“Rakia is divine,” said Miloš Škorić. He let that short sentence digest with me for three long seconds, and then looked deep into my eyes and said, ‘divine’.
Škorić is the sales and marketing director for Gorda, a high-end rakia maker that has been in his family for centuries and is based in his ancestral village of Velereč in central Serbia.
As we sat in Deli 57, a hip restaurant and bar in Belgrade’s Savamala district, with small glasses of Gorda rakia in front of us, Škorić filled me in on what’s afoot with the inebriant elixir, a potent fruit-based brandy that can be made with anything from plums to grapes to pears.
“Rakia has long been something that only old people drank in villages. Young urbanites preferred Scotch or wine or beer,” he said. “But in the last few years, young people have begun drinking it. Bars are stocking high-quality versions of it. And some are even making cocktails with it.”
If you’re travelling in the Balkans, avoiding rakia is about as difficult as evading yoga-mat–wielding tourists in Bali, ziplining in Costa Rica or bad restaurants in any neighbourhood called ‘Little Italy’. Rakia, which is really just an umbrella term for fruit brandy, is ubiquitous. In Croatia and Montenegro, where grapes grow more liberally, they make loza, a grape-based rakia. Here in Serbia, where the plum is the national fruit, it’s all about šljiva, or plum-based brandy. There’s also rakia made with quince, apricot, apples and even bananas.
And, by the sounds of it, the liquor – which ranges from 40% to 60% proof – is not going away any time soon. Although the potent potable is found throughout the region, it is most associated with Serbia, the country with the highest per capita rate of rakia consumption.
When I walked across the Vojvodina region in northern Serbia two years ago, you pretty much only had to make eye contact with someone and within minutes you’d be sampling their homemade plum-spiked moonshine. I’d awake at my village inn or hotel to find a hearty breakfast waiting for me, complete with a bottle of rakia to wash down my coffee.
Even the night before I met Škorić at Deli 57, hoping to take a night off from the miasma of grilled meat that is on offer everywhere in this small country, I stopped into a take-out salad place in the Skadarlija section of Belgrade. While I was waiting for my food, I began talking to the owner. When he learned I was interested in rakia, he busted out a one-litre plastic water bottle filled with a beige liquid, and, unscrewing the lid, said, “You have to try my grandfather’s rakia. It’s the best. I promise you that.”
Everyone has a father or grandfather who happens to make rakia. And, like an Italian mama’s Bolognese sauce, it’s always ‘the best’. In fact, the culture of rakia has long been a mostly personal endeavour, with Serbs making and drinking it at home. There are more than 10,000 private rakia makers in Serbia, and the Serbian government allows citizens to distil up to 200 litres per year – they just can’t sell it, although many do on the sly.
Everyone has a father or grandfather who happens to make rakia. And, like an Italian mama’s Bolognese sauce, it’s always ‘the best’.
Some of the people I talked to linked the Balkans’ culture of home distilling to the centuries-long occupation by the Ottomans. The Turks levied a tax of 12 akçes on rakia, which kept production in check. But when Serbia became a semi-independent state in the early 19th Century, the tax was abolished and individual and private rakia production revved up.
Everything changed, though, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Many of Serbia’s factories were blown up by NATO forces, including a lot of big rakia makers. “After the wars,” Škorić said, “we were ashamed, and looked outside our borders for inspiration. Our traditions were misplaced.” But with a new generation of drinkers coming of age who are less attached to the damage of the wars of the ‘90s, those traditions are making a comeback.
And part of that comeback includes extremely high-quality brandy. Gorda is not the only high-end rakia maker in the country. There’s also Zarić, Zlatni Tok, Jelički Dukat and Stara Sokolova, among others. What sets them apart from the stomach-melting rotgut you might drink in someone’s back garden is not just the quality of the fruit.
“In home-distilled rakia,” Škorić said, “they put bunches of plums in, including part of the branch and the pits. We separate all that, adding just the fruit. And then we age it in oak barrels for seven years.”
As a result, Gorda has a slightly sweeter taste and is also reminiscent of Cognac, thanks to the long barrel-aging process. It’s utterly drinkable and perhaps not surprising that Copenhagen’s Noma, one of the most lauded restaurants on the planet, chose to serve it.
Nataša Govedarica, a rakia aficionado who has a healthy collection of rare and high-quality bottles in her home liquor cabinet, is thrilled with the rakia revolution. “It used to be that if you drank too much low-quality rakia or the stuff they sell in the supermarket, there were some serious consequences in the morning,” she told me as we sat in Rakia Bar, a rakia-focused watering hole in the centre of Belgrade that offers up to 50 variations.
Not that all domaca, as they call homemade rakia here, is bad. There are some home distillers who put great pride in their work. One of Govedarica’s favourite rakia makers happens to be the cleaning lady in her office, who makes it at home with her husband. When I hiked across Vojvodina with my friend Duško Medić, we spent a couple days at his parents’ house in Apatin on the Danube River at the Serbian-Croatian border. The second we traipsed in the door, the rakia came out. His father’s ‘brand’ even had his own labels on every bottle (complete with a photo of himself). As soon as I drained my glass of the transparent tipple that had subtle sweet notes, it would magically be refilled within seconds.
I later sat down with Dimitrije Stevanovic, co-owner of Rakia Bar. The bar in and of itself is a revolutionary idea, considering the humble, rural traditions that rakia-drinking culture is associated with. As he took me on a rakia tour – drinking a butterscotch-like 10-year aged rakia created by the Serbian royal family as well as a more floral-tasting rakia made with apricot – he schooled me on the difference between good and bad versions.
“There should be a smoothness to it. Old-school rakia drinkers still want that rough texture to burn your throat a bit. It’s macho. But the new high-end rakias, it should not only be smooth but there should be a nice balance of flavours. You should be able to equally detect the fruit and the oakiness from the barrel.” And for those not wanting to go straight to the hard stuff, the bar offers a menu of cocktails, including a mulled rakia for winter and refreshing tonic-laced drinks for summer.
You should be able to equally detect the fruit and the oakiness from the barrel.”
I’ve travelled a lot in the Balkans and have had my fair share of rakia. But until this visit to Belgrade, I was a novice drinker, satisfied with the nearly ubiquitous low-quality versions, thinking that they had to burn your throat (and your stomach lining and everything else in between). But now, after sampling so many inspired rakias, I am not certain I can go back.
“If you think of it as a 10-storey building,” Škorić had said when I’d met up with him a few days earlier, “we’re at floor two in terms of the development and evolution of rakia. We still have a long way to go. But at least we’re not in the cellar anymore.”
Rakia is moving up toward the heavens. Divine, indeed.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.