Rakiya is an indispensable part of life in this country. Consume it responsibly and with pleasure
The eyes of the Frenchman in the company that is sitting in a popular Sofia restaurant become round from surprise. The Bulgarians he is sharing the table with one after another order a strange drink as an aperitif.
"You want to start with something like Calvados?," asks he, astonished, when the explanations are finally over. "But such drinks are digestifs!"
"No, here they are not," answers the table and starts laughing, because the Frenchman's astonishment is on the verge of turning into an outrage.
Then the first plates of Shopska salad arrive and the Frenchman's ire subsides.
Many nations and cultures have specific high alcoholic drinks of distilled fruit. Besides the Calvados made of apple cider, France also makes Eau de vie. There is Grappa in Italy, and drinks like Pálinka in Central Europe, while in Germany they have Schnapps. Bulgaria falls in the area of Rakiya – a drink known and beloved all over the Balkans, although under different names, from Romania to Greece and Turkey.
The principles of production of this type of high alcoholic beverages are common, but each nation and even some regions have their own specificities and traditions. Bulgaria is not an exception. Here Rakiya is consumed during meal, with the starters, accompanied by a salad, pickles or another appetiser. The aim of this combination is to stimulate the appetite, to ease the conversation and to create a sense of community among the diners. It is hardly a coincidence that the drink has become one of the Bulgarian symbols for hospitality and friendship. This is also evident in expressions such as "they have their Rakiya together," meaning "they are close acquaintances," and "let's sit, let's have a Rakiya and let's get over it," meaning "let's solve this problem amicably."
Rakiya should be well cooled when served. There is one time when it should be hot – when it is mulled with honey, as a remedy against winter cold. This is the only time when it is not drank as an aperitif, but depending on the situation.
Nobody knows since exactly when do Bulgarians drink Rakiya. According to some, this might have happened as early as the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, in the 13th-14th centuries. More probably, however, technology of alcohol distillation, which is an Arab discovery, was introduced to the Bulgarians after the Ottoman invasion.
In the following centuries the innovation gradually began to win over the hearts of the Bulgarians and to evolve, becoming a local tradition. Bulgarian lands proved to be fertile ground for such transformation. In them grow abundant fruits and vines, the result of the region's century-old viticulture traditions. According to historians, the inhabitants of mountainous regions started distilling Rakiya first. In support of this idea can be cited the fact that in the 18th century it was in such a region, Troyan in the Stara Planina mountain, where large-scale production of Rakiya commenced in Bulgaria. That was Troyanska Slivova Rakiya, made of plums, which to this day is beloved by connoisseurs. Gradually, production of Rakiya reached the plains where there was an abundance of proper ingredients: grapes. This is probably why even today Grozdova, or grape, Rakiya is the most widespread variety of the beverage in Bulgaria. For comparison, in neighbouring Serbia plum Rakiya dominates.
In the 19th century Rakiya was already an established part of the Bulgarian life. We can even find it, mentioned in passing, in texts of classical Bulgarian literature. In this period already existed two interesting, but still largely unknown regional Rakiyas: aniseed Rakiya from Karlovo, made of grapes and with aniseeds added during distillation, and Rakiya from oil-bearing rose, typical for Kazanlak and Karlovo.
Industrial production of Rakiya started after the restoration of the Bulgarian state in 1878. Then were developed also specific varieties such as Muskatova Rakiya from the dessert grape Muscat Ottonel.
Rakiya is made of fermented fruit or wine, which are distilled under specific conditions. The result is a clear liquid. The drink gets its distinctive colour – ranging from pale yellow to amber – during maturation. In homemade ones this happens with putting a splinter of mulberry or oak wood in the bottle. In industrial ones it is achieved with maturation in oak or mulberry barrels.
The alcoholic content of Rakiya varies. According to the Bulgarian State Standard, a Rakiya should be at least 36º. Industrial varieties are around 40º. Homemade Rakiyas are stronger, with alcoholic contents at around 60º.
Usually Rakiya is distilled only once. Connoisseurs and industrial producers of high quality Rakiya can distil it two or three times.
Due to its prominence in Bulgarian culture, Rakiya has a halo of something special, authentic, traditional. This is so, but one of the side effects is overstating the qualities of homemade Rakiya. In the country there is hardly a large village without a distillery everyone can use. For many families it is a matter of honour to make their own drink, to give it to guests and to boast with its qualities.
Sadly, most of the people who make their own Rakiya are hardly connoisseurs. For many of them the alcoholic content is more important than the taste and the quality of the drink. As a result, drinking such Rakiya can have dire consequences. Heavy headache on the morning after is the most innocent of those.
The only way to be sure that the Rakiya in our glass was made in accordance with all the rules, and that after reasonable consummation it will leave only pleasant memories, is to drink only industrial spirits by proven producers.
In the past few years, the Bulgarian Rakiya scene has gotten more diverse. It experiments and is on the search of a new face.
How does Bulgarian Rakiya look like at the moment?
Grape Rakiya continues to dominate the tastes, while Troyanska Slivova has a cult status. Some producers expanded their variety of tastes. Besides well-known and beloved, but still exotic, varieties such as Rakiya from apricot, quince and figs, today are also available varieties of apples, pears, cherries.
Consumers are not indifferent to these changes and boldly search for their next favourite flavour. Some bars even offer cocktails with Rakiya.
The question if Bulgarians will accept the idea of having Rakiya as a digestif remains open. Some producers create special high class Rakiyas designed to be consumed after eating. Will this radical change become a part of the everyday life or will it remain something exotic for the few initiated ones? As so many times in the long history of Bulgarian Rakiya, this is a question that only time can answer.