Rakija liquor is a Macedonian clear spirit brandy made from fermented fruit. But it’s also so much more than a favourite family tipple. Macedonians will tell you their beloved rakija takes pride of place as a vital part of their identity and tradition – a way of life if you will.
As such, secret family recipes are carried down through the generations. Firm and fiery bonds are forged over its liquid potency. To this day, the Macedonians offer guests rakija as a sign of hospitality.
Would you believe however, that this favourite local liquor isn’t actually homegrown? In fact, it is Turkey we have to thank for introducing the drink in the 14th century, with variations thereof initially made across the East.
Later, in the 15th century, national drinks began to emerge across the rest of the world – fernet in Argentina, tequila in Mexico, singani in Bolivia, rum in Cuba, bourbon in America, vodka in Russia, single malt whisky in Scotland, pastis in France, ouzo in Greece, gin in England, schnapps in Germany and, of course, brandy in the Balkans.
Pretty much everyone got in on the action, making their own preferred version of the ‘water of life’. In the Balkans, they called their own concoction ‘rakija’, a derivative of the Turkish word ‘al-rak’, meaning sweet.
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Rakija beyond the drink
Interestingly, until the appearance of the first painkillers at the beginning of the 20th century, rakija was also used as a medical treatment.
Although you’ll likely need no additional excuse to savour it now, you could defer to its excellent ability to fight off just about any ailment, from stomach aches and muscle pain to colds and flu. Add a dash of olive oil, honey and garlic, and you’ll be well on your way to being the picture of good health.
But don’t take our word for it. Scientific research has shown that moderate drinking of rakija is actually really good for you (note – moderate). Studies have shown that drinking rakija liquor can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart failure, cardiovascular disease, increased blood pressure and even strokes.
Trusted rakija liquor family recipes
There’s always one keeper of the family recipe in Macedonian families. Each family recipe is so distinctive, it is said that one can actually tell which family has made it just on its taste.
In the rest of the Balkans, that recipe mostly includes fermented stone fruits like plums and apricots. In Macedonia, however, they make rakija from yellow and white grapes. A blend of honey, anise and other fruits are then added to give it their own distinctive twist.
How do the locals make rakija?
From November to March, Macedonian families pool their grape pulp leftovers (known as komina). Nothing goes to waste in this part of the world. The family distiller places the komina inside a copper vat and seals the top, heating the vat slowly to boil the mixture. As the liquid comes to a boil, the precious steam that bubbles to the top gets fed into yet another copper vat. And it is this steam that becomes rakija.
It takes about five hours to make the brew. And, of course, the Macedonians make an event out of it, throwing a party in anticipation of the potent elixir (the alcohol percentage can be as high as 60%) they have created thanks to the generosity of friends and family.
What’s more, you don’t have to wait for cocktail hour to have a taste of the strong stuff. The locals won’t blink an eye if you decide to have a sneaky rakija halfway through the day to put you in good spirits.
There are so many different types of rakija out there, but to name a few:
- Medova rakija: Honey brandy, enjoyed as an aperitif because of its sweetness.
- Shlivka rakija: Strong in taste and flavour, it’s a plum brandy with no colour.
- Trevarka rakija: A herbal brandy made from mint, lavender, sage, rosemary and other herbs. The intensity of smell and taste is dependent on how heavy the hands of the maker.
- Mastika: Made from herb anise, which gives it an interesting menthol taste.
- Imela rakija: Made from mistletoe which is actually poisonous, but the stems and leaves are not.
Where to sample rakija liquor
First prize would be to enjoy homegrown Macedonian moonshine in a local’s home. But since that’s not always possible, take comfort in the fact that you can also buy it in a supermarket.
Should you wish for just a taste and not the entire bottle, we recommend heading to one of Skopje’s swanky bars for your dose of eye-watering rakija goodness. Here are two of our firm favourites:
Rakija Bar Kaldrma is the very first bar dedicated to rakija in Macedonia. Located in the centre of the Skopje Old Bazaar, the ambience provides the perfect backdrop to sample over 100 different types.
Skopski Merak has been recognised as the best restaurant in Macedonia for several years running. Best pair your rakija tasting with something delicious to eat.
As the national drink of Macedonia, rakija is easy to come by. All you need to do is settle in and enjoy it in good company.
Have you sampled Macedonian rakija yourself? Do you have a favourite spot in Macedonia to share with your fellow travellers? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments below…