Rakija (or rakia) is notorious amongst the Balkan backpacker crowd and many an unsuspecting traveller has fallen victim to this intoxicating local spirit. I have said before that I think one of the best ways to get to know a culture is through its food, but I think I need to amend that statement. Another great way to get to know a culture is through its drink! Europe is no stranger to regional alcoholic drinks: Italy has grappa, Hungary has palinka, and the Balkans have rakija. Potent rakija, Balkan hospitality in liquid form!
Rakija is a kind of fruit brandy native to the Balkan peninsula and you will be hard pressed to escape the region without at least being offered the beverage. You will find it on every drinks menu, bottles line the shelves in supermarkets and liquor stores, and most everyone has a family member who makes it himself. The most popular variation of the brandy is slivovica, or plum rakija, but it is common to find it made from everything from grape, apricot, quince, and fig.
Drinking rakija in the Balkans is surrounded by ritual. For instance, it is customary at a wedding for the groom’s father to go around to all of the guests and offer them a shot of rakija. It is also traditional to offer it to any guest in your home, which is why, if you will be staying at a locally owned hostel, guesthouse, or B&B, you will not be able to avoid it! Michael had a hostel worker chase him around insisting he have his welcome shot at 10 AM when he checked in. I had to politely decline when I essentially had it forced on me when I had a cold, told that because it was infused with honey it was “medicine.”
But there is a protocol to follow when drinking rakija, and I have written this article to help you from making the same mistakes many travellers do when first encountering the intoxicating liquid!
Step One: Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact!
The citizens of the Balkans have a superstition about making eye contact when first toasting, and they are very serious about it. It is considered to be bad luck to break eye contact while taking the first drink. When you are offered a shot, clink glasses as is customary and say “živeli” (zhee-ve-lee, cheers in the former Yugoslav republics) and make sure you are looking your drinking mate in the eye! Maintain eye contact until you have taken the first drink! And the brings us to…
Step Two: You are not doing shots!
I know, I know, the rakija was served in a very small glass and you could quite easily down it in one go. Many people before you have made this mistake as well and it’s not until later that they learn that rakija is meant to be sipped and savoured, not down like a tequila shot at a hen do. The first sip is meant to be taken slowly. It generally has quite a high alcohol content, so it is altogether more wise to pace yourself while drinking, anyhow. A glass of rakija should be enjoyed in 2 – 3 sips. And finally, that brings us to…
Step Three: Repeat!
Because let’s face it: you’re in the Balkans and you can’t find rakija anywhere else! You’ve gotta savour what you have while you have it! Živeli!
Craving rakija but can’t make it to the Balkans? Click here to buy a bottle of rakija online!
Have any of you tried rakija? What did you think? Let us know in comments!