A small fluted glass with deep honey coloured liquid sat innocuously beside a tall glass of ice water. The fact that the shot-sized drink came with water should have been a warning but the lively ambiance of the Belgrade kafana (meaning tavern) named Boho Bar lulled me with courage. Which is why the first sip of the Serbian plum brandy or šljivovica (pronounced slivovicha) was not exactly a sip. It was a big mouthful of fire. Spluttering moments later, the magic happened as a soothing warmth engulfed from within.
I was hooked.
Sljivovica is the plum brandy, while the broad term for fruit brandy in Southeastern Europe is rakija (pronounced rakia). It seemed like a wonderous moonshine but made with 100 percent fruit. And since Serbia is known for its plum fruit, šljivovica is the gold standard by which every artisanal and homemade rakija maker is measured. In fact, a waiter grandly said that if you throw a plum, it is sure to hit someone who makes their own rakija.
I visited Belgrade in early August and found that šljivovica is deeply rooted with the cycle of life, making its appearance at every event from birth to death. Its stature is of heritage proportions that’s much valued in one of the oldest cities of Europe which was razed to ground 44 times through centuries. Historians have evidence of its production around the 13th century but at Belgrade’s touristy skadarlija (pronounced skadaliya), a vintage cobblestone street lined with bustling kafanas, the new overshadows the old. I stopped in front of an open-air rakija stand, named The Zadruga Drink and Fun, which had six flavours – raspberry, honey, pear, juniper, grape and of course, plum. They source homemade or ‘domaca’ rakija from Arandjelovac which is about 75 kilometres from Belgrade. The town is known for springs of sparkling mineral water, the only other ingredient used in the making of rakija.
Milica, the lady at the stand, recommended lighter rakijas like raspberry or honey before meals “as aperitifs” and the stronger ones like juniper or plum after meals. She served the barrel-aged drink at room temperature and this time, I could now down the 50 ml in four gulps. “My favourite is the raspberry rakija,” Milica said, “but the most popular one here is the walnut rakija." Dark like the Irish stout, the walnut rakija has sweet fruity notes and a distinctive nose and character. All brandies at the stand have been aged for two years. Newer flavours regularly appear in the market, often with new varieties of the fruit itself, and some distillers have won awards for their products in prestigious competitions like the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Selection.
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A Serbian vendor at a local green market showed some non-labelled rakija bottles she had displayed at her stall. “My family makes the rakia and šljivovica at home,” she said. Apparently, the ripe plums needed for distillation are not plucked from the trees. Instead, the tree is shaken hard so that only the ripest of plums fall on to the ground. The unwashed plums – cleaning the fruit removes the wild yeast on the surface of the fruit – are crushed manually and the pulp is allowed to ferment. Each and every family making rakija has their own copper still. The mash is then decanted, diluted with spring water and again fermented. The process is repeated and the final distillation has about 20 to 40 percent ABV. About 10 to 15 kilos of fruit is needed for just 1 litre of the plum brandy šljivovica. This is just a broad description of the process because the details are what makes one fruit brandy different from the other. The vendor’s family infuse the last distillation with apples in the barrel. Their recipe has been unchanged and handed over through generations. She scoffed at the new varieties. Milica, on the other hand, laughed when I suggested green mangoes as a flavour. “Who knows, it may be good,” she shrugged. "The raspberry rakija is sweet. The others are too strong.”
That shift in palate is changing the rakija market. About nine years back, one of the largest producer of the traditional beverage, NAVIP, closed down after 84 years of existence. In a 2016 interview with the Serbian magazine Cord, Ivan Urošević, the former president of the Rakija Producers Group of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, rued that the younger generations are more attracted to drinks such as rum, vodka, gin and so on. He commented: ‘I think they need education for spirits. Most of these drinks are made on the basis of ethyl alcohol and the process itself is very short. Brandy is a drink that requires a long process of production and is something that real drink connoisseurs can appreciate.’
Serbs usually drink rakija in the mornings with breakfast. They believe it is beneficial for health. After my initial rapture, the love only deepened. Here is a drink that offers so much in just a 50 ml shot. There is the heady kick, the subtle notes, and yet most have a smoothness to it. I found myself looking for the balance of flavours and the oakiness from the barrel. I had tasted about ten flavours, a paltry number considering there are about 50 flavours of rakija. For first-timers at Belgrade, consider going to a rakija bar where there are so many flavours including the 10-year aged rakija created by the Serbian royal family. By the end of my stay, I learnt to respect the country’s national drink rakija for its nobility. Besides, I learnt to sip it slowly. Not out of fear but with love.