In the U.S., they call it moonshine. My favorite nickname for it is White Lightning. You know, distilled spirits, made without a license, untaxed, and very illegal in America. Regardless, distilling one’s own alcohol is a distinct part of American history that no doubt goes back to our European ancestors, bound in Appalachian folklore and glamorized (totally not the right word) in History Channel specials and TV shows like Moonshiners.
But alas, we’re not in America. We’re in Montenegro. And in this area of the world, making your own distilled spirits is fair game. Not only does nobody care if you want to make your own hooch, but its pride is publicly known and you can buy it at pretty much every public market in the region. Families have their own recipes, their own history, and their own special tweaks on flavors. That, too, exists in the U.S. Of course, the difference here is that it’s all fair game and there’s no hiding it.
Here’s a nice little spread from our local market, next to a stash of the ubiquitous local honey.
We are well aware of rakija’s prevalence here. After we arrived in Herceg Novi from a delayed flight back in September, the first thing we were greeted with was drinks from an unlabeled bottle of that goodness with our landlord. Straight from the freezer.
And that would be just the beginning.
Here, the drink of choice is called rakija. It is, of course, produced by countless corporate distilleries that make all ranges of flavors and quality levels, just as schnapps, brandy, or grappa are in other countries. That’s all well and good, but what intrigues us is the homemade version.
We especially like this traditional bottle, complete with the quintessential cekancici glasses that double as small bottles when corked.
If you’ve been reading this blog or our Facebook page, you should be well aware of our countless experiences with this often clear – always extremely powerful – regional tradition. Loza made from grapes, slivovica made from plums, kajsijevaca made from apricots, and many more.
Flavors can get pretty crazy, like this boutique-style, vanilla-mint version we recently tried.
Anyway, rakija has been offered to us by people at every house we’ve visited, by proprietors of cafés and restaurants, by friends and friends of friends. It’s inescapable. Which means it’s a good thing we’re always down to raise a glass of the good stuff, despite the fear on Ang’s face in this photo.
As it is here, our landlord’s extended family also makes their own rakija. And as the trend goes, we were invited to check out the process as Pero made his new batch. (You’ll remember him from our post on making wine in Montenegro.)
So then, up into the mountains we went in order to see the whole shebang in action. The setup is typical of what you know if you’ve ever seen a distillery or the distilling process. Pots and stills and pipes and heat. Like this.
There’s a lot of chemistry involved here, but I can tell you that the grapes go in one pot, heat is involved, the liquid goes to another pot, and eventually it slowly drips out the bottom to separate the badness from the goodness.
When that’s all said and done, they check the temperature to make sure the proof is not too high or too low. It’s never too low. If it’s too high, distilled water is added to the mix.
Pero was making loza, which is the one made from grapes. The process of making this takes place once the wine is done, with the leftovers from the winemaking process. Or they save some of the grapes specifically for loza. I think. (I have no clue about the technicalities of wine or winemaking terminology, so my use of words like “stuff,” “things,” and “leftovers” is not going to change.)
Here’s a picture of me acting like I’m helping.
It’s not that I didn’t want to help. It’s that they didn’t want us anywhere near the actual making of their rakija, which is completely understandable. I also had a fair amount of anxiety that if I got too close, I’d knock something over and ruin everything. They know that we don’t know how to do any of this, and they’re wise to simply explain the process and make us drink with them. Of course, we drank with them. Complete with grapes from the vine, Turkish coffee, and homemade persimmon cake, courtesy of Pero’s wife.
Pero’s been doing this a long time, and I’m sure that his father and grandfather and beyond took part in this tradition as well. He could probably do it in his sleep. Hell, if he wasn’t always making us laugh, there’s a chance he could have slept his way through the whole thing and still made the perfect batch of rakija.
Time to dispose of the remains.
Once all that was done, the finished product was bottled for distribution to friends, family, discerning restaurants, and other folks who deserve the finest.
And with that, another season of rakija – which started long before this day – was complete, and it was time to start planning for the next batch. As we left that afternoon, it was fitting that we ran into these rivers, rushing down the mountain from the previous day’s storm. Crisp mountain water is, after all, where the whole process often begins.
We’re certainly happy that the tradition of making rakija lives long and true in this region of the world, and that it’s accepted as such a rich part of the culture. And, it provided us with countless opportunities to sample a fine drink. Sharing a glass is inextricably linked to community, family, friendship, celebration, and a very warm welcome that is not too hard to come by when you’re surrounded by such wonderful people.
And to that, we say, Živjeli!
Have you ever experienced anything like this? Have you ever tried rakija? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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