No trip to the Balkans is complete without trying “Rakia” (or Rakija/Rakiya). This “national drink” of so many countries can surprise and delight you, and if you aren’t careful: Incapacitate you.
Read on to learn all about this bevvy from the Balkans!
What is Rakia?
Rakia is a strong alcohol similar to brandy. It is unique to the Balkans and is made out of fruit. Sometimes spelled “Rakija,” this drink is available professionally packaged, but is often still made at home for sharing with guests.
Alcohol Percentage of Rakia
The commercial alcohol percentage of rakia hovers around the 40% mark. It is rarely lower and can creep up to 45%.
Homemade rakia doesn’t show the same moderation.
This is where the drink tiptoes into moonshine territory. While everyone who likes rakia will tell you that homemade is the best, the truth is that nobody cares too much about the alcohol percentage.
Homemade rakia can be anywhere from 40% – 90%.
It sounds like 60% is the most common strength, but how anyone would know that from an old water bottle of fruit-shine, I couldn’t say.
Rakia vs Brandy
Rakia and brandy are both strong alcoholic beverages made from distilling wine or other fruit juices.
The main difference is where the product originates. Just like the only real champagne is from the Champagne region of France, real rakia only comes from the Southern Slavic regions of Europe.
Another key difference is that “brandy” refers to grape brandy.
While there is “fruit brandy”, it will always be differentiated that way, whereas rakia can be made from almost any variety of fruit.
Using the term “rakia” does not specify any specific kind of rakia, and in fact plum rakia is probably what comes to mind the quickest.
When and How to Drink Rakia
Here are all the details about how to enjoy rakia like a local!
When to Drink Rakia
Most of our Balkan friends would say that anytime is a good time for rakia, but here are some common times to enjoy this sacred beverage.
During a Meal
Experts say it is best served with a meal or afterwards, because the high alcohol content isn’t a good combination with an empty stomach.
During a Cultural Celebration
Rakia plays a part in many cultural activities and celebrations. Most countries in the Balkans will serve it during folk festivities, or in standard celebrations like weddings.
In Bulgaria it is even served at Iordanov Den during a celebratory dance in the icy river.
When it’s Offered
For a tourist who has never tried rakia, the best time to drink it is when it’s offered!
Rakia is part of being a good host in the Balkans. More than likely a local is offering their special homemade rakia, and you wouldn’t want to turn down their pride and joy.
How to Drink Rakia
While rakia is often served in a small glass, it is for sipping, not shooting!
Like an French aperitif or a post-dinner port, rakia is meant to be savored.
Rakia is sometimes served chilled, particularly in Bulgaria, but it should be room temperature, just like brandy or port.
Is Rakia Legal?
Despite the comparison to moonshine, and the fact that it is often made at home, Rakia is legal.
Rakia is not just legal in Europe, but in many countries throughout the world (including the U.S.).
If you want to try find rakia in your city, find a specialty liquor store and look in the brandy section. “Fruit brandy” that has been made in the Balkans, will be rakia.
What is not legal, is bringing homemade rakia back to your country with you.
Most Common Types of Rakia
Rakia is made with almost any type of fruit that people can grow themselves in the Balkans. Much like the way that grannies in colder climates all make crab apple jelly!
The most common types of rakia are:
Quince is a type of fruit that looks similar to a pear. It is not really for eating raw, but can be made into pies – or rakia!
Rakia Pairing Guide
Plum rakia is the most popular and most common type of rakia throughout the Balkans.
A plum rakia made with ripe fruit is best paired with dry appetizers, rich desserts, spicy dishes, red meat, nuts, and olives.
There is actually another category of plum rakia, which is made from young unripened fruits. That type pairs well with pickles and fatty foods.
Grape rakia is the second most popular and common form of this delicious drink.
There are many people who will argue that grape rakia is the only true rakia.
(Although those fans exist for plum rakia too.)
Grape rakia pairs best with strong or fresh cheeses, spicy dishes, salads, and pate.
For homemade rakia, grapes are a popular choice because they are affordable and grown locally.
Never heard of quince? I hadn’t either!
It is a somewhat bitter fruit that looks and tastes somewhere in the middle of an apple and a pear. It has a hard flesh and isn’t pleasant raw.
Quince is native to Turkey and parts of the middle east. It isn’t commonly grown and is therefore the most expensive and rarest form of rakia.
Quince rakia pairs well with cured meat, ripened cheeses, and basically anything else that you would have on a charcuterie board.
Cherry rakia is another rare form of rakia.
Often sour cherries might be added to other flavors of rakia, but straight cherry rakia isn’t as common.
Cherry rakia pairs especially well with rich desserts like chocolate souffle or tiramisu.
(Just like actual cherries pair well on desserts!)
Because cherries are so bold, this rakia also pairs well with Asian flavors, BBQ, ribs, or steak.
Apricot rakia is one of the less common flavors, but is still a popular homemade variety of rakia.
The flavor of apricot brandy can depend on whether there is detectable “stone” or not. The preferred flavor is to have a slight hint of stone.
Because apricot has a sweet and light flavor, it is not recommended to be paired with bolder dishes.
Apricot rakia pairs well with veggie dishes, salads and greens, mild cheeses, turkey, and pasta. (Although no rakia is recommended for tomato sauce dishes.)
Pear rakia is made almost exclusively from Bartlett pears (known as “Williams” pears in the Balkans and across Europe and the UK) because they are very aromatic and ripen early.
Pear rakia is one of the only types that isn’t often aged, or not aged for long. The quality of the drink degrades over time.
Pear rakia pairs best with mild flavoured mains, such as chicken dishes with creamy bases or limited seasoning. It also goes with mild cheeses, fish and seafood, or pork.
Rakia Around the Balkans
No matter where you go in the Balkans, if you ask about rakia, they will tell you their country invented it!
Rakia in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is one of the largest and proudest producers of rakia, and of course, claim it as their national drink.
Bulgaria Rakija Varieties
Bulgaria has all the usual offerings of rakia, as well as raspberry, peach, walnut, and honey. Bulgaria is the country most likely to have apricot rakia.
They also sometimes add sour cherries to rakia, to make a drink called vishnovka.
Bulgaria is very famous for producing roses, so I did a little digging to see if there was a rose flavored rakia…because why not? They make plenty of rose flavoured candy and other delicacies.
Of course there is, it’s called gyulovitsa, but surprisingly it doesn’t seem too popular.
How Bulgarians Enjoys Rakia
It is common in Bulgaria to double-down on tradition by enjoying a chilled pear rakia with an appetizer of their famous shopska salad.
This breaks a cardinal pairing rule and temperature rule according to one rakia expert, who proclaims that pear rakia:
“Is an example of rakia, which does not go to the Shopska salad as an appetizer. We don’t think we need to convince you of that! Just pour yourself a Vilyamovka and eat a Shopska salad with it.”
Undeterred, that is precisely what many Bulgarians do.
Best Bulgarian Rakia
Burgas 63 is a top rated Bulgarian grape rakia. Fans say it is the best store-bought rakia (since homemade is always better!) and it is better than many more expensive varieties.
If you were hoping for a fruit flavor other than grape, Isperih makes both apricot and quince rakia that is popular with folks on Reddit.
Where to Try Rakia in Bulgaria
If you can’t get yourself invited to a wedding, and you aren’t attending a Kukeri festival, then the next best thing is Raketa Rakia Bar.
Raketa Rakia Bar is a family friendly restaurant in the capital city of Sofia.
They offer Bulgarian comfort food and an extensive rakia menu in a Soviet themed lounge.
One reviewer mentioned: “Make sure you are not the driver.”
Rakija in Serbia
In Serbia, rakia is spelled the alternate way, with a “j,” and it is Serbia’s national drink.
(Although often the spelling is used interchangeably across the Balkans.)
Serbian Rakija Varieties
Plum rakija is Serbia’s most popular variety, and has its own name: “Sljivovica” or “Slivovitz.”
Sometimes rakija is served warm in the winter in Serbia, like a boozy hot apple cider.
Best Serbian Rakija
Yabega is one of the best Serbian rakijas, and it is even available in North America. They sell two varieties, but “Prva” is the more traditional aged plum rakia.
The story of how the brand came about is actually pretty interesting too!
Zuta Osa “Yellow Wasp” is another highly rated Serbian rakija, that has been around for at least 23 years (I say at least because I found a review that was dated 1998.)
Where to Try Rakija in Serbia
Decide for yourself which Serbian rakija is the best! Take the free Belgrade walking tour, which includes complimentary rakija tasting at local restaurants!
Rakija in North Macedonia
The North Macedonian people are so into rakija that one site classifies it as a “natural medicine.”
(Quite a good read actually, promising that rakija will lengthen your life.)
No surprise here, North Macedonia also proclaims that Rakija is its national drink.
North Macedonia Rakija Varieties
North Macedonian rakija comes in the usual varieties like grape, plum, and pear, as well as some unusual ones. They produce herbal rakija (made of lavender, mint, or other herbs), as well as anise, honey, and walnut varieties.
Anise rakija (called mastika) is a variety that isn’t found many other places in the Balkans. Greece does have mastika but it isn’t made the same.
Best North Macedonian Rakija
Grozd Strumica Mastika is one of the most popular anise rakijas. The producer claims the recipe is from the 4th century BC!
Where to Try Rakija in North Macedonia
Kaldrma Rakia Bar in the capital city of Skopje, offers over 100 varieties of rakija from all over the Balkans.
Rakija in Croatia
You already know what I’m going to say: Rakija is Croatia’s national drink.
Croatia Rakija Varieties
Croatia has its own special variety of rakija called “Biska.” This is a mistletoe rakija made in the region of Istria.
They also have the usual types of fruit rakija as well as other herbal varieties, fig, and mead.
Another type of Croatian rakija is “medica.” It is made with honey and propolis.
Best Croatian Rakija
Vina Rossi Biska is a popular grape-based Croatian rakija of their special mistletoe variety.
Where to Try Rakia in Croatia
Take a full day cruise from Dubrovnik through the Elaphite Islands on a small boat. Lunch is provided and the hosts have homemade rakija on offer for their guests!
Rakia in Albania
Albania is one of the only countries that calls rakia “raki.”
Although people across the Balkans drink rakia at all times of the day, Albanians are especially known for having raki with their coffee in the morning. It is thought to be a fat burner.
You will be shocked to learn that raki is Albania’s national drink.
Albanian Raki Varieties
The most popular kind of raki in Albania is the grape variety produced in the Skrapar region of the country. This version of raki is known as “Skrapari” or “Skrapar Spirit.”
Best Albanian Raki
Skrapari Raki Rrushi is Albania’s best known version of skrapari and it is available in specialty stores in North America.
Beware though, the percentage on Raki Rrushi is 50%!
Where to Try Raki in Albania
The closest city to the famous Skrapar region is Berat.
At Bar Restaurant Tradicional Onufri in Berat, you can try homemade raki!
The restaurant has mixed reviews on Trip Advisor for food, but everyone likes the raki.
What Country Makes the Best Rakia?
I don’t want to start a war, but in all my research Serbia is definitely the most famous producer of rakija, followed closely by Bulgarian rakia.
The most popular variety of rakija is the Serbian variety I mentioned earlier, known as “Sljivovica” or “Slivovitz.” For many, this rich plum drink is the only kind of rakija.
Bulgaria is probably the most prolific producer of different flavors of rakia.
Around the country there are regions devoted to making and drinking only grape rakia, or only apricot rakia, or only pear rakia.
All About Homemade Rakia
If you want to make your own rakia, you can find a recipe here.
How the Balkan People Make Rakia at Home
Rakia is made by collecting whatever abundance of fruit the locals have on hand.
Sometimes it is the fruit that grows wild or on their own property, and sometimes it may be whatever is cheap at the market.
The fruit is mushed into a pulp and left to ferment for a few weeks, up to several weeks. After this it is strained and distilled, usually over an outdoor fire in a cauldron.
The final product should have water added into it in order to dilute, but I’m guessing this is the step that many granddads skip, resulting in the famous 60 – 90% rakia.
Rakia is bottled up into pretty much any container the locals have. That is often plastic water bottles, but it could really be anything!
The good news is that rakia, like other high percentage alcohols, doesn’t really spoil, so you need not worry about it being bad.
(And it definitely won’t spoil before the locals can drink it all!)
Your biggest worry when sampling some backyard rakia, is that the alcohol percentage could be higher than anything you’ve ever had.
Again, it’s best to enjoy in small quantities, with food.
Remember to leave a small amount in your glass, or your host will continue filling it!
Mixed Varieties of Rakia
More often than not, rakia will be made from only one variety of fruit. Sometimes it will be fruit and honey, to make it sweeter.
There are some mixed fruit varieties (especially in Bulgaria) or fruit mixed with walnuts.
You are more likely to have a mixed variety made by a backyard brewer than to find that in store.
Can You Make Cocktails with Rakia?
Yes! Though recipes are a little hard to find.
Try the Serbian Christmas Eve drink “Vruca Rakija” where plum rakija is simmered with sugar and water.
Make Bulgarian Vishnovka with just sour cherries, sugar, and rakia.
For a real cocktail, put together a “monastery”: A drink of rakija with basil, lime, honey, and plum preserves.
History of Rakia
Bulgarians will fight tooth and nail to declare that they invented rakia. This could be correct, since Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe and as such has a long ancient history.
An 11th century fragment of a still was unearthed in Bulgaria, proving that they do indeed have a long standing tradition of making rakia.
Once a very important part of the Roman Empire, there is no reason to think that rakia couldn’t have come from this region of the Balkans.
Of course Bulgaria’s history is hard to separate from that of it’s neighbours such as Turkey and Serbia, since many years ago the country lines are not what they are now.
Some claim that rakia was invented in Turkey, but their version is quite different.
You might remember that the North Macedonians have a mastika recipe that they claim is from the 4th century BC. So does the tradition of other rakia go back that far?
We may never know.
What I do know is that these former Soviet countries are unearthing their ancient history all the time, so we may find evidence of millennia old traditions of making rakia yet.