Rakia is a fruit brandy popular all over the Balkans. It is usually presumed that its name comes from the Arabic word “araq” (meaning “condensation”, the final phase of distillation), which supposedly arrived on the Balkans together with the Ottomans, as even modern Turks have a similar-named drink – raki. However, some recent archaeological finds and researches suggest the history of rakia on the Balkans is quite a bit older than that. For example, a relatively recent archaeological find of a drinking cup from 14th century Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, features an inscription of someone boasting “I drank rakinja on the holiday”. Likewise, the Ottoman commander Lala Shahin, while besieging the city of Sofia, writes the following evidence that rakia was indeed used before the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans: “Inside the fortress there is a large and elite heathen army, whose soldiers are big, with moustaches and apparently well experienced in battles, but they have the habit of drinking wine and rakia – to put it short, they’re merry people.” And, indeed, archaeological discoveries of the so-called alembics, used in the distillation process, have been found on the Balkans dating since at least the X century AD. And while these earlier finds are generally rare and of a very high quality, rather suggesting alchemical purposes, since the XI-XII century alembics appear in much higher numbers and of a lesser quality, suggesting that they were now used also by the common population for more practical purposes, i.e. the production of alcoholic distillates.
But, no matter the origin, rakia has eventually spread all over the Balkans and even beyond. Today it’s considered to be a national drink of nearly all Balkan countries and their most popular spirit beverage, with Serbia being the biggest producer and consumer per capita in the world. There are also many different kinds of rakia, since it can be made from almost any fruit imaginable. The most famous ones are made from plums (sljivovica in Serbian), grapes (grozdova or lozova), grape pomace, apricots or various other fruits, and can also be combined with additional flavours like herbs, honey, walnuts, anise etc. It can also be served warmed up (grejana rakija), especially in the cold winter months, although even in cold state its 40% alcohol by volume is usually enough to warm you up from the inside (note, though, that home-made rakias are usually stronger and can reach as high as 80-90%, which Bulgarians often call skorosmartnitsa – quick-death). The drink has became so popular in the region, that it’s used not only for medicinal purposes, but has even taken its place in some of the local religious rituals, despite the traditionally strong role of the wine in this area.
Anything anyone has to add, correct or remove?
And does pivo (i.e. beer) include ale (olovina in medieval Bulgaria) as well?