The novelist and painter Momčilo “Momo” Kapor, a longtime Belgrade resident, said it best: “In rakija is the essence of the Serbian being—first joy, then celebration of taste, then anger, compassion, the feeling that the world is good and that all those who drink it are friends.”
While visiting friends in Belgrade, I set out on a quest to sample Serbia’s soul. Rakija is a clear brandy made from distilled, fermented fruit. As a relative lightweight, I enlisted Luka, a friend’s 26-year-old cousin, as my rakija-drinking buddy.
A student at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Geography, Luka was fresh off an exam and working on a six-hour commercial shoot for a headache medication. He was ready for a drink.
“Every house has some kind of rakija,” Luka told me. “Without that, it’s not home. It’s cultural.”
In Serbia, they say rakija speaks a thousand languages. Turks brought the word rakija to the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s derived from the Arabic word al-rak, which means “drop of sweat.” Similar names (arak, raki, rakia, rakija) exist in countries like Iran, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria, and countries that were part of the former Yugoslavia.
“People in Serbia treat rakija as medicine,” said Miodrag Popović, acting director of the Tourist Organization of Belgrade, as he sipped a glass of plum rakija. “In villages in Serbia, people drink rakija with coffee when they wake up.”
First, they take one to two teaspoons of slatko, a caramelized fruit sugar. “Germs gather around slatko, coffee blacks them out, then rakija kills them all,” he said.
When children have fevers, many parents even rub rakija on the child’s chest, believing it will help pull out high temperatures.
“In the winter when you feel cold or have a cold, you make šumadijski čaj,” said Popović. A single serving is made with two-parts rakija, one-part water and a teaspoon of sugar. The mixture is warmed in a džezva—a beaker-like pot used to make Turkish coffee. Popović asserts the concoction is great for relieving stress and lifting depression.
Traditionally, rakija was used to celebrate special events. People buried their homemade rakija and dug it up for births or marriages. Everyone has their own recipe, and each thinks their домаћа ракија (homemade rakija) is the best.
Luka joined me at Ambar in the trendy Beton Hala district, located in the Savamala neighborhood along the Sava river. Ambar, which means “barn” in Serbian, serves traditional Balkan cuisine and has outposts in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia.
Decorated with pieces of barnwood over 100 years old, the Belgrade location offers more than 40 different varieties of rakija. The manager, Nenad Simić, selected a few of his personal favorites for us to try.
“Germs gather around slatko, coffee blacks them out, then rakija kills them all.”
I started with Zlatni Tok, a blend of four types of plum distillates aged between five and 12 years. For a spirit that typically has a minimum of 40% alcohol (and often much more in the homemade variations) the taste was incredibly smooth.
Apricot, quince, pear and apple are just a handful of varieties you’ll find on menus across the city. But the undisputed champion of rakija is šljivovica, a Serbian plum brandy. Serbia is one of the leading plum growers in the world, and šljivovica is synonymous with Serbian hospitality.
“Rakija, connecting people,” joked Luka and Nenad, a riff on the slogan of a well-known technology company. We clinked glasses and said, “Živeli!”
Luka and I tasted a handful of rakijas at Ambar, all of which impressed. Two standouts: Magija, an apricot brandy from the famous Zarić Distillery, which had an intense aroma like an orchard in summer, and Destilerija Hubert 1924 Dunja Barrique, quince brandy aged in former cognac barrels for two years.
“Klizi,” said Luka, which translates to, “it has a good flow.”
Professor Radoslav Paunović’s limited-production šljivovica was served in a Cognac glass. As Luka swirled it, he noted, “You can drink it like milk.”
Next up were two innovative rakija-based cocktails created by cocktail consultant Esteban Ordonez. The “Ambar Colada,” was made with quince rakija, whey, domestic kaymak cheese, vanilla and black sesame, while the “Welcome to Belgrade,” used an apple-based rakija with cardamom.
After leaving Ambar, Luka called his cousin, Siniša, and we made a stop for ćevapčići, grilled Balkan sausages that helped soak up the alcohol. The night before, Siniša and his wife, Ivana, had taken me to Pristan, a splav (raft bar) located near tennis star Novak Djokovic’s training center. There we sipped Manastir Kovilj, a unique rakija produced by monks.
Siniša and Ivana joined us with another friend and we sat alfresco at Rakia Bar Belgrade in the city center. The menu, cleverly printed on CD cases, featured 54 rakijas, each listed like a numbered song.
“We usually don’t drink it in summer,” said Siniša, as we sweated together on the hot June night. He did concede, however, “People used to drink one to two shots in the morning to get through the day.”
Ivana added that her grandfather, 94, still drinks one before lunch.
On the Air Serbia flight home to New York City (thankfully nonstop after my drinking adventures in Belgrade) I browsed the duty-free catalog to pass time and came across a brand of rakija called Fairy Grass, produced by Rakia Bar, and made of plums, honey and herbs. For $25 I purchased the bottle, comforted in the knowledge that once home, I could still taste the soul of Serbia any time I desired.