Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bulgaria - Part 3: Invincibility of Rakia

"Sofia was defended by tough men with moustaches, who drank rakia before the fight and thus became invincible." - Ottoman commander Lala Şahin Pasha on the siege of Sofia, 1382
August is The Return of Bulgarian Wine Month thanks to, following up last year's original Bulgarian Wine Month!

If you haven't read the first two parts of my Bulgarian Wine series then I suggest that you do. Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History has some great stories covering the entire history of wine in Bulgaria, while Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine will catch you up with the grapes, regions and wine laws of today's Bulgaria.

Throughout July of last year I reviewed many Bulgarian wines, which you can read here, and all of this month (August 2016) there will be more, which you can read here. At the end of the month I'll try some Bulgarian rakia, these ones technically grappa, so I figured that writing a Part 3 of my Bulgarian wine series to cover rakia would be fitting.

Rakia is the fruit brandy of the Balkans, made by every Slavic nation in the region. There's evidence that the Bulgarians invented this stuff and were producing it hundreds of years before distillation even made it to western Europe. It's the adult beverage pride of the country and their national drink.

In July of 2015, coincidentally during my original Bulgarian wine month, a group of archaeologists made an incredible discovery while excavating the medieval fortress of Lyutitsa in southerneastern Bulgaria. It was just a piece of an ancient distillation vessel but it was dated back to the 11th century. This was the second piece of evidence in Lyutitsa, and the third in all of Bulgaria, that distillation was occurring there at that time.

Rakia still fragment from 11th century Bulgaria

What's the big deal? That's one hundred years before the first recorded mention of true boiling point alcohol distillation by Italy's School of Salerno (earlier methods of "alcohol distillation", such as by the ancient Greeks, weren't nearly as efficient and not worth the effort), three hundred years before the first recorded reference to rakia (rakinja on Bulgarian pottery), and four hundred years before true boiling point alcohol distillation was being used in western Europe. And because making distilled spirits out of fermented grains wasn't popularized until it hit western Europe, and also because the Bulgarians have never been keen on beer until recently, it's safe to say that these stills were used for distilling fruit wine. This was for rakia.

Despite all these findings, Slovenia became a part of the European Union before Bulgaria. They claimed rakia under EU laws first so, as far as the EU is concerned, rakia is a Slovenian thing. For now. Bulgaria has been contesting this for years and it's yet to be seen if they can have shared credit.

Today, Muskat grape brandy rules rakia and it's been that way for a long time. But what kind of fruit was used in that still from the 11th century? Well, Bulgarians have always drunk a lot of wine. A LOT. Thus, the original rakia and home-made rakia was probably dzhibrova rakia (AKA grappa): a grape brandy distilled from the pomace and undesirable remains of the wine fermentation.

But the locations where early stills are found in Bulgaria are in key positions for the defense of the land, and the majority of mass produced rakia to quench the desires of their troops was most likely from plums and other tree fruits. Clearly rakia was important for their military and it's possible that it needed its own dedicated sources, separate from the wine that already had high demand for consumption.
"Bulgarians are invincible as long as they drink rakia." - Bozhidar Dimitrov, historian
The image among Bulgaria's enemies and Bulgarians themselves that rakia made them invincible is similar to that of Hungarian Bulls Blood. When the Ottomans came to take the Castle of Eger in 1552 all seemed lost for the Hungarians. So they got absolutely shitfaced off of wine made from the Kadarka grape. Then they proceeded into battle, already with their beards and clothes stained a dark red from spilled wine, and they dominated. Probably because they were too drunk to fear death or feel pain. The defeated Ottomans said that drinking the blood of bulls had given the Hungarians magical powers.

Making Rakia
Similarly, the Bulgarian warriors and guards had built up such a reputation for being killing machines, and such a reputation for drinking so much rakia, that the rakia itself must be the source of their talents. 150 years before the Hungarian Bulls Blood story, the Ottomans were busy conquering Bulgaria. There, in the year 1382 during the siege of Sofia, their witness to the magic of rakia was recorded. Ottoman commander Lala Şahin Pasha wrote "Sofia was defended by tough men with moustaches, who drank rakia before the fight and thus became invincible."

Looks like the alcohol abstinent Ottomans ran into some problems when facing heavy drinkers, no? But, despite the struggle, eventually the Ottomans were just too much and they conquered Bulgaria in 1396, ruling for almost 500 years.

Nasreddin Hodja
Rakia makes an appearance in a fable about Bulgarian folklore character Sly Peter and Islamic philosopher and trickster Nasreddin Hodja. I didn't think I knew of Nasreddin until I looked up pictures and saw a bunch with him riding backwards on a donkey. It seems very familiar and maybe something I came across in my youth. Shut up, I was into classic fables. Aesop's The Fox And The Grapes was my favorite.

Anyways, the rakia story goes like this: Sly Peter and Nasreddin bought a cask of rakia together and headed off to another town to sell it for a profit. Along the way, Nasreddin decided he wanted some so he bought a copper coin's worth from Sly Peter. Soon after, Sly Peter used that copper coin to buy some off of Nasreddin. They exchanged the same copper coin until the cask was gone. No money was made that day and they both got drunk as skunks. Moral of the story: don't get high off your own supply.
“It's a tradition to drink rakia with snacks. Not like the Russians, you know, who just drink to get drunk. I like a little snack with the news.” - Annie Ward, The Making of June
Rakia is an umbrella that covers all fruit brandy in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. It usually has a 40% ABV but can get up to 90%. Some also have spices, but most don't. Some see oak aging to mild it out a bit. A man named Vassil Mandzhukov told Radio Bulgaria that "aged rakia has different qualities and that is why my father died at 95."

Yoda on RakiaWithin rakia there's different subcategories depending on the fruit, style and country. Here's the Bulgarian names:

Muskatova (Muskat grape), dzhibrova / grozdanka (grape pomace / grappa), slivova (plum), kaysieva (apricot), praskovena (peach), krushova (pear), yabalkova (apple), chernicheva (mullberry), dyuleva (quince), smokinova (fig), chereshova (cherry), plodova (mixed fruits), gyulova (with roses), bilkova (with herbs), klekovača (with juniper), orehova (with walnuts), medena (with honey), vishnovka (with sour cherries), and anasonliyka (with anise). High proof rakia is called skorosmartnitsa, meaning "fast killer".

As previously stated, the most popular are made from Muskat grapes and grape pomace, followed by plum, and then followed by apricot. Plum rakia is especially popular in the more mountainous places of Bulgaria where vines just can't make it and plum trees flourish. As I'm writing this portion of the article I'm sipping on a slivovitz, which is plum rakia from Serbia. It's absolutely delicious.

Here in America we offer our guests something to drink. "You thirsty? We've got water, iced tea, coffee, beer..." Nah-ah, not in the Balkans. Guests are welcomed with rakia and they friggin like it.

Salad and Rakia
Rakia is generally served ice cold. On the rocks in a small, thin glass. During the winter months it can be heated up with various spices. 6 o'clock PM is considered "Rakia Time", just before dinner. That sounds a hell of a lot better than "Miller Time", honestly.

But the big thing with rakia is, yes, enjoying it with a snack. Especially salad. Apparently Bulgarians make a mean salad, and some weird salads they can be. I'm not sure if their love of salad is because it goes well with rakia or they just really love salad. Either way, rakia and salad is a thing, and a part of everyday life in Bulgaria.

Rakia is also served with bread after a Balkan Orthodox Christian burial service. They drink to the soul of their lost loved one, and say "for peaceful rest of the soul" as they spill some on the ground. Then they drink more rakia.

Homemade rakia is a thing of pride and those that do it pass it down from generation to generation. But how is rakia made? Let's cover that next.
“Buy grape, crush it and let it stay for a while until fermentation starts. Then you make rakia.” - 98 year old rakia maker Radka Stancheva
That lovely 98 year old woman that I just quoted from a Radio Bulgaria article is talking about grape rakia. But pretty much everything that explains how rakia is made uses plums as its example. That's cool because I'm still sippin on that Serbian slivovitz! Yum yum!

Wine grapes
So the very first step is selecting a fruit. It comes down to this: Whaddya got? There's a lot of variables here. Bulgaria has a ridiculous amount of vineyards so local grapes are available in spades. Maybe you own a vineyard and don't want to waste the pomace from your Mavrud. Turn it into rakia! Maybe you're shopping for fruit at the market and there's Sauvignon Blanc marked way down because it's about to go bad. Jump on it! And if you want to make some rakia and it's not harvest season you can always buy some cheap wine in bulk off of somebody. Your job has been made even easier! So again, grapes are the most common fruit used for rakia.

But you're a plum farmer. Your father was a plum farmer. His father was a plum farmer. Plums feed your family. Not literally because your family also needs protein in their diet but you know what I mean. Just like with grains and apples, your excess is used for alcohol.

For plum rakia you'd wait until late summer, after your harvest of produce plums, when the plums are just about to fall off the trees themselves. Then you'd put sheets under them and shake the crap out of the trunk, with the plums falling on the sheets. Now you can use the sheet as a bag to carry them away. That's a much easier way of collecting them than climbing up there and picking them, huh? Then you bring your bounty to the local distillery. There's at least one in every town and village.

The plums are put in barrels that hold 65 gallons or more, along with water that has three pounds of sugar for every gallon of water. You'll need to mash it up to make a plum soup, and two times a day for three weeks it's stirred while it ferments. Take out the stones as you find them but if you miss some it's no big deal, because they stay at the bottom of the mash and will be flushed out of the seive in the still. Once fermentation is over, distilling can begin. In August and September these distilleries can be so busy that you need reservations to use the pot stills. So schedule that shit out! Prior proper planning!

Rakia distillery
You'll also want to invite friends and family because the distillation of the year's rakia is an event that calls for a party! The same fire that heats the pot still is used for cooking a celebratory feast that's accompanied with beer and wine and, you guessed it, rakia!

Depending on the type and age of the pot still, you may need flour to create a dough that will seal the cauldron. It'll take about an hour to get the mash up to the 173° degree boiling point of alcohol, and once it's on it's on. Ethanol vapors rise out of the mash, through some tubing, into the condenser where it's nice and cool and the vapors are condensed back into liquid, and then it drips out the spigot. You now have yourself some distilled alcohol called rakia. Put it in barrels or containers for a month, then bottle it. Voila!
"I have the feeling that people get more satisfaction from making the rakia than drinking it." - Mihail Velikov, My Wine Passion
Mihail Velikov of My Wine Passion is a friend of mine and also a Bulgarian. So I asked if he could give me his thoughts on rakia in Bulgarian culture and his personal experience. Check out what he had to say:

"I am not the right Bulgarian to talk about rakia. On that topic I am far from the typical Bulgarian. That type of person is complaining about spending eight hours at work but can spend the same amount of time drinking rakia seven days a week and brag about it. Anyways, let's not go that route...

Washing machine distiller
I have watched an ad for a Discovery Channel show called American Alcohol. I have not watched the show but what seems to be extraordinary in the USA is perfectly normal here in Bulgaria. People make their own rakia all over the place. I have the feeling that people get more satisfaction from making the rakia than drinking it.

Don't get me wrong. Bulgaria is not some distiller alcohol paradise. Like most places in the civilized world making your own alcohol is forbidden by law. But that is another charismatic characteristic of the Bulgaria rakia making - if you make it at the professional distillery and you pay for the service it does not count. You cannot brag about it among your friends.

And Bulgarians still make their own rakia every summer. People take days off to do just that. To the extreme - my cousin is a police officer who has his own distillery at home - an illegal one. It is made of two washing machines. It is also heritage from his father. 

A funny quote: We Bulgarians drink wine to be healthy and we want to be healthy to drink rakia. :)"

Thanks, Mihail! Check out his cool products by My Wine Passion and save 20% with promocode WINESTLK!
"The old days of socialist production are long gone," - Vance Petrunoff,
Aaaand that's it for rakia! I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed writing about it! As a follow-up to Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine, I asked Vance Petrunoff of if he had any updates on what's going on in the Bulgarian wine industry. This is his response:

Bulgarian Vineyard
"You are now seeing another side of the Bulgarian wine & spirits industry and it's all good and clean nowadays. The old days of socialist production are long gone, and the new guys in the business are fermenting, brewing and distilling fine booze. It has been 2-3 changes in ownership in the larger wineries after the privatization process. Most of the first ones buying in the privatization were business opportunists with connections and money, with plans to sell all assets and make a fast buck. The next wave of new owners started to dig in deep into the winemaking and creation of new brands, new technologies and expanded on the old brands like Peshtera or Biserna by Domaine Boyar.

The global climate change is helping substantially in having bigger riper wines, and that also with new equipment, $$$ and winemaking knowledge will change how Bulgarian wines are seen in the world. As more tourists go to Bulgaria they all are amazed of the wines and somewhat of the food, and say that the fruit and veggies taste amazing."

Vance also brought to my attention that Bulgaria is poised to be the new vacation hot spot in the area, as people are looking to avoid places like Turkey that are becoming common targets of terrorism. Bulgaria has beautiful beaches on the coast of the Black Sea, and ski resorts in the west. So maybe you can enjoy a salad and rakia in Bulgaria next time you go on a travel vacation.

And so begins The Return of Bulgarian Wine Month, as always brought to you by! So thank you to Vance for providing the wine, the input, and the help. This guy is just one cool dude.

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS

7/9/15: VINI Sauvignon Blanc 2013 & Pinot Noir 2013
7/12/15: VINI Rosé 2013 & Merlot 2013
7/16/15: VINI Chardonnay 2013 & Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
7/19/15: Domaine Boyar Selection Traminer 2013 & Reserve Merlot 2012
7/23/15: Domaine Boyar Selection Chardonnay 2013 & Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
7/26/15: Villa Yambol Merlot 2013 & Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
7/30/15: Villa Yambol Mavrud 2013 & Domain Boyar Royal Reserve Mavrud 2011

8/11/16: Ivo Varbanov Merlot-Syrah 2011
8/14/16: Ivo Varbanov Chardonnay 2013
8/18/16: Ivo Varbanov Syrah 2011
8/21/16: Bessa Valley Winery 2008 Enira
8/25/16: Bessa Valley Winery 2006 Enira Reserva
8/28/16: Biserna Muskatova Rakia, Kehlibar Rakia, Peshterska Otlezhala Rakia

Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History

Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine

Part 3: Invincibility of Rakia

Rakia -
Rakia -
Rakia – Everything you wanted to know about this drink
Rakia in Bulgarians’ life and folklore
Historian concludes: “While they drink rakia, the Bulgarians are invincible”
Rakia: The sneaky good liquor you haven't heard of
Bulgarian lifestyle and traditional Rakia brandy
Great Picture Of A Rakia Kazan
Distilled beverage  -
Distilling History
About Nasreddin Hodja
Cuba and Bulgaria set to be the new hotspots for UK holidaymakers trying to avoid terror attacks


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