Rakia is hard liquor similar to brandy and vodka, popular in the Balkans and among the South Slavic peoples. The tradition of making and drinking rakia as well as all other distilled beverages, is a lot poorer than a corresponding wine tradition. However, the two of them are certainly intertwined, since the process of distillation as we know it today was first used by South Italian monks approximately a thousand years ago. As the reader will know, it was the monks who dominated the production of wine for almost a whole millennium. Prior to Italian monks, distillation was used by alchemists in Alexandria, but their experiments did not contribute to producing alcoholic drinks, since they had a different purpose.

The first distilled alcoholic beverage known as aqua ardens (burning water) was made by alchemists hoping to make some progress in medicine. Irish whiskey and German brandy, the two most famous kinds of distilled beverages, appeared only after the 12th century, although their precise origins are quite murky. They were probably meant to be used as medicine or remedies to help overcome various illnesses or infections. No wonder their consumption rose dramatically in the 14th century Europe, swept by the Black Death. It was only in the 15th century that people realized how to distil alcohol from corn, barley and rye. In such a way strong foundations were laid for the production of many national distilled beverages, such as gin, vodka and rakia. Although the names themselves date from the 16th century, the drinks originate from earlier decades.

Rakia is a strong alcoholic drink made by distillation of fermented fruits or mixing ethyl alcohol with water and other ingredients, including honey, cherries, walnuts or herbs. Its alcohol content is normally 40%, but home-made rakia can be stronger, typically 50 to 60%. Being the national drink of many South Slavic peoples, rakia is quite popular in Croatia, too. However, not all the regions have the same recipe to make it.

As it often happens with home-made products, folk tradition gives rakia medicinal qualities, believing it to be especially useful in curing common cold and flu and relieving stomach ache, as well as in providing disinfection.

Rakia is normally colourless, but if some additives are used it gets the colour associated with them. If kept in mulberry or the more often used oak barrels, it gets golden. The minimum aging period is 8 to 10 weeks.

Depending on the way it is produced and the qualities it has, rakia can be industrial, natural and artificial.

The most famous Croatian natural rakia is šljivovica (slivovitz, plum brandy). It is made of fermented plums and its alcohol content is at least 20%. If the alcohol content is over 40%, it is known by its household name prepeèenica. In the regions of Posavina, Slavonia, Banovina and Lika šljivovica is usually made of sweet plums known as bistrica.

Just as wine, rakia also has its ritual use. Since olden times šljivovica has been drunk during wedding ceremonies, combined with food or fruit characteristic of a particular region. Years ago, when wedding guests walked from the groom’s house to that of the bride, they would offer a glass of rakia to all the people they had met. Rakia is also an unavoidable part of festive holidays and it is offered to friends and relatives paying a visit. Mixed with honey, sugar and spices, it is quite commonly drunk in open-air winter festivals.

Although we consider rakia to be a strong alcoholic drink, it used to have much lower alcohol content, since people would often drink šljivovica instead of water while working in the fields. Today it has to be served cool as aperitif and you can drink it pure or as a cocktail ingredient. It goes well with cheese, pršut (double-smoked ham) or kulen (spicy pork sausage). In some regions it is drunk together with wine or beer.