selling them on the sly to the collective in Perushtitsa."
"He would never steal from us," Vasil protested, but apparently this was indeed the case.
"That man is persona non grata, not only in my carpentry shop and our vineyard, but in our home as well" Kalin said, fuming. "He is a cheat, a thief. His boy will end up a thief as well. Mark my words! You are never to see that boy again!"
Bogdan had once been his best friend, Vasil recalls as he sits across the table from Georgi, but apparently his father's warning has come true. What other explanation was there for Bogdan's success in the competition, year after year?
"One more toast for medicinal purposes?"
"One more." Vasil puts aside his memories, pours the drinks, and looks deeply into his cousin's eyes. "Nazdrave!" he says.
"Uspeh!" Georgi replies, wishing him 'Success!'
Thankful for Georgi's support, Vasil is determined to win. He leans back and swallows.
A council of elders serves as the competition's jury. The elders gather in a tavern for an all-night affair. One by one they sample the competing drinks, cleaning their palates with cold meats and cheeses in between. Despite the heavy drinking, their minds remain clear and focused. At the end of the night, three finalists will be announced, one of them to be selected as the overall winner. The best homemade rakiya in the region.
Determining which rakiya is the winner is of course a subjective affair. The drink is judged on three main factors – its color, its aroma, and the fruitiness of its taste. The fact that all types of rakiya have a high alcoholic content is a given.
"Which one is yours?" Georgi says. He stands with Vasil at the back of the tavern. The room is crowded; the air is thick with tobacco fumes and the smell of spilled beer. The blare of folk songs over the loudspeakers makes conversation difficult. Someone passes a platter of cured sausages and Georgi helps himself to a few before handing the dish to Vasil.
"I'm number seven, but I can't tell which is mine from here," Vasil replies.
"Why are you so convinced Bogdan has cheated?"
Vasil spots his archenemy across the room. Bogdan is sitting calmly at one of the wooden tables, smoking, joking with friends. He doesn't seem to have a care in the world, Vasil thinks, and that's because he probably arranged in advance to win the competition.
"He is not an honest man," is the only thing Vasil says to his cousin.
Vasil knows the elders judging the competition. How could he not? The village is so small that everyone knows everyone – their family histories, their love lives, and their financial woes. One of the elders is a regular customer at the carpentry shop – recently Vasil refurnished his dining room chairs. The second man has been a recluse ever since his wife died a few years back. The third judge is Ivan, a huge mountain of a man known for his heavy drinking. Said to consume three bottles of vodka by himself at a single meal, Ivan must have a liver made of steel, Vasil thinks. The man certainly knows his liquor and rakiya in particular.
According to talk in the village, Ivan could sniff, sip, and slurp a rakiya and tell you in what region of Bulgaria it had been produced. Some claimed that Ivan could also determine the year of the harvest and how long the rakiya had been aged. Yet, Vasil doubts that this so-called connoisseur is nothing more than a charlatan who likes to drink.
Still, he believes Ivan and the two other men on the panel to be honest men. Vasil can't imagine any of them taking a bribe. The drinks are presented anonymously for them to sample, with no identifying factors, so Vasil rules out the possibility of a bribe. What has Bogdan done to gain an edge over his competitors?
"The elders are ready," the owner of the tavern announces well after midnight. Wooden chairs scrape on the floor until everyone faces the front and the room falls silent. The owner turns to Ivan and the huge man rises slowly from his seat.
"We have been presented with the finest rakiya in the region," Ivan begins. "We have tasted the drinks and we will now pass judgment."
Standing before the crowd appears to be too much of an effort for the large man and he is helped back to his seat. Once Ivan is settled, another member of the panel continues with the announcement.
"All the rakiyas we tasted tonight merit our recognition," the elder says, "but three drinks stand above the rest." He pauses, building up the suspense. "The third best rakiya we sampled is the plum-based submission of contestant number 16!"
A lanky man wearing stained work clothes stands to a round of applause. Vasil recognizes him as a resident of a village near Plovdiv. The man steps forth and receives a small certificate from the judges.
"As for the best rakiya, this year we faced a unique challenge. The two best drinks, in our humble opinion, both have a perfect balance between taste and fragrance. They are pleasing, their effect lingers in our mouths. These drinks were clearly made with particular attention to every step of the fruit's growth and to distillation techniques. Only a professional is capable of mastering such a process. And in this case, we are talking about two professionals."
"This is taking a long time!" Georgi whispers.
"This year we made an unusual decision," the elder says, and Ivan shakes his head to confirm this. "The two finalists are equally worthy of the award. Contestants 7 and 23 are joint winners of the competition!"
"Congratulations!" Georgi says, punching Vasil's shoulder.
Open-mouthed as his success begins to sink in, Vasil steps forward to receive his certificate. To his surprise, he finds Bogdan standing at his side. The judges confirm that Bogdan is the other winning contestant. Bogdan turns to Vasil and smiles.
"It's you!" is all that Vasil can say.
"Yes, it's me," Bogdan replies. "What's wrong with that?"
"I am the fastest!" "No, I'm faster than you!"
Vasil is speechless, stunned by having to face Bogdan. They haven't spoken in years. He ignores the growing applause and steps back, not sure whether to strike out or flee from the tavern.
"We are both winners," Bogdan says, keeping his voice low so that only Vasil can hear. "We were once the best of friends. Why should we compete against each other, year after year, all our lives?"
"But you cheated!"
"I have never cheated, Vasil. I may have copied your procedures but I will never know your secrets. I have admired you and your rakiya, and in my opinion, it is far superior to anything I could ever produce. Vasil, I have looked up to you ever since we were boys. You have always served as my role model. You have provided me with inspiration and I only wanted my rakiya to be as good as yours."
"You won last year! And the year before!"
Bogdan shrugs his shoulders. "Luck, I guess. Who am I to know one rakiya from the next? If you so strongly object to sharing first prize with me, I will forego winning it. You deserve this recognition much more than me."
Bogdan's words flood him with memories of a much simpler time, of racing through the vineyard together. Laughing, joking, and competing to see who could pick more grapes.
"We are equals. We have always been equals." How could he have held a grudge all these years?
"We were once friends," he admits to Bogdan while the elders wait patiently to present the winners with their certificates. "The best of friends."
"The best. And your rakiya, Vasil, is definitely the best."
"Take your prize!" someone shouts.
Vasil looks into the audience and sees Georgi whistling his approval. He turns to find Bogdan clapping to acknowledge Vasil's success. After a moment, Vasil starts clapping as well, bowing his head to Bogdan.
"We are truly equals," he says.
The judges hand them their certificates and then pour small drinks for themselves and for the winners.
Ivan rises slowly to his feet and holds his small glass up high. He makes eye contact with Vasil, and then with Bogdan, and then faces the crowded tavern.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He lived in Sofia for two years (2009-2010) and his Bulgarian experiences and travel have inspired much of his writing. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. He lives in a small community near Jerusalem.