Recently I met with Geri, 30, to chat about drinking habits in Bulgaria. She claimed she wasn’t much of a drinker herself, but I’m not so sure…
What’s your view on your national drink Rakiya?
It is similar to Pisco or Grappa as it is often made from grapes. We use the whole grape rather than just the skin. There’s also Rakiya made from different fruits such as plums, figs, pears, apricots or cherries. You wait till the fruit is ripe enough to fall off the tree before you can use it to make Rakiya. My father makes his own, but sometimes he doesn’t use just one type of fruit but all of them. Whatever is available.
So you’ve grown up in a Rakiya-distilling family. Is it common for people to make it at home?
Most households have large oak barrels in the basement, where they mix water, fruit and sugar and leave it to sit for about three weeks, moving it twice a day. My father makes Rakiya every year, each time the recipe is slightly different. Sometimes he uses herbs such as coriander, honey, walnuts or even smoked wood to get different flavours. Other times he might just use grapes from our garden.
Most towns and villages have micro-distilleries where you book a time slot to go and get your Rakiya mix distilled in small copper still. They will also do the bottling. It is cheaper than having your own stills. These homemade versions varies in strength and can be as high as 80% ABV.
I’d love to visit some of these distilleries…
It’s not really a distillery as such, just some guy who managed to save enough money to buy a still and is now making money by doing the distilling for others. The customer also needs to bring their own wood.
How do you drink it?
As Bulgaria is known for its rose valleys (and cheese and yoghurt), we mix Rakiya with rose oil and lemonade as a refreshing summer drink. We also drink it neat or with a drop of water. In the winter we serve it at room temperature or heated with sugar and honey, like a hot toddy.
You can also drink Rakiya as an aperitif, like the Italians do. Aperitif takes place between five and seven o’clock and in my family we serve cured meats, cheeses, salads and other foods. Everything is homemade. We grow most things at home and use our own farm animals for meats, eggs and making cheese. In fact, I stopped eating meat as I saw too many goats being slaughtered when I was younger and it has put me off meat.
Wow, not sure about killing goats, but I’d love to be more self-sufficient like that! Do you miss that type of life at all?
I really like the whole eating and drinking culture back home. When we go to a restaurant everyone can order food when they want according to what they feel like eating at that time, rather than everyone ordering food at the same time or everything at once. You enjoy several plates of mezze and drink the whole evening. Or day!
Especially if we are at someone’s house, or people come to us, we tend to eat for up to six hours. The women of the house will do the cooking, including BBQs. The atmosphere is just great; I especially enjoy it now as I will be doing the drinking rather than the cooking.
What is your drink of choice?
My father might give me a bottle of his Rakiya when I visit, but other times I hardly drink Rakiya. My mum used to use it for medicinal purposes; for example, she used to cover me in bandages soaked in Rakiya and vinegar to reduce fever, and the smell has put me off drinking it. I make the occasional cocktail from it, but that’s about it.
I prefer spiced rum or gin and tonic instead. I’ve recently discovered Kraken and cranberry – it’s definitely my favourite at the moment!
Could you tell me more about using Rakiya as medicine?
It cures everything from sore stomach to toothache, cough or even sore feet! It is recommended to drink around 25 to 50ml, no more than 70ml, of Rakiya at night before bed to keep headaches away and to maintain a healthy weight and good heart. I’ve also seen my mother to clean windows with it once, and I’ve used it to clean jewellery…
Very versatile spirit then! Is there any special occasions you drink Rakiya?
They do drink Rakiya on any occasion; it can be at a celebration or lunch and it is always given as a welcome drink for people visiting your home. Like I mentioned before, most people in the town make their own so they don’t really need to buy anything else. Some people also make their own wine.
If you get your hands on some Rakiya (I suggest ordering it online or visiting one of the many Bulgarian shops in London, for example), here’s Geri’s favourite cocktail recipe.
Orange peel from 2 oranges
Juice of an orange
A bottle of white wine
1 litre soda water
60ml sugar syrup (or a little more if you prefer your Sangria sweeter)
If possible, soak the orange peel in Rakiya overnight for extra flavour. Mix all the ingredients together in a jug and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or more. Serve with ice.