Rakija is the distilled essence of the Balkan soul. More than a spirit, quintessential as it may be, rakija has a long history. Lately it has seen both threats to its survival and a resurgence.
With Bill Gould, Iskra Vukšić, and Ekaterina Volkova. Featuring music by Dario, Dubioza Kolektiv, Luboyna, Magnifico, Pedja Vujić, and S.A.R.S.
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PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: Let’s živeli… Oj, jebote.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your distiller Peter Korchnak.
The stereotype of the former Yugoslavia, the Balkans, is that of fragmentation and conflict. But there’s a lot that people in the Balkans have in common. They like to argue who did this or that first or whose song it is anyway. They remember Yugoslavia, in one way or another. They eat burek.
And they—we—all drink rakija.
Rakija is the quintessential spirit of the Balkans. If you were weaned on rakija, if you got married with rakija, if you toast anything with rakija, you’re from the Balkans. Or, as the old meme went, Rakija: Connecting People.
Rakija is in people’s blood, it’s in their soul, but, it’s more than a spirit [more than a spirit]. When I hear that old glass they used to clink [more than a spirit]. I begin dreaming [more than a spirit]. Til I see the bottle empty away, I see my rakija bottle emptying away.
On this show, we’ve made sarma, we’ve enjoyed burek, and now it’s time to wash it down. So, in this, the third annual culinary episode, we’ll talk and distill and drink rakija.
But before we get the party started, I want to raise a glass to the newest members of the Remembering Yugoslavia community of supporters. Thank you, Cas, Ervin, Frank, and Katarina for your contributions. The show must flow on and you guys make it happen. And, like your fellow contributors, you can listen to the extended version of this episode, and all other extended and bonus episodes.
If you are listening, join the table, with Cas, Ervin, Frank, Katarina, and other generous supporters. Help keep Remembering Yugoslavia’s glass full. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate or follow the nifty Support link in your podcast listening app and get a round in.
[SOUNDBITE – “Balkana” by 4bstr4ck3r]
What Is Rakija
PETER KORCHNAK: What do we drink when we drink rakija?
Rakija is a strong spirit distilled from fermented juice of fruits.
Article 6 of the Serbian Law on Rakija and Other Alcoholic Beverages defines rakija as “an alcoholic beverage produced by distilling fermented crushed fruit, pressed fruit, pomace or fruit marc, grapes, edible forest fruits, and other raw materials of agricultural origin with a minimal ethanol content of 15 percent by volume and with preserved specific sensory properties derived from the raw material from which it was produced.”
The most common type of this brandy by far is plum, but rakija is also made from grapes, pears, apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, sour cherries, figs, raspberries, blackberries…
My favorite is quince. Rakija distillers have also been known to use pineapples, bananas, oranges, and mangoes as well as prunes and raisins.
Rakija is an umbrella word for all fruit distilled spirits. In Serbia, the term rakija is synonymous with plum brandy, or šljivovica, slivovitz, the most common kind made and sold there (in other areas of the Balkans, too, rakija is distilled from the most prevalent local fruit).
Similarly, each kind of rakija has its own name depending on the fruit it derives from, and often, let’s say when you order at a bar, the name of the rakija is shortened to its fruit: dunjevača or dunja is quince rakija, lozovača or loza is grape rakija, but grape pomace rakija is called komovica; kajsijevača or kajsija for apricot rakija; jabukovača for apple rakija; smokvovača for fig rakija; trešnjevača for cherry rakija; orahovača is walnut rakija; pelinkovac is made with wormwood, or pelin. Pear rakija is called kruškovača or viljamovka, after the Williams or Bartlett varietal. Medica, also known as medovača or medenica, is made with honey; travarica is made from grass and herbs. Breskovača, dudovača, komadara… There’s seemingly no end to it. If it talks like a fruit, looks like fruit, tastes like a fruit, and grows like a fruit, then it’s probably distilled into rakija.
After distillation, some producers add more flavor to their rakija by adding herbs, honey, walnuts, even coffee. I’ve had carob rakija in Zagreb and the Dubrovnik specialty, aniseta, is anise-flavored.
Alcohol content of rakija ranges from as little as 15 percent to upwards of 50 percent among moonshine; most common types are 30 to 40.
After the distillation, rakija is left to age, mostly in oak barrels. As with whiskey, the more the better. Six to 12 months is common. Old plum rakija is aged for two to five years, very old šljivovica for more than six.
The word most commonly used for rakija in English, brandy, actually comes from the German Brandtwein, literally burnt wine, or brandywine. The word schnapps is also used. I’ll use rakija and brandy interchangeably.
[SOUNDBITE “Balkana” by 4bstr4ck3r]
Rakija in Serbia
Rakija production and consumption spans the entire Balkans. Let’s start with Serbia where rakija is the national drink; I’ve heard rakija described as the “quintessence of being Serbian.”
Serbia produces some 50 million liters of spirits, or 7+ liters per capita, most of which is rakija. The WHO statistics show that spirits in Serbia comprise about a quarter of all alcohol consumed; in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina it’s about 13 percent but in Montenegro it’s 44 percent. In 2019 Serbs consumed 2.4 liters of strong alcoholic drinks per capita; by contrast, Croatia consumes less than half of that, Bosnia and Herzegovina about a third but Montenegro about 3.2 liters.
The joke is that the most popular wine in Serbia is rakija.
A survey of Serbian distillers, many of whom use multiple fruits to make different rakijas, found that 84 percent distilled plums; 50 percent distilled grapes; about 45 percent distilled apples, pears, and quinces; and 36 percent apricots.
Rakija in Croatia
Croatia is a wine country but rakija is the most popular spirit, often flavored. Plum, pear, and grape are probably the most common. In the wine-producing Dalmatia, rakija is made from grapes and winemaking leftovers like pressed grape stalks and pulp (or pomace); the region, particularly the islands, is known for travarica, a mild-tasting spirit made from herbs. In Zagreb, viljamovka and travarica seem to be the most popular.
Croatia has EU Protected Geographical Indication of 6 rakija products, two plum, and one each cherry, herb, wormwood, and grape rakijas.
A recent survey of rakija makers on the Adriatic islands found that 114 species of plants from 38 botanical families were involved in the making of rakija. Almost half of these were wild plants, and all but one (coffee) grew locally. Plums were used rarely and the strawberry tree ceased to be used in the 1960s. The most common ingredients, used in myriad of combinations, included fennel, myrtle, sage, rue, juniper, carob, walnut, lemon, bitter orange, bay, rosemary, rose, mint as well as St. John’s wort, wild thyme, catmint, marjoram, curry plant, and lavender. Wormwood is used for pelinkovac, a dark, bitter digestif.
A few rakijas are endemic on the islands. Rakija flavored with the nearly extinct silky wormwood is made on Cres. On Vis, distillers use grey rock-rose and Italian buckthorn, and on Brač felty Germander and savory. Dubrovnik is known for using bitter orange, where it was introduced in the 10th century, and anise, and Korčula for lemon verbena, brought here by sailors from South America.
The Istrian peninsula is famous for making honey brandy. The base is grape or pomace and honey is added later in the process; sometimes with further additions like coriander, lemon zest, or propolis. Medica typically ranges between 15 and 25 percent ABV.
Istria, particularly the town of Hum, is also known for producing biska, a mistletoe-infused brandy.
[SOUNDBITE – “Rakija” by Luboyna, feat. Ola D & Dzambo (2016)]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Luboyna from Macedonia with the song “Rakija.” As all the other songs you’ll hear on today’s show, I’ve played it with the kind permission of the band. Give them some love on social media and buy their music! All the links are in the episode notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
You can hear this and all the songs in full in the extended episode, available to supporters on Patreon and elsewhere.
Rakija. What Is It Good For
Some Balkan sayings and proverbs indeed warn against the negative effects of rakija. “Rakija ate him up,” and “He loves rakija more than his own mother,” are just a couple of ways to describe alcoholics.
Wine gets people married, rakija gets them to divorce. Wine is merry, rakija is quarrelsome. Wine is divine, rakija devilish. I can easily imagine these to have been made up by winemakers feeling threatened by rakija’s competition.
Either way, it seems rakija drinkers have strong stomachs. One recent study showed that, quote, “in Serbia, the impact of alcohol abuse on life expectancy does not appear to be significant. The cultural pattern of alcohol consumption does not confirm that this mortality factor represents a significant burden amongst the general Serbian population.”
That patterns is this: Rakija is almost always sipped, usually from a small, bulb-shaped shot glass, čokanjčić, not downed.
Rakija in Rituals
You can certainly get drunk and die from rakija but those aren’t the main goals of drinking it. The good people of the Balkans drink rakija often but in smaller amounts, mostly at meal times, as a toast, or as part of rituals.
Mujo catches a goldfish. “What of this goldfish do you wish” says the fish. “I will grant you three wishes.” Mujo says. “I want all the land to be meze.’ Done. “And all the water to be rakija.” Done. “And what is your last wish?” the goldfish says. Mujo thinks on it and replies, “A liter of rakija.”
Reporting on her fieldwork in the Šumadija region, the Serbian heartland, in the 1950s, anthropologist Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern wrote that, “People imbue rakija with attributes that augment a sense of community and collectivity. [T]he ritual sharing of rakija is socially cohesive and is instrumental in maintaining identity.”
Toasting with rakija is part of everyday life. You toast when you visit and maybe when you depart. A shot of rakija is a mark of hospitality, a welcome into the circle, an essence that binds.
You toast at the start of a big meeting you’re hosting, particularly for foreign guests. The footage of the Dutch UN troops commander Thom Karemans drinking rakija near Srebrenica with the future war criminal Ratko Mladić is one of the most haunting things you’ll see. Slobodan Milošević was known for hosting foreign politicians and journalists with rakija.
You toast when you conclude an agreement or seal a contract. You toast when you start and when you end the pig slaughter, and several times throughout. One old custom has a bottle of rakija suspended from each building under construction; it gets consumed when the building is finished, as a kind of consecration. Barnraising. Well digging. Car or tractor or any other major purchase. After ruinous weather, bad harvest, deadly illness, and other misfortunes, villagers would drink to fate and life and better luck next time.
The range of occasions for a rakija toast is endless. Rakija marks and binds these minor life rituals. Toasting with rakija is a ritual closure.
Rakija features in many customs through the life cycle. As a man named Bogdan told Kerewsky-Halpern, “So it goes with us Serbs: with rakija we are born, with rakija we marry, and with rakija we bury.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Rakija is usually among the gifts people bring to congratulate on the birth of a child. The newborn and parents are then toasted with wishes for a long and happy life.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: From one of the interviews, we were told that there is this tradition where if a child is born, I think specifically a boy, then a bottle of rakija is buried in the garden. And this bottle remains buried until the son is ready to get married. And then the bottle is dug up and drank for the marriage.
PETER KORCHNAK: Iskra Vukšić is an interdisciplinary artist and writer from Šibenik and Amsterdam. She and her collaborator, Ekaterina Volkova, spoke with me about their project exploring rakija traditions in the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina between Dubrovnik and Trebinje. That’s coming up later in the show.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: The idea in this anecdote was that a lot of these bottles they have gotten lost. So maybe now we can say that the young people have migrated to other countries and they did not get married in the on the land of their parents and the bottle was never dug up, or the bottle was simply lost because people forgot where they had buried it in the garden and so on. I find it almost mythological that there might be a land with a lot of buried bottles in the garden waiting for these children to get married.
PETER KORCHNAK: The less mythical version of the custom in Serbia has a father on the day his first male child is born put aside a 50-liter barrel of slivovitz to be consumed on the boy’s wedding day. I wanna go to that wedding…
Rakija toasts accompanied the contractual and betrothal procedures, observed Kerewsky-Halpern. The groom’s father was the rakija man, or the buklija, pouring shots to villagers as he invited them to the wedding. “At the wedding feast itself, rakija resumes its ritual place as co-host, overseeing an atmosphere of merriment and hospitality,” wrote the anthropologist.
Rakija is also part of death rituals. Indeed, hospitality does not end with death.
When people gather at the home of the deceased, among other things they are served rakija.
People drink shots at the funeral, some directly on the grave, sometimes as a display of conspicuous consumption. “You can’t have a funeral without rakija,” as one villager told the anthropologist Kerewsky-Halpern. “With us, you can’t tell who’s been drinking and who’s been crying.”
Rakija is what’s served to honor the dearly departed. People forgo the toasting, cheersing, and glass clinking and spill a little bit of the drink on the ground for the deceased’s soul.
In Macedonia too, as recounted by George Ford in 1983, when people gather at the bedside of the deceased, one part of the rakija shot is spilled on the ground and the rest they drink “za dusha” (for the spirit) of the deceased. At the funeral itself, too, rakija “za dusha” is part of the ceremony. Additionally, during the thrice-yearly public ceremony honoring all the dead called the zadushnitsa, in February, June, and November, rakija is part of the menu that is shared among the people gathered at family plots and the rest of the cemetery.
BILL GOULD: Okay, so touring with bands in the Balkans, as you probably even in Slovakia I’ve seen them, you know, the umrlica, I don’t know what you would call them in—
PETER KORCHNAK: Yeah, like a death notice, funeral notice.
BILL GOULD: They’re all over the place, especially in smaller villages.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Bill Gould, the founder of Yebiga Rakija, a brandy imported from Serbia to the US and rebranded for the American market.
Gould is a music producer, notably with his own indie label Koolarrow Records, which included among its acts the Balkan stars Kultur Shock, from Seattle, and Dubioza Kolektiv, from Zenica and Sarajevo. You may better recognize him as the bassist for the band Faith No More. He spoke with me from his home in San Francisco.
The Yebiga Rakija label features black stroke around a white rectangle, in the middle of which is a black-and-white photo of a baba, an old woman wearing black mourning cloths, tipping a glass of rakija, underneath which is the name of the beverage. The design resembles death notices you find on bulletin boards, walls, poster columns, even trees, around the Balkans, announcing the death of the person on it and particulars of their funeral or commemoration. And where a cross or a crescent or a star would be is the logo, a stylized rakija glass.
BILL GOULD: To me, they just look so punk, man, it’d be a somebody’s face. And a flyer. And I was like, this looks like some like, badass musician, you know, like, really different faces. And I would always laugh, like, look at that. And people, you know, it’s normal for them to like, What is the matter with you? Why are you obsessed with these obituaries? And I was like, if I ever ever do a rakija, this is gonna be the bottle, you know, this is gonna be the label on the bottle.
And then I was like, you know, and if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna call it Yebiga. And it was just like, you know, like a joke, you know? But it really, you know, when I decided when I came back from Bulgaria, Serbia, telling people like, this is what I want to do. And I had a mock up, you know, kind of look like our bottle now. And they would people would laugh, like, we have we have to…
PETER KORCHNAK: —have to, yeah. It’s incredible. It’s incredible.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yebiga, Y-E-B-I-G-A is the Americanized spelling of the Serbocroatian word that in literal translation means, “fuck it.” Jebiga, as one word, is a universal response to pretty much anything, reflecting that Balkan spirit of fatalism and resignation in the face of facts you cannot change. Jebiga – what are you gonna do. Jebiga – dang it. Jebiga – it’s done, life goes on. Jebiga – ‘nuff said.
In the extended episode Gould tells the story of the actual baba on the label…and a lot more.
PETER KORCHNAK: The twist: baba in mourning clothes can be used as a visual metaphor for death. For example, in the movie, Who’s That Singing Over There?, a baba, who doesn’t say a word and no one even acknowledges her presence at the back of the bus, represents death and tragedy, and she indeed serves as foreshadowing.
BILL GOULD: It’s very metal, you know, it’s true to the region, you know, like, so it has everyone will know, it has to have that the Black Sabbath vibe, but it has to be that from there, you know, and, and to be honest with you, I think that there’s a real thing. I mean, with Eastern Europe in general, but especially in Serbia, in the Balkans.
I wouldn’t say it’s a disrespect that Americans have, but it’s a lack of knowledge and lack of taking seriously. They think Serbia is Siberia, you know, they get mixed up, they don’t really, it’s not really on the radar, and I wanted something that people are gonna respect, you know, something that maybe they might be a little afraid of, you know, and baba is doing an amazing job with that .
PETER KORCHNAK: Absolutely, absolutely.
Births, weddings, deaths.
As a ritual accompaniment, rakija is also part of holidays. Kerewsky-Halpern reported that, on Easter, villagers would gather outside the church after service and break fast exchanging food and rakija. Quote, “The exchange of rakija clearly mediates the sense of community more than does group participation in the formal church service.”
During slava, the celebration of a family’s patron saint in Serbia, rakija flows in numerous toasts. Glasses must never be empty. “The flow of brandy and the abundance of food represents effective sacrifice, with which the prosperity of the household is assured.” End quote.
Rakija also centers the life of the singer of S.A.R.S., the Serbian acronym for Satriani’s Freshly Amputated Hand. Drunk and angry, he goes on the road. But there’s no rakija in the West, the worst punishment, because there is no beverage like it in the world. It keeps him going, it gives him strengths, it is his happiness and sadness. He loves to drink it and begs you to find it for him or he’ll beat you up.
Medicinal Uses of Rakija
Mujo goes to the doctor. “I can’t prove to my son that rakija is bad for you. Can you help?” The doctor orders the son to be brought in. He sets two glasses in front of him One he fills with water, the other with rakija, and puts a worm in each. The worm in the water glass squirms, the worm in the rakija glass dies instantly. “What’s your conclusion from this?” And little Mujo says, “If you drink rakija, you have no worms.”
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: I am drinking Baba Olga’s medna travarica.
PETER KORCHNAK: The artist Iskra Vukšić again.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: Baba Olga was one of the people that we interviewed for the Javna Tajna project. She lives in Veličani, in Popovo Polje, in in Herzegovina, in Bosnia Herzegovina and I would say she is a legend. So it was very exciting to meet her. It’s quite common practice, Peter, to have rakija in the morning for health and definitely recommended by Baba Olga, for digestion or for to sleep that one more hour that you need or generally for health so she really sees it as medicine. And what I am drinking is medna travarica, which means honey travarica, honey herbal drink, slightly less strong than normal rakija.
EKATERINA VOLKOVA: I am drinking also honey drink, medenica, which I brought this summer from Croatia. And it is slightly less strong, and that’s 29 percent rather than 40 or 39.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ekaterina Volkova is an artist and graphic designer from Ekaterinburg, Russia (she speaks about the Russian experience in the extended episode).
Vukšić and Volkova met in graduate school in Amsterdam and have been collaborating since.
When we spoke last October each of us drank rakija. I poured myself a glass of Yebiga Bela from the bottle Gould had kindly sent me. It was morning of my time and the rakija served both as an energy drink and a digestion aid.
Indeed, rakija is also medicine. As one meme put it: “I don’t know what the illness is but rakija is the cure.” Some people say, “Drink some rakija and you’ll feel better.” A Serbian proverb says it best: “You don’t need another cure, rakija is the pharmacy and the good God can wait.”
Some rakijas are used as digestifs, including rue, walnut, and wormwood (that’s your pelinkovac).
Rakija is a disinfectant for scratches and wounds.
Rue travarica is used to prevent the evil eye.
In an article on Montenegrin manners and customs published in 1909, anthropologist Edith Durham recounted two medicinal uses of rakija.
“Medicine was and is largely practised by wise women. Every disease, they say, has its plant. Most of the remedies are herbal. (…) The following, I am told, is excellent for pneumonia. Take a dried gall-bladder of a pig and pound it up; mix it with gunpowder and drink it in strong rakija. This is very powerful, I was told by a man whose life, so he said, had been saved by it.”
And second: “Native surgeons have a great local reputation for dressing wounds and setting bones. The traditional way of dressing a wound is remarkably antiseptic. It was on no account to be washed with water, but cleaned out several times with strong wine or rakia.” Durham recounts a conversation with a war veteran of the battle of Vučidol in 1876 who was shot through the lungs and taken to a Russian field hospital where things went from bad to worse. The veteran told her: “The Russian doctor then said he must cut another hole in me between two ribs. I had two holes already, so I thought it very stupid. I knew I [would] die if I had another hole in me. I asked the [nurse] to tell my people to save me. They came in the night and carried me away. I was so thin my wife carried me like a baby. They poured rakija in [my] wound. It made me cough most dreadfully and some of it ran out of the other side. They put the bandages on and poured rakija into me very often. The wound got well, and in a year I was strong.” End quote. Durham again: “He is an old man now and as hard as nails. He has drunk rakija ever since and no wine. It is firmly believed that whichever you are dressed with, wine or rakija, you must drink for the rest of your life.”
In Sandžak, a region in southwestern Serbia, locals would drink rakija to relieve fever, sore throat, cold, and diarrhea; apply rakija topically on wounds, toothaches, headaches, and eye inflammations; they would soak a piece of cloth with it and place it on the chest for cough; and they would heat it up and inhale the fumes for sinus ailments.
Talk to anyone in the Balkans and they’ll inevitably have a story of their mother or grandmother using rakija as a cure. Pour it on a cut or scrape to disinfect it. Mix it with honey or garlic for cough syrup. Soak it in cloths to relieve fever or toothache or stiff neck. Drink a shot (or even a half) in the morning for immunity, digestion, and general well being. I remember my mother recently tried drinking a half-shot of moonshine slivovitz first thing in the morning and her sleep and digestion improved considerably…until the supply ran out.
Šumadijski čaj, Šumadija Tea, named for the region it comes from, is a toddy made with rakija and honey that’s used as a warming beverage and relief for colds and coughs.
Pacify teething infants with a gentle rakija rub. Swish a shot on an aching tooth. Cool an insect bite itch. Mix it with cooked nettles to purify your blood in spring. Heat it and infuse it with salt to induce abortion. Drink a lot of it to relieve birthing pain. Numb your grief. Massage into affected areas to ease your rheumatism or back pain or sore muscles, or to reduce swelling. Sip it with parsley to fix a UTI. Recipes go on and on.
Rakija is also a good cleaning agent and disinfectant. It removes laundry stains. It cleans windows and glassware. It used to disinfect diapers and clean kerosene lamps as well as surfaces during pandemics.
Because of its mood-altering poperties rakija is also said to induce song. Writing about sevdalinka songs for the Congress of Bošnjaks of North America, Ivan Lovrenović claims that, quote, “Serious connoisseurs and aficionados…know full well that there is no true song without [company] and without rakija made by a craftsman’s hand. That which smells of the plum, or more precisely the velvety blue dew shrouding the ripe fruit at dawn, pours benevolently through the stomach and the limbs, catches slowly and holds long, and fills the soul with a noble and disconsolate melancholy… And draws forth a song.”
[SOUNDBITE – “Tekla je rakija” by Pedja Vujić (2021)]
PETER KORCHNAK: “Rakija flowed all night through the veins of this guy who drinks because of you, verses flowed that night when another man’s best men took you away in tears…” Thus laments Pedja Vujić in “Tekla je rakija.” Buy his music!
[SOUNDBITE] Haso walks into a pub and orders five shots of rakija. He drinks them and says to the barkeep, “Four rakijas!” Drinks them again, says. “Give me three rakijas!” Drinks those as well, then th e two and then finally, when a single shot of rakija stands before him says, “U pičku materinu, the less I drink the drunker I get.”
History of Rakija
PETER KORCHNAK: Where does rakija come from? This is a matter of some dispute across the Balkans. Yes, rakija unites people but it also drives them apart. Bulgarians and Serbs in particular dispute being rakija’s ground zero.
Until recently, evidence pointed to rakija first having been made in today’s Serbia in the 14th century.
In the early 2010s, archeologists discovered distillation vessels dating back to the 11th century in the south of today’s Bulgaria, near the Greek border.
Bulgaria now boasts the highest number of rakija varieties registered as Protected Geographical Indication products.
The word itself comes from the Turkish raki, which is an anise-flavored spirit. This would suggest rakija came to the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire; before the Ottoman conquest, the word rakija, as well as the word for the distilling vessel, kazan, did not appear in the Serbian language. The Ottomans also introduced apricots and peaches to the region and in the 16th century also kafana, a type of tavern.
Raki is in turn of Arabic origin, stemming from arak, meaning sweat or perspiration, which describes distillation itself (arak is also a grape-based, anise-flavored beverage). Arabs are probably the first to distill spirits, or al-kohl, in the 9th century, having adopted distillation from Egypt where monks had invented it in the 6th century. Distillation was also invented in China and some claim it was Armenians who were the first to distilli spirits.
There’s evidence that distillation also came to the Balkans from the west, specifically the Republic of Venice. The first evidence of distilling in Europe comes from Sicily in the 11th century, when the island belonged to the caliph of Cairo. Early Italians were distilling spirits from the 14th century and spread the technology north and eastward. The technique entered the western parts of the Balkans through the Venetian and other ports along the Adriatic coast, including, with traveling alchemists and pharmacists, and priests and monks.
I want to think both stories are correct and that rakija is just another example of how both East and West came together in and influenced the Balkans in between.
As for plums, Serbian sources say plums were brought to Serbia in the 4th century BC, from Greece. The požegača plum, known as madžarka, meaning Hungarian, indicated it was probably introduced to the Balkans from Hungary. Large plum orchards had been recorded in the very first Ottoman survey of Bosnia already in the late 1400s.
University of Belgrade historian Jelena Mrgić has traced the roots of rakija production in Ottoman Serbia and Bosnia to the Little Ice Age, in the late 16th century.
Cooler and wetter climate in Ottoman Bosnia led to harvest failures which in turn led farmers to lasting agricultural shifts: a switch to different crops, pig-rearing, and trade. Among other crops, finicky, heat-loving grapes gave way to more resistant plums. Grape as a crop requires relatively dry and sunny weather, and is quite demanding in terms of labor. Prunus domestica (the European plum), on the other hand, is better capable of surviving weather changes, including less sun slash warmth and more rain, it can withstand cold better and survive in higher altitudes; it has greater nutritional value, about 3-times that of grape; and it requires less money and labor to grow and process. Correspondingly, viticulture diminished in favor of brandy distilling.
Brandy is also two to three times as strong in terms of alcohol content than wine at much smaller volumes. This makes it not only more potent but also longer-lasting and easier and safer for long-distance transport. And let’s not forget those medicinal uses.
The first reference of trade in rakija in the North-Central Balkans is from the late 16th century. By the 17th century, distilling and drinking of rakija in the Northern Balkans was widespread. By the 19th century rakija replaced wine as the most popular beverage in the region; similar changes took place in the rest of Europe where spirits experienced ascendance.
The town of Brčko in the north of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina became the center for plum and prune exports by the mid-19th century, when it was officially estimated that plums represented 80 per cent of all the fruit grown in the country.
At first glance, the spread of a strong spirit in a Muslim-dominated land may seem curious. While Muslims in Bosnia observed sharia prohibitions on drinking wine, according to taxation records rakija was not only taxed less than wine, while still providing needed revenue to the state, it did not seem to be prohibited. It was also easier to conceal illegal production and sales. Another reason may have been the view that since brandy went through fire during production, it was cleansed and could not be forbidden. And finally, alcohol was okay to use for medicinal purposes.
All that said, Mrgić, the historian, also adds that famines, epidemics, economic mismanagement, and wars acted as additional hardship-generating factors in the shift to plum growing and rakija distilling.
It was from Brčko that trade in plum products expanded eastward to Serbia. Bosnians traveled across and migrated to Serbia in the second half of the 19th century helping farmers to dry their plums for prunes. Then plum-growers and rakija-makers migrated to and settled in Serbia. The first to export prunes from Serbia was the company Krsmanović-Paranos, the veterans of Brčko’s plum industry. The company also promoted the planting of the požegača plum varietal. Ever hungry for plum inputs, the company would later provide loans and credit to plum farmers; plum merchants like this one helped establish banking in Serbia.
Plums spread rapidly throughout Serbia, helping to cultivate hillsides without arable land. Thanks to climatic and soil conditions, plums thrived only in certain areas. The so-called Plum Belt of Serbia extended from the Bosnian border in the west to River Sava in the north to River Morava in the east, enclosing all of Šumadija. To this day the largest plum producing areas are around Valjevo, Kraljevo, Kragujevac, Osečina, and Prokuplje. A Serbian saying has it that, “the best place to build a house is where a plum tree grows the best.”
Most of the plums were processed into rakija; nearly 21,000 kazans or stills existed in Serbia in 1867. Almost all of the rakija was consumed by the farmers themselves or within their circles. Even though many farmers had their own stills, there was in villages also a distilling specialist, called kazandžija, who would make the rounds in late fall to assist with processing fermented plum mash. He’d get paid in product and would end up having a lot of extra rakija, which he’d then resell to households who ran out of their own.
Some rakija did get sold within Serbia and some even got exported, almost exclusively to Ottoman Turkey; the limitation was in part due to the trade being dominated by wine merchants who weren’t interested in diversifying.
Though they could make more money off of it per ton of plums than from other plum products, farmers could not make a living out of rakija alone. Instead, prunes and later pekmez (plum jam) drove a boom in plum exports in the late 19th century, so that by the turn of the 20th century, Serbia was the world’s main exporter of prunes.
A boon to this trade was the railway link between Kragujevac and Budapest in 1884. The Hungarians were mostly buying cheap plum jam for sale to the working class. Another portion of the harvest was exported raw for processing into pálinka, which is the Hungarian word for rakija. Hungary quickly became Serbian plum industry’s main market.
By the early 20th century plum products amounted to some 20 percent of Serbia’s total exports (double that in the Plum Belt itself): 36 percent was sold as prunes, 20 percent as rakija; 27 percent was consumed within the farm, both fresh and as rakija.
The first registered patent in Serbia for a rakija-making machine dates to December 1909.
[SOUNDBITE – “Rakija” by Dario (2021)]
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Dario Pankovski from Macedonia, drinking rakija as medicine, to ease the pain and forget his lover. “The only therapy for a broken heart is rakija,” Dario sings. Buy his music! Again, all the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast and full songs on Patreon.
The interwar period saw an explosion of commercial rakija making and drinking in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This was also the period when major temperance and sobriety organizations were established.
During the American Prohibition, rakija distilling peasants from Borča, across the Danube from Belgrade, made a living in the US as consultants and assistants to bootleggers. The influence went the other way too, when Yugoslav illustrators “borrowed” the character of Mickey Mouse to make their own, Mika Miš, who traveled around the world and had adventures, including distilling rakija and dressing soldiers’ wounds with rakija.
World War II devastated rakija production. Five years after the war rakija production barely reached half of prewar numbers.
Yugoslavia’s communist government nationalized the surviving alcohol producers and industrialized the production of rakija. A number of new companies were established as well. In Zadar, Croatia, Maraska was established in 1946. It became best known for its maraschino cherry liqueur, which had a centuries-long tradition in the area. Rubin in Kruševac originated in 1955 and is best known for vinjak, a brandy similar to cognac.
The industrial giant Takovo was established in 1959 in Gornji Mi lanovac, Serbia, where it produced a range of confectionery and fruit products and beverages, including rakija. Prijedorčanka was established in 1972 in its namesake town in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Socialism was indeed the era of Big Rakija. Nevertheless, as one Serbian rakija expert and promoter told the BBC, “In the era of socialist Yugoslavia, there were several strong companies that produced brandy, and the price-quality ratio of the brandy on store shelves was solid.”
Meanwhile, people in villages continued growing plums and making moonshine. In a 1950s study Joel Halpern describes plum growing in the Šumadijan village of Orašac, thusly: “Neat plum orchards, now rows of bare-branched trees, now obscuring the cottages in clouds of pinkwhite petals, now hung with purple fruit, surround each homestead.” Whole families would pick plums and process them into rakija; many farmers also made pekmez and prunes. Residue was fed to the pigs.
There’s a funny anecdote about Tito and rakija. In June 1961, president Tito was visiting Mount Jastrebac, near Kruševac, in central Serbia. In the middle of the night, unbeknownst to his security detail, he snuck out of his motel room and visited with the reception staff. He spotted a flask and asked what it was. “Rakija, Comrade Tito,” said the guard. Tito took a few sips and went back to his room. Now the secret service reacted. They confiscated the bottle fearing it might be poison, and questioned the tipsy staff, who said, “Comrade Tito drank, so we drank too.”
But Tito may have simply been adjusting his tastes to the audience. A TIME magazine reporter in 1954 noted that at an annual dinner of foreign correspondents in Belgrade, the “62-year-old dictator reject[ed] native rakija in favor of three Martinis.”
When American businessmen and managers toured the Zastava car-making factory in the 1980s to determine whether they could import the Yugo car to the US, they were horrified not just by the outdated production methods but also by the fact that workers smoked cigarettes and drank slivovitz on the job, as early as 8 am. One visitor in the winter recalled asking a worker why he drank. “I’m cold, so I drink to warm up,” the worker said. But then he got to ask the same worker the same question in the spring when it was warm outside, and the worker laughed and said, “I helps me to cool off.”
A few years after he made Who’s That Singing Over There? Slobodan Šijan directed the comedy, The Secret of a Monastery Rakija. An American businessman wants to restore a monastery known for making supposedly magical rakija.
But all the silent monks are gone, so he invites any survivors to make themselves known and be paid for their expertise. Needless to say, many other characters answer the ad…
Socialist Yugoslavia struggled with alcoholism. Physicians warned that alcoholism represented ‘one of the most difficult problems of contemporary social medicine’ and the single most significant national problem facing Yugoslavia. Alcoholism was said to hamper worker productivity, threaten family structures, increase criminal behaviors, and degrade its military defense preparedness. Year after year, Yugoslavs were said to be drinking more and at earlier and earlier ages, and excessive drinking spread to previously low-drinking populations of women and Muslims.
Some saw this as the result of modernization, with rural people struggling to adapt to urban life; others saw the opposite, where cultural traditions and lack of education in rural areas drove people to continue to drink homemade spirits. Growing incomes helped more people to afford the extra expense of booze and industrial production of alcohol drove prices down. Either way, alcoholism was a social illness.
As every regime since the Habsburgs, Yugoslav communists fought against alcoholism. Some proposed a mass culling of plum trees to eliminate the source of šljivovica. Others pushed propaganda campaigns, featuring films, media articles, and trainings.
The Yugoslavs also developed unique treatment and rehabilitation methods, including the education adn therapeutic community- based Hudolin Method, which continues to be used around the world today, and social clubs for recovering alcoholics.
But, while alcoholism was the seventeenth most commonly treated medical problem in 1969 by the mid-1980s it was the seventh; and one in seven patients in Yugoslav psychiatric hospitals was diagnosed with alcoholism.
In the 1990s, many state enterprises went bankrupt or were privatized, and rakija production suffered. In addition, many private distillers were convinced rakija was better to those foreign concoctions like scotch or cognac and thus convinced of the drink’s inherent superiority failed to invest in marketing. The gray and black market filled the void. And a rocker got inspired.
BILL GOULD: We were in Berlin, when the Wall came down, we played that night, so that’s when we were really kind of in our ascendancy.
PETER KORCHNAK: Bill Gould, the rakijamerican, again.
BILL GOULD: And very soon afterwards, pretty much all of Eastern Europe, the governments fell and that world opened up for touring. So, to me, being an American and being sheltered from that part of the world, it was really like, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see, and I just got deeper and deeper. And the more I got into that area, the more I wanted to know.
PETER KORCHNAK: Gould told Food and Wine magazine that he first tried rakija in May 1992 at the Faith No More concert in Budapest, when some bottles Serbian fans brought to the show ended up backstage. https://www.foodandwine.com/what-is-rakia-6822616
BILL GOULD: And, you know, fast forward 30 years later, I just really love rakija. I went to somebody’s house that I had just an amazing rakia. And I’ve been going I was doing things like going out to Serbia, just basically to get rakija and bring some good stuff home, because it just in the States, it just doesn’t exist. It’s this šljivovica that’s really made in factories, you know, cheap stuff, nothing like I can get out there. And I would get, you know, till my suitcase full of bottles, and then, you know, last me a week or something, and then till the next time, right.
PETER KORCHNAK: Maybe it’s a midlife crisis but Gould really does care a lot about rakija. You could almost say he wants it all but he can’t have it.
In 2017, Serbia was number four but slipping in rankings, most recently overtaken by the United States where aging boomers are in ever greater need of prunes.
Dips and doodles aside, plum production in Serbia is seeing a down trend over the years, about 14 percent in the past decade.
More than half of all fruit orchards in Serbia are plum but tree numbers are down by a quarter since Tito died.
The trend seems to be a continuation from the socialist period. There were times when plum was the only Serbian export product, then one of the best selling export products; nowadays, Serbian plum exports are so low as to be irrrelevant in economic terms. The main problems are outdated cultivation methods, limited by farm size, and disease, which has wiped out the požegača varietal.
Serbia, and other rakija making regions in the Balkans, are also experiencing aging and depopulation. Villagers age and with them dies out the rakija making craft. Younger people leave villages for cities, never to return. Serbs and Bosnians and Croats are leaving their countries in droves.
BILL GOULD: Even in Serbia, the depopulation of the rural areas is a real thing. Even in the farm, you know, it’s hard to get people to help you pick plums. I mean, there’s nobody there. But I’m hoping to that by bringing some recognition, I mean, let’s face it, it’s a commercial business, I’m selling this to stores, you know, and I think as picking up Americans and people who appreciate the stuff, that it gives some inspiration out there, that this is something that you can work on that can help keep some of this nature going and not let these farms just go to seed.
PETER KORCHNAK: A 2009 law on strong alcoholic beverages delivered another blow to rakija production in Serbia: it implemented requirements that made production difficult for smaller producers. The number of registered producers went from about 2,000 that year to 320 just seven years later.
In 2013, Serbia’s biggest rakija producer, NAVIP, went bust after 84 years in business.
[SOUNDBITE – “Rakija” by Magnifico (2023)]
The Revival of Rakija
A broke drunkard walks into a pub. “Barkeep, how much is one shot of rakija?” “One euro.” “And how much is one drop?” “Nothing, don’t be stupid,” says the bar tender. “Great,” says the drunk, “give me a shot full of rakija drops.”
PETER KORCHNAK: The end of the 1990s also saw the beginning of an ascendance of distilled spirits. 2023 is the first year distilled spirits overtook beer as the most popular alcoholic beverage in the US.
The trend, itself part of a bigger craft everything movement, came to the Balkans as well.
Every September since 2002, the annual festival and competition of rakija, Rakijada, has been held in Pranjani, near Čačak, Serbia. The word itself plays on the Serbian word for the Olympics, olimpijada; the timing is auspicious, during the harvest of plums. A vast majority of entries are by individual distillers. In my favorite category, quince, where the winner was Ilija Krunić from Pančevo, the quality did not reach the gold level this year.
A competing event ran from 2015 to 2022 in Bački Monoštor, a Vojvodinan village near Sombor. The Podunav association for the promotion of eco and rural tourism held their event, SFRJ Rakijada, on the occasion of the Day of the Republic, Yugoslavia’s birthday.
SFRJ is of course the acronym for the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but the event organizers turned it into One Hundred Bottles of Rakija of Yugoslavia. Promotion materials prominently used the Yugoslav flag and a bust of Tito, both of which were present on site. Some of the products also featured Yugoslav imagery, and the Yugoslav anthem was sung and Yugoslav music played on the speakers.
The underlying idea was that rakija is “the essence of brotherhood and unity” and that rakija re-united Yugoslavia here; the joke was that Yugoslavs were all united in one idea, that the rakija each of them made is the best.
Speaking of yugonostalgia, in 2008 Mitja Velikonja observed it was possible to drink a toast with a Slovenian brandy called Marshal as well as with Titova rakija medova, Tito’s Honey Rakija. In 2015, a Croatian entrepreneur made a rakija simply named Tito for export to China.
The international trade fair, Spirit Fest Sarajevo, was launched in 2012. This year’s award for the best šljivovica went to Rubin. In 2016, the exhibition, “Making and Drinking Rakija,” at the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade offered a comprehensive overview of practices and customs related to rakija in Serbia.
These were the precursors of rakija’s revival.
BILL GOULD: At the time, I decided to do this, the Balkans and Serbia in particular, was going through this kind of, like, renaissance with the spirit. I mean, the timing, I didn’t know that. But I found out that basically, you know, like most Eastern postwar places, with the rebuilding, state managed economies, built things to scale, you know, to bring back construction, they made food cheap and available to everybody. And, you know, with rakija that meant, you know, mass-producing inexpensive stuff, which became the norm. And the the really good stuff that I’d had that I got hooked on was stuff that people made at home and kept it at home. They didn’t, they didn’t sell it. In Serbia about I would say maybe six years ago, this thing happened where this young generation started going through what happens in a lot of places, they wanted to kind of rediscover the traditions, and they wanted to know what they were drinking, they wanted to know what the thing they had, where it came from, like the way you want to know where coffee comes from now.
And there was a blog in Serbia called Rakija Uglavnom that was getting into like, going into the villages going into places and sampling like artisanal rakija, and evaluating it, coming up with criteria, finding out the plums that were used, taking it really seriously, it wasn’t just a peasant farm spirit anymore. And that was just the beginning of a movement. And I got into Serbia around that time, and hooked up with my people.
PETER KORCHNAK: Rakija, uglavnom, Rakija Mostly, was created to quote, “present Serbian rakija as a high-quality, urban, and motivating product.” The founders, Ilija Malović and Zoran Radoman, were sick and tired of the portrayal of rakija as a source of drunkenness and primitivism, so they made a site exploring and evaluating rakija the same way wine is.
BILL GOULD: A friend of mine who I knew he told me about this tasting we went together and the guys who were running Rakija Uglavnom blog were running it and they blew my mind. They blew my mind on rakija, I had a very superficial kind of— I liked it. I liked it. I knew what I liked, but I didn’t really know technically, I was just kind of a musician that loved drinking rakija I’m gonna bring it here and they kind of like schooled me big time and that they had me drinking some fake rakija. And they didn’t tell me about it. And then they told me about it just to test made me feel like an idiot.
PETER KORCHNAK: Just to test you.
BILL GOULD. Yeah, but that was a that was a mind blowing night and I got to know these guys and I met my producers at that event, that tasting event. And that was really when I realized like this is a real thing. Like these are serious people and we can do something really good.
So it was the absolute best time to be doing something like this because it really kind of had a purpose to it. And then coming back to the States, my job, oddly enough, as an American is educating people who have been getting, you know, importing their spirits from the old world and telling them, look at some of the stuff is factory made, the stuff that you really want is the stuff made by hand, right? It’s a really strange thing to be doing. But kind of cool. I would say.
I went out there in 2018, I think I imported my first pallet of rakia into LA, Oakland 2019. Okay, and then the pandemic hit 2020 and that kind of, you know, how that goes.
PETER KORCHNAK: I mean, you say you decided to do it, you’re making just kind of sound easy. You know, I like this thing, so I decide to do it.
BILL GOULD: It wasn’t easy.
I knew a guy who worked for a distributor in California. And I went to his house. I’d known him since high school and I just said, Hey, man, just tell me why this is a stupid idea for a musician to get into this crazy business with the laws and he’s like, you have to do it. You have to do it and I’ll help you do it. I have an importing license and you can use mine to get something here and the first to see how it works. So I left his house like, kind of like, I kind of had to do it after that point, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.
PETER KORCHNAK: “There is nothing pretentious about brandy – it is not cognac, there is nothing elitist about it,” Gould said in an interview in 2021.
BILL GOULD: Then it was like, wow, the learning curve of yeah, the laws. We have 50 states in this country, and every state has a different law with alcohol.
But here I am, I’m an American guy bringing something that Americans don’t know about. Meanwhile, there’s guys like European stores, restaurants, and then like this weird American guys here trying to sell me rakija. It didn’t they were like, What the fuck is up with this guy? Who is this guy?
PETER KORCHNAK: Gould’s Yebiga Rakija is bottled on a farm in the mountains of Goč, near Kraljevo. The Urošević family sell their rakija in Serbia under the brand Tok. In the Yugoslav times, father Urošević, Ljuba, worked at a large distillery, and Tok is his retirement project; his kids grew up collecting plums at the family orchard.
BILL GOULD: My guys are really ultra purists. And it’s all about not getting in the way of the fruit, you know, letting it express itself. So doing as minimal impact as possible. Our plums are grown up on a mountain, that’s kind of high elevation that’s surrounded by pine trees. So in my rakija you’re going to taste a little bit of like pine oil, pine needle minerals, stuff from the mountain, it’s got a little different characteristic to it.
We have it bottled there on the farm. So our stuff’s made on this farm in the middle of Serbia in an area called Šumadija which is known for plums and distillation. So it’s on a small farm on the mountain, and the father who actually is a master distiller who makes it, he’s does it completely no cheating. He’s just like a real, real purist. I mean, I just can’t think of better people to who I met up with. And I’ve been going to the farm every— I go to two times a year now. And I feel like it’s kind of like, I feel like I’m part of it with them, you know, they really brought me into their family.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s what’s beautiful about rakija, just generally, one you have different various variations or different varietals of the same fruit and you have different regions, and then you have different fruits and it’s just this whole rich world that’s kind of unexplored in terms of the US, alcohol or US spirits, spirits market.
BILL GOULD: It’s kinda like more like wine. Right? Yeah, there you go. Even, you know, down the street, just a little bit of different process and a different land. You know, it tastes a little bit different. And, I mean, that’s why, you know, I mean, I can show you, you’re gonna hear it, but if you look at this, like, I have all these different rakijas because
PETER KORCHNAK: Oh, beautiful.
They’re all different. You know?
PETER KORCHNAK: You are, you’re a really collector.
BILL GOULD: I’m into it, dude.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tok is one of the prime rakija brands on the Serbian market.
Prime and rare.
A study published earlier this year found that only four percent of Serbian distillers have fully mastered and deploy all facets of marketing. The study, conducted mid-pandemic, surveyed 104 distillers, only eight of whom distilled rakija professionally in a sanctioned, registered distillery; 27 sold the product legally and the rest of the sample sell their product in the gray market.
This tracks with the estimate by Serbia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management that 80 percent of the rakija market in Serbia is illegal, meaning producers don’t pay any taxes or excise charges. Small-scale producers operate an estimated tens of thousands of pot stills in the country. There are ten times as many unregistered distillers as there are official ones. With 50 to 60 million liters of rakija distilled annually in Serbia, that’s a lot of quote unquote illegal booze.
Another conclusion in the study was that the fact that the rakija market is essentially unregulated and disorderly presents an obstacle to its growth and development.
You can buy rakija from a friend, who in turn may have it from their family or someone they know. I saw stickers that said “Rakija for sale” and a phone number defacing busses in Belgrade. People sell rakija in green plastic bottles and no labels at markets or outside train or bus stations.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: There was a woman who I spoke to regularly on the market, Slavica and she was selling rakija on the market in these, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but these plastic bottles with a red cap that you can buy in any agricultural shop and they sell anything in it from rakija to defrosting liquids and other chemicals and so on. Yeah this that standard plastic bottles.
PETER KORCHNAK: Artist Iskra Vukšić again.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: And she had them on the on the market, she did not have any labels on it because she liked when people would ask her what is in it, so the conversation to her was very important. But it was a little bit under the table selling because it’s legislated against, you cannot just sell your home brew rakija. Yet, every time that the police or some authority would come, they would just be reprimanded her and other people in the market and then for two weeks they would keep the bottles under the table until everybody would forget about it again a little bit and they would put it out again and nothing would ever really happen because she said it’s a javna tajna, and javna tajna means a public secret or a secret that is well known. And that led to the story of a mayor or some other authority figure who was brewing rakija for sale. But of course because he had the quite high position, it was even more dodgy to do this kind of illegal stuff. So he had very nice labels printed and under his name it said, Za prijatelje, which means for friends, so the entire label and the design of the label was suggesting that he was brewing it to give away to his friends. And we thought that was very funny story, sort of javna tajna za prijateljeou have an outline as a pre attorney and so on with which even though things are not fully allowed, they exist in the public eye as secrets.
PETER KORCHNAK: Javna Tajna became the name for Vukšić and Volkova’s art project.
Back in Serbia, according to the Serbian distillers study, “a typical small Serbian distillery intended for the production of rakija is that of a man in his forties without a university degree. They have a small distillery with a capacity of 100 liters [placed outside their house]. They use their own fruit and most often distill plums. They work alone and distilling rakija is their hobby. Their main objective is to produce enough rakija for themselves and all visitors, but they also want to sell it. (…) Even if they sell rakija, they do not settle their obligations to the state and compete unfairly with registered distilleries.” End quote.
Meanwhile, perhaps 800 registered distilleries operate in Serbia, but only a small number of brands are available on the market.
Walk into any supermarket in Serbia and a lot if not most of what you’ll see will be industrial rakija, made from ethanol with artificial flavors, not fruit. These will stand next to a handful of higher-end bottles. One of these will be Yugoslavia Heroes, whose label features a drawing of Tito’s Partisans against the backdrop of a giant red five-pointed star. Or try Stara Sokolova, established in the 1990s; I’ve seen this this brand at one liquor store in Portland, Oregon and the Two Brothers Grill and Rakija Bar nearby features five of its products in its rakija lineup.
Anyway, rakija isn’t the most profitable of industries. The study identified a few causes of this, including inferior product and lack of branding and promotion, which leads to lower prices.
In terms of product quality, most distillers in the study make rakija the way their grandfathers did, focusing on cost, rather than the consumer, which leads to lower quality product and lower price. Only one in four surveyed distillers use scientific methods to make rakija and see better rakija sell at higher prices, as much as 60 percent over the fuddy-duddies. High-quality rakija is said to comprise less than 5 percent of production; again, obsolete technology is the main culprit.
The study also identified the failure to implement or in fact understand marketing as a cause for poor competitiveness of Serbian rakija. Quote, “As a cultural icon, Serbian rakija is mentioned much more often in folk songs than in business plans. It seems that Serbian rakija distillers are unclear as to who they are targeting with their marketing, which target group the product is intended for, and who will buy it.”
In fact, the best-selling spirit in Serbia is not rakija, but Rubin’s vinjak. The Yugoslav-era company sells some 3 million liters of vinjak every year.
New commercial rakija producers most often claim family tradition as the source of their craft. In fact, a great part of the rakija revival is driven by younger generations of distillers discovering, reviving, and yes, capitalizing on their heritage.
With their project Javna Tajna, Public Secret, Vukšić and Volkova have traced some of this resurgence and its history.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: We looked at fermentation and distillation in a slightly more abstract sense, as a kind of ancient science that goes back all the way into history across all of those shifts and schisms, and changing ideologies and so on. And that had the potential of creating a kind of continuation that we can also use to look at the future through. And so we started experimenting with fermentation as this kind of first step in distillation.
The fermenting yeasts are organisms, which needs some care and the right circumstances to live and then they start this transformation and growing process on their own. So you very much feel immediately that they are alive. And since they are the first step to creating spirits, we then kind of looked into the double meaning of the word spirits of spirits, as in the alcoholic spirits, but also spirits is in the spirits of the ancestors that came before us and so on, resurrected, kind of in this process of moonshine, brewing, fermenting, distilling, and ancient sciences. So that was more magical parts of the project.
And then we got the opportunity to go to the Kamen residency of artistic research and production in Orah, which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We quite quickly figured out that what we wanted to do there locally was really connect to other people who have this history, who have this knowledge, and to try to understand how this knowledge is passed on from generation to generation.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vukšić and Volkova interviewed locals and channeled their stories in performances, including a storytelling performance and a guided tour of a vineyard.
The duo sought the answer the question, How did people learn to distill and do they still?
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: Although for us the project came from an interest in bigger political question or historical questions, once I was speaking to people actually ask them very simple questions. So how did you learn to distill? Who taught you? And it was funny because people looked at me a little bit puzzled and initially, that gave me the feeling that I was asking the wrong question. But later I understood that this confusion perhaps about who taught you was exactly the point that I was asking them questions which come from a much more schoolish system of sit down and I will teach you something, I will walk you through the steps, this is how you do it. But actually, they were ever handed this kind of information. And it says a lot about the type of learning that happened. So people were just present as children, they were assisting, they were being they were being handed ingredients or tools to hold to fetch, maybe they were being helpful, maybe they were in the way. But in general, they were just bearing witness over this process until it became part of them.
And so that made us wonder what happens to embodied knowledge, in this context of massive migrations—young people are leaving massively from ex-Yugoslavia—but also droughts are challenging the growth of fruit and so on. So there is this atmosphere of disappearance of shrinkage. And it was actually something that people brought up in each conversation, regardless of how simple my questions were, they were very much bringing up the shrinkage of villages, the climate. So there is something happening right now, where people are afraid that these practices might disappear.
And something else that I learned, though, that I did not expect was that apparently more people started brewing rakija after the war. And there was one woman, Slavica, who brought this up first, she was saying that she never wanted to do it. She never wanted to work on the land. Her parents did and it was very hard work. And she had other plans for herself. And her father always told her that you have to learn, you can do whatever you want, you can do whatever job you want, or no job, it doesn’t matter, but you have to learn. And then you can do what you want. And so she went on to work in completely other field and so on. And in the war, she lost her job. And out of despair, actually, of not really knowing what to do next, she did start growing her own vegetables, her own fruit. Rakija is often a byproduct of that so she started making that as well because she remembered of what she learned. And now she sells rakija, and then she started also finding some joy in it. So instead of doing that rakija that her father was doing, she now goes into the mountain to find mountain herbs to make various like medicinal travaricas out of it, and so on. But she was one of many people who kind of showed that, you know, in a crisis, sometimes the craft comes back, the tradition comes back out of necessity. And at the same time, at this moment in time, it might be slowly disappearing, and this is what people fear.
EKATERINA VOLKOVA: It just happens that both my father and my grandfather, they distill their own drinks. And they, in past few years started having this, at family gatherings, this moment when they basically show off their produce, and then they do the tasting. And then the family members are commenting on what they liked the most, and so on. And so the history here is very different from the one in [the] Balkans. To me it always felt like the story of rakija comes kind of the from this fruitful point that climate is nice, there are all these different fruits growing, and so on. And then when you think about Russia, vodka, or the traditions of moonshine, it always out of scarcity and deficit, and maybe things being forbidden and prohibited.
PETER KORCHNAK: Rakija might be disappearing or is in many ways disappearing from the land because of depopulation, migration, aging, and so forth, urbanization. In your booklet you mentioned someone saying that there are more people in my village distilling rakija ad and drinking it, because it’s just simply how that how that village has been depopulated. And so, is there hope for rakija, is there hope for these lands. And this this ancient ancient craft that’s been around for hundreds of years?
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: I actually also met two teenagers who learned how to brew and are very adamant on continuing to do that, and keeping the tradition of their family and it’s also the family business. So, but what I found interesting in them is that they had no nostalgic narrative around that. It was very much a necessity, that they said people will come back and they will want to know where they are from and this is rooted in the land. So, it was really interesting to hear such young people say that actually, you know, they are continuing this knowledge, but they also feel that that it is human necessity somehow to understand what you are connected to.
And it was Baba Olga, who said that more more people brew rakija than drink it. So that is the rakija that I have here now. She was also saying, from the city and the grave, one doesn’t return. So I thought that was just a very beautiful, beautiful saying.
I don’t know, I also had some drinks with a pensioned couple, who was had also had this typical story that they used to brew, but now they don’t anymore, because they live in a city, they have a balcony and no yard anymore, and so on. And the man said cheersed with, “Better that the village dies, than the customs.” And so there was this idea that the custom can survive, even if the village is not there anymore. And this is something that is living in the memory of people themselves. So even if they don’t know how to brew anymore, or they don’t have a yard to grow to fruits anymore, and they have to buy it, and so on, that still we are connected to these memories, and to these customs.
EKATERINA VOLKOVA: The language of fermentation and distillation specifically is very rich of this double entendre, where you have culture, which is human culture, but you also have this yeast cultures that are doing something. The ideas are brewing as the alcohol; you distill the alcohol and the meaning out of something.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: I think we are doing such a traditional, almost nostalgic project. And we reflect on that a lot. I mean, also on what nostalgia is in itself, and whether or not we have to hold on to the past or so on. I think it’s really important for these traditions to stay alive. And in the same time, I personally, you know, want to would like to see them have a chance also to adapt to change.
EKATERINA VOLKOVA: Yeah, keep rakija alive, I say to that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Hear more secrets, public and otherwise, from Vukšić and Volkova in the extended episode.
Rakija’s revival extends beyond the Balkans, through the diaspora. In Sydney, Australia, two cousins of Macedonian origin, both of whom are less than 30 years old, started DNA Distillery during the pandemic; they focus on grape rakija.
Co-founder James Projcevski told Special Broadcasting Service that, the duo wanted “to learn a traditional skill, and learn about our culture and family in order to authentically move the tradition of making rakija forward in Australia.” Co-founder Monique Sutevski, said, “Rakija has been made by our family for five generations and now it’s our turn to bottle the magic and the legacy that comes with it.”
Sutevski also added that rakija is “very much an emblem of that cultural identity and togetherness that stands for love, joy and compassion. Despite the fact that there are so many different cultural groups in the Balkans, rakija is a tie that binds us all together.”
Rakija connecting people, indeed.
The international competition over rakija culminated in 2022 when “social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use of the traditional plum spirit—šljivovica” were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
UNESCO World Heritage Status gave rakija a good boost.
Tourism makes great use of rakija in Serbia.
You can have a flight of rakija before you even land in Belgrade on Air Serbia.
Many traditional tours include shots of rakija as part of the story. Specialty tours are also a thing. For example, the company Still In Belgrade Tours offers a rakija tour, which for 35 euros includes a 2-hour guided walk through Dorčol, a rakija shot at a bar, finger foods, and a distillery tour with more shots and sales.
A number of distillers around Serbia offer tours and tastings. The distillery in Vrčin, southeast of Belgrade, which has been making Bojkovčanka rakija since 1985 and is possibly the first legal distillery in Serbia, has been operating the Rakija Museum since 2016. The Museum boasts over 700 exhibits, including the world’s biggest bottle of rakija, a two-meter handblown behemoth.
The Rakija Bar in Belgrade has been around since 2006. Its menu boasts some 150 rakijas.
Rakija has made it to swag. On the personalized products marketplace Spreadshirt, the Yugo Gear store carries product emblazoned with their Rakija Drinking Team design: a traditional flat Serbian rakija bottle in lieu of the flames on the coat of arms of socialist Yugoslavia. Other shops’ designs include “Keep Calm, Drink Rakija,” “But First, Rakija,” “Keep the Whisky, Give me the Rakija,” “Rakija Is Love,” and “All I Need is Suvo Meso and Rakija” (suvo meso being dried meat).
But perhaps the most famous slogan, which went truly viral a few years ago when Lady Gaga was photographed wearing it on a t-shirt, is: “Fuck the coca, fuck the pizza, all we need is šljivovica.”
— Dušan Stanković (@DusanStankovic4) July 10, 2015
Rakija became quite a thing during the pandemic.
In 2022, the Alcohol Professor blog asked, Could the Balkan Spirit Rakija Be the Next Big Thing in Brandy?
Last spring, the Daily Beast asked, “Is This Rustic Southern European Booze the Next Mezcal?”
Another sign of rakija’s ascendance: the spirit is also making it into cocktails now. Fancier bars in Belgrade routinely mix cocktails featuring rakija. Abroad, Ambar in Washington, DC has Quince Up, featuring quince rakija with apple and lemon juices, simple syrup, and rhubarb bitters. Yebiga includes a number of recipes on their website. DNA Distillery in Sydney also promotes cocktails, including the Macedonian Mule, which comprises rakija, lime juice, ginger beer, and fresh mint, and which is quote, “sweet and spicy like Uncle Sasho’s first wife.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Dubioza Kolektiv released some of their work on Gould’s Koolarrow label. Like Kultur Shock, they now release their work on their own. Buy their music! And rakija. Their own Maksuzija rakija is a plum brandy with the slogan: “Rakija: Disinfecting People.”
BILL GOULD: You wouldn’t think about it but it is kind of a creative thing. I mean, I actually feel like going on tour when I play music for people, like introducing rakija is kind of like music. It’s a cultural expression and it’s coming from the heart, you know. And there’s I think there’s meaning to it. It’s a version that’s kind of out there in left field, you know, that I think that I get gratification turning people on to.
PETER KORCHNAK: The first time I had Yebiga Rakija was the bottle I bought in a liquor store in Fortuna, California, which was for me on the way between Oregon and the Avenue of the Giants. Middle of nowhere town, little reason to stop. Except the map on Yebiga Rakija’s website showed it as the nearest place I could get a bottle.
BILL GOULD: Anybody I recommend looking Fortuna up on the map just talking about? Yeah, there’s nothing around there. And I was getting these distributor reports. And like Fortuna, this market and Fortuna kept ordering some. I had no idea why, how they even knew about it or anything. We switched distributors, and I was contacting all the places that were ordering it to let them know we had a new distributor, and I called up that market and talked to the manager. And he’s like, oh, yeah, sure, yeah, we’re not ordering as much as we did, but yeah, there were these Bulgarian guys who were living up here in the mountains, and they were growing weed. They were coming down from the mountain and they were buying it all the time. Yeah, we were selling lots of it to them.
PETER KORCHNAK: And then they left the business and that was that for Yebiga.
BILL GOULD: Exactly.
PETER KORCHNAK: So Bill Gould, of Faith No More is going around selling the beverage in, in the liquor stores or whatever. So that must be a shock to people who recognize you or know your name. How’s that going?
BILL GOULD: It’s pretty weird. It’s kind of cool. I mean, I’ve met a lot of really amazing people that I wouldn’t have met. It’s kind of like going on tour without having to play music. But you know, it’s also people who like to eat and drink a lot, which I would have done this 20, 30 years ago. I would be having the time my life, but I just turned 60 this year and it’s a workout.
But I found myself like I was at St. Louis in Missouri about a month ago, and I was in a gas station liquor store, talking to an Indian guy, you know, trying to get him to carry some bottles and I was just Like, caught myself like, How the fuck did I get here?
PETER KORCHNAK: That just kind of gets you.
BILL GOULD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it was cool too. I mean, because this thing actually got me here. You know, it’s taking me to …. and be honest with you, the guy that I was talking to you knew a lot about spirits like he was a really interesting guy. So actually, I take I took it off the good way. Like, it’s pretty bizarre. My friends might not understand it, but I’m kind of digging it.
PETER KORCHNAK: So it is really nice. You said 50 states and then liquor store by liquor store. It’s almost like going house to house to the liquor.
BILL GOULD: Nobody knows anything about šljivovica. You’re starting from zero. It’s like, it’s crazy.
PETER KORCHNAK: Generally speaking, when you introduce it to not just liquor store owners, but customers, potential customers. How does that go? What’s the response? What do people say? What are some of the preconceived notions that you help dispel for them?
BILL GOULD: Well, šljivovica, as slivovitz has been around here for a while. It’s got really negative connotations with with bar people, American Barbie like, oh, that stuff’s firewater, you know, oh, god, yeah, my grandmother, you know, had that at her house, you know, we used to have to drink that stuff. So I’ve got to kind of go, this is not that slivovitz, this is, this is what your grandmother got, this is what she really wanted to get, was this. So there’s a little bit of that.
And there’s another word nobody has any idea was like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with it. You know, I could put it on my show, but nobody’s gonna ask for it, nobody’s gonna buy it. But, like, talking younger generation, I think that, you know, people get sick of being mass marketed a million tequilas and a million gins. You know, it’s a huge industry with lots of money. It’s a it’s a, I mean, this is a big economy here, and it’s a massive, massive, massive industry. And there’s something refreshing about something that’s handmade for real. I mean, there’s all these fake stories about whiskies, you know, you know, made in a still in a Kentucky farm, and it’s all bullshit, you know, it’s all manufactured, and everybody knows it’s bullshit, but they want to believe the lie. You know, there’s something about this, that people I’m in contact with it, like, this is actually a real thing made by real people, you know, so it’s, it’s okay. I’m very optimistic, actually.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yebiga Rakija is available in the US in two ways. Online, where as of this episode’s release you can get it in time for Orthodox Christmas. And in bars and stores in 10 states now, with Washington being the latest. Gould is working to add more.
BILL GOULD: I mean, every single state is a process. Yeah. And I mean, think of Got it like this, you know, like, to us, Colorado is an example. We’re not in Colorado, but like, I’m gonna write a letter. Hi, hello, my name is Bill. I played in the band Faith No More and I am importing this spirit from Serbia, you know, to a guy who’s running like a liquor distribution who’s never heard of rakija before, you know? That just like, the fuck is this stuff?
PETER KORCHNAK: Maybe he’s heard of Faith No More, though.
BILL GOULD: Whatever. I mean, I use it. But I mean, I’m saying you got a cold call. It takes time.
Yeah, those guys have to run a business and but you know, at the same time, you know, it’s complicated as it’s like being in a band, you know, think about when used to make records and tour, you know, there’s the cool record stores that wanted to check out your record, I mean, fit the more was a weird band, we were really out of left field from where we came from. And, but we made the connections and found those people, you know, and it made it more special. This is kind of similar to that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yeah, just evangelizing for, for this for this stranger, strange thing that people don’t know much about.
BILL GOULD: There’s so much depth, there’s so much to learn. There’s so many different places that it just keeps you coming back.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, embeds, links to purchase all the music you’ve heard, a list of sources, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Hear more stories and interviews with Vukšić, Volkova, and Gould in the extended episode. Navigate to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and get access to more rakija today.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music courtesy of Dario, Dubioza Kolektiv, Luboyna, Magnifico, Pedja Vujić, and S.A.R.S. Buy their music! All the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Special thanks to Lindsay Sauvé.
I am Peter Korchňak.
EKATERINA VOLKOVA: Živeli.
ISKRA VUKŠIĆ: Živeli.
PETER KORCHNAK: Živeli.
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