Connoisseurs with their rakija. Homemade rakija is typically stored in used plastic water bottles like those on the table.

Connoisseurs with their rakija. Homemade rakija is typically stored in used plastic water bottles like those on the table.

So you’d like to come across as a connoisseur of fine rakija, the brandy of the Balkans, nationalism in a bottle. First, we’ll talk about what you’re drinking, then how to be a snob about it.

1. What type of rakija is it?

Rakijas are generally named for the Serbian word for the fruit they are made from:

 Šljivovica

Plum brandy made everywhere, but particularly in central and western Serbia

 Medovača

Plum brandy with added honey; very sweet — not for men with something to prove

 Travarica

Herb-infused grape or plum brandy from eastern Serbia and Croatia

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 Dunjevača

Quince brandy from Vojvodina and sometimes southern Serbia

 Viljamovka

Pear brandy, made throughout Serbia

 Jabukovača

Apple brandy, typical of southern Serbia

 Kajsijevača

Apricot brandy, typical of northern Serbia

 Loza

Grape brandy, made throughout Serbia and particularly in Montenegro

To become rakija, the fruit in question is put through a distilling process. In Serbia, whole fruits are put in the still (as opposed to, for example, Norman calvados, where only the juice is distilled). When making bad commercial rakija, producers sometimes “cheat” and add sugar in the distilling process to increase the alcohol content.

2. Is it single- or double-distilled?
Commercial rakija is often single-distilled, which means that it runs through the still once, resulting in around 25 percent alcohol. Single-distilled rakija retains a sharp flavor of whatever fruit it is made from.

Homemade rakija production. Photo: Lorenzo Ridi

Homemade rakija production. Photo: Lorenzo Ridi

The best domaća (homemade) rakija is often double distilled; this means that the result of the first distillation is run through the still again, creating a product that is perhaps 60 percent alcohol, and then diluted with water to anywhere from 25 to 50 percent alcohol. Double-distilled rakija has a cleaner taste; it is less overtly pungent of the fruit it was made from.

3. Is it aged?

Often, better rakija is aged in oak barrels; it can be aged from a few years to even several decades. This gives the rakija a more complex taste and a brown or golden color (otherwise, rakija is usually clear).

Now, drink and talk.

Raise your glass of rakija and give it a sniff. Is there a strong presence of the fruit? The name of the rakija tells you which fruit you’re dealing with, so you can talk about that particular fruit’s presence, or lack thereof — if it’s double-distilled, the fruit’s presence will be weaker. If it has been aged, the oak cask will be present.

Take a sip. As with a fine wine, you can talk about notes of any fragrant thing vaguely suggested by the aromas, however removed it may be seem from fruit brandy. Here are some words you might use to describe aromas from a fine, aged rakija:

  • Vanilla
  • Chocolate
  • Smoke
  • Tobacco
  • Oak

Finally, the most commonly repeated rule of thumb for rakija tasting is this: if the rakija burns in your throat as it goes down, it is bad rakija (to really insult a rakija, call it brlja). If, however, it burns in your chest, it is quality stuff.

TO HOBNOB WITH RAKIJA SNOBS: One of my main sources for rakija wisdom is Branko Nešić, the general manager of Belgrade’s Rakia Bar, which offers an informative and boozy Rakija Tour. He also organizes Rakija Fest, Belgrade’s relatively new annual gathering, featuring rakija tastings, an international rakija contest, and lectures. Or, if you just want to buy a bottle, the Rakia Bar store offers its own selection of constantly changing, store-branded-and-approved homemade rakijas.