The emblematic Bulgarian beverage
Historians disagree when exactly it appeared, and Balkan and other nations disagree on who makes it best. But in spite of its ability to ignite disputes, Rakiya remains one of the things that unite Bulgarians. There is hardly anyone able to imagine the beginning of a Bulgarian dinner without the cult – and rhetorical – question: "Will you have one small Rakiya?".
However, in Bulgaria the question is not only about a single small Rakiya. In this country, Rakiya is institution.
What is Rakiya? It is a high-alcoholic beverage produced in the distillation of fermented fruits or Dzhibri (the remains of grape pulp used in production of wine). These are distilled in the so-called Kazan, or cauldron, preferably made of copper.
The drink arrived in Bulgaria probably in the 14th century, when the Ottoman invasion brought the technology of alcohol distillation. In the next few centuries, Rakiya spread over the Bulgarian lands. It is believed that the inhabitants of the mountains first started making it, from wild fruit, and later the fashion spread in the plains, where people started brewing Rakiya from grapes, as they used to enjoy a plenty of vineyards. With the time Rakiya developed, taking an increasingly important place in the life of the Bulgarians. According to some researchers, the industrial production in the Troyan region began as early as the 18th century. Interestingly, while the region today is famed for its plum Rakiya, in those long-gone times the Troyan Rakiya was made of grapes. In the 19th century, Rakiya was already a fixed part of Bulgarian lifestyle: a number of foreign travellers passing through the region included it in their descriptions of the Bulgarian lands. We can also find it in the literature of the period: for example, the drinking of rose Rakiya is one of the memorable moments in the short novel Mamino Detentse, or A Mother's Darling, by Lyuben Karavelov.
After the restoration of Bulgarian independence in 1878, the country experienced a growing industrial production of Rakiya, and in the 20th century were developed types of the drink that people continue to associate with ultimate quality, like the Muskatova Rakiya.
Grape Rakiya is the most common in Bulgaria, but the spectrum of tastes is significantly wider. Rakiya can be made of all sort of fruit, which add their distinctive aroma: pear and quince, fig and cherry, apricot and plum, peach and even roses. There are, too, varieties with added herbs, nuts, anise.
Rakiya is cherished all over Bulgaria, but some regions have specific varieties: the plum Rakiya from Troyan, the apricot one from the Silistra region, or the fig Rakiya that due to the abundance of fig trees along the Black Sea coast is often made in the region.
Homemade produce of Rakiya is regulated, particularly after Bulgaria joined the EU, but today for thousands of Bulgarian families the distillation and consummation of such Rakiya remain a matter of honour and pride. The question of what, when and where will the this year's Rakiya be made keeps them busy from early in the year. Many use the Rakiya vintages as a sort of family calendar. When a child is born, for example, they tuck away a bottle of Rakiya made in the same year. They "dug" it out years later, for the wedding of the already grown-up child.
Some homemade Rakiyas are a true elixir. However, not all homemade Rakiyas are good Rakiyas. Too many things could go wrong during the production process, particularly if the person making the drink wants the highest possible alcoholic content in the final product and is not interested in the quality and the taste. It the country are sold, usually on draft, Rakiyas that claim to be homemade, but are actually made by an unregistered producer. Drinking such alcohol can severely damage your health and should be avoided.
The safest way to have a good impression from Bulgarian Rakiya, without suffering from a headache (or worse) in the morning, is industrially made Rakiya. The sector has serious traditions and stands behind innovations like loved and recognised types of the drink like Muskatova Rakiya and Slivenska Perla. After 1878, mass-production was in the hands of entrepreneurs, but after the establishment of Communism, production of Rakiya became a state monopoly. Today the sector is again a private initiative.
Control in specialised factories is guaranteed, and some of the brands have made names as the best on the market, prompting a stable interest among connoisseurs. Something more: the most ambitious producers invest in special series and types of Rakiya, which age for years and develop amazing tastes.
Industrial Rakiyas are also a guaranteed way to try something more exotic, without the need to travel to the particular region where the particular type of Rakiya is usually produced. For example, while you are in Sofia, you can enjoy a glass of fragrant Rakiya of apricot, quince or even cherry, made in Isperih, in the north-east. The maturation of industrial Rakiya is also guaranteed: if the label says that the bottle's content has aged for particular number of years, then this is true. Such information should always be doubted with the "homemade" Rakiyas of unregistered producers.
Throughout the centuries, Bulgarians have established a tradition of Rakiya drinking. Usually, the beverage has to be well cooled (some restaurants have the unnerving habit of serving it warm and to offer ice) as an aperitif with a salad, pickles, appetisers. Classier Rakiyas, however, can be enjoyed as digestif, like Cognac or Armagnac.
In the cold winter days there is another way to enjoy it: the heated Rakiya with caramelised sugar or honey. It is not only delicious, but also – they say – heals flu.
Bulgaria, of course, is not the only country producing distilled alcohol from fermented fruit or pulp, and thinking about it as a part of its national culture. Diverse types of the drink are made in Bulgaria's neighbours: in Serbia and the Western Balkans where the main variety is of plum, in Greece with its grape Tsipouro and Romania with the plum Țuică. Rakiya's relatives are also a wide selection of beverages, like the Italian Grappa, the French Eau de vie and Calvados, and some of the drinks called Schnapps in the German-speaking world.
The only way to discover the individuality and charm of Bulgarian Rakiya is to try it, of course, with pleasure and measure. As all masterpieces of the art of good living, Rakiya deserves deference.