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The Rakia Story

No matter how short your stay in Bulgaria, you will soon become acquainted with its national tipple, Rakia. It is a drink similar to Austria’s Schnapps or Italian Grappa, a kind of fruit brandy made from fermented fruits, which are distilled to alcohol levels often in excess of 40%, in fact home-made Rakia usually has an alcohol content of around 50 to 60 percent! Rakia is not only popular in Bulgaria but variations of it are drunk throughout the Balkans.

The Urban Dictionary defines Rakia as follows:
“Extremely strong alcoholic drink made by Bulgarians FOR Bulgarians. One shot is enough to raise your forehead temperature several times. Known side effects: You may start to sing,you can't find your way home, it's possible you may forget your name and/or get lost in your own home,if you drink more than 1 liter you may collapse. The Bulgarian term for this condition is "Pian na svinia", meaning drunk like a pig."

Rakia Production

Whilst Rakia can be made from a wide variety of fruits, the most popular flavours are made from plums and grapes. Many locals also make Rakia from the windfalls from their fruit trees and in villages Rakia made from apples, apricots, figs and pears or a combination of these are not uncommon. Rakia is often stored in plastic or metal barrels; the fruit is added along with water and sugar. Once they have fermented, the liquid is heated over a low flame, but legally this must be done a registered distillery. Rakia is usually colourless, although some home-made versions are yellow in colour sometimes because they contain honey or herbs. Rakia kept in oak barrels are also golden in colour.
Every Bulgarian will claim that home- produced Rakia in Bulgaria is of far better quality than factory-produced Rakia. Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Bulgarians have been penalized for their excessive Rakia consumption; the Bulgarian government proposed to tax home-made spirits in line with those taxes in other member states, the net result was massive protests with many people capitalizing on the lack of organization within Bulgarian government institutions and refusing to pay.

Rakia Etiquette

When invited to drink Rakia it will be served in small glasses holding around 0.3 to 0.5 dl. It is usually served with a salad – with Shopska being the most popular. When you receive your glass of Rakia, your host will no doubt tell you that it is the best in the region and will be enthusiastic about you tasting it. Raise your glass to clink it with your hosts, look him in the eye and say, “Nazdrave,” which means cheers. Repeat this with everyone around the table and expect to perform this ritual several times – it is considered most impolite to just drink without a toast although you will not be expected to do this with every sip. In summer Rakia is consumed ice cold, which is unusual for Bulgarians who generally steer clear of cold drinks, believing them to be unhealthy, however in winter Rakia is often warmed like a mulled wine and mixed with honey.
If you are not a hardened spirits drinker, then the initial fiery taste in your mouth will have you gasping for air! The secret with Rakia is to sip very small amounts and if you hate the drink but want to appear polite, just wet your lips without swallowing a drop – as everyone else drinks more and more, no-one will notice that you your glass has been emptied into the nearest plant pot.

Rakia Myths and Customs

Some say that you can tell the strength or proof of a good Rakia when you shake the bottle; if there is a large ring of bubbles then the Rakia is said to be of good strong quality. The factis that even foul tasting Rakia will for a ring of bubbles!
Rakia also plays an important role at religious celebrations. When someone is buried, Rakia is given to each guest as they exit the cemetery along with a small piece of bread. Participating in this ritual means toasting the soul of the deceased. It is also customary to spill some of the liquor onto the ground before downing the rest. At Bulgarian weddings, the groom’s father offers a glass of Rakia to all of the guests to toast the future happiness of the newlyweds.
Rakia is alleged to have many uses as a medicine; it can be rubbed onto your chest in the case of a cold or poured onto a wound to sterilize it.

There are many traditional songs associated with Rakia consumption – one starts with the line “Oh, Rakia, oh holy martyr...”

Nazdrave

As the national drink of Bulgaria, Rakia has become a great institution. It is rooted in history and whilst imitated in many other countries across the world, Bulgarian Rakia’s unique qualities make it the Bulgarians fountain of life! Nazdrave!