Rakia is the traditional drink in Balkans, it is said that it originated in Bulgaria, and was probably spread through the Balkans during domination of the Ottoman Empire. The most important thing is that it is brewed from fruit that is rich in sugar, so it can be concluded that it has its roots in warmer climates (Mediterranean). Tourists from the west often refer to it as “fruit brandy”. It has 40% of alcohol content in average, some even more. In this article I will describe how it is home brewed, consulting my own experience. This is not a recipe or anything like that, because brewing requires an equipment that can’t be easily afforded, I mean – the brewing kettle is not something that you already have in your kitchenJ
The most famous rakia that is brewed in Serbia is made from grapes and plums, although you can make it either from apricots, quinces, apples, mixed fruit and many more – even from bananas! The process of making rakia from grapes is the most basic, and the easiest because timing is not so very important as it is for apricot etc.
Preparation: First of all, you need to find yourself a free day for picking grapes when they get ripe. It is usually during September. One whole day, you pick grapes, separate berries from branches, but that’s not very important although beverage will be better if you do. Then you grind them and put them into a big barrel, that needs to be roughly cleaned. Concerning the quantity, you might need more barrows. Cover the barrels with a piece of cloth.
Fermentation: You just wait. Period: around 3 weeks, depending on the temperature. In Mediterranean climate, September and October are usually mild, not so warm, but not cold either. You might add a few kilos of sugar, but it is better if you don’t because rakia with much added sugar is concerned to be of a lesser quality. Stir the contents of barrels a few times a day, and let the fermentation process take place. When the top of the barrow contents gets smooth like a mirror (we say it: when you can “see the monkey” in a barrel), then it is time to start the distillation.
Distillation: Put the contents of a barrow in a kettle, which is called “kazan” (picture). Kettle sizes can range from 100 up to 1000 liters. You can add one spoon of baking soda in the kettle so your rakia will get less sour. Put a pipe (parovodna cev – picture) atop kettle cover and the other end of the pipe is going to be put on a metal barrel which has a metal hose (with a vertical fall) inside – condenser (kondenzator – picture). Fill the metal barrel with cold water, which needs to be supplied constantly during the process. You put a fire below the kettle and wait for it to heat the contents, a few hours, depending on the heat, but it mustn’t get so quickly because then the contents will get burned and the brewing ruined. You follow the pipe temperature with your hands. When it is heated on the other side (closer to the metal barrel with water) you will know that the first drops of brew are going to come soon through a small pipe at the lowest end of barrow. The heat from the fire makes alcohol evaporate, the alcoholic vapor finds a way through the pipe and to the barrel with cold water – then the vapor gets cooled down and makes drops which fall down the metal hose and exit through the drainage inbuilt in the metal barrel. The first few deciliters (if you are using 100 liter kettle) of the liquid that comes out is methyl alcohol which is poisonous, so those first few deciliters must be gathered in a separate bottle and put aside or thrown away: they mustn’t be mixed with your rakia, and mustn’t be drank at any cost! Methyl alcohol is the lightest and that’s why it comes first. The next liquid which comes is what you were searching for. You gather it in a vessel and need to measure the gradation of the liquid. For that, you will use a grad-o-meter. The first few liters of liquid will be the strongest – maybe around 70% percent of alcohol. Then it will start becoming weaker, but you can mix all them together as the last liters of liquid will be below 30%. When it gets so, you will stop the process. What’s done is done. The liquid continues to exit the drain, but it is now weak and very sour, undrinkable, and can be put in a separate bottle – it can be used later when you brew rakia again when it is put in a kettle along with newly fermented grapes. Now the liquid is put in clean bottles (that need not be glass, plastic can be fine for now) and will be put away for a few days. Then you put rakia in glass bottles. It can be consumed instantly after brewing, or even during it but it is better to wait a few days. The percentage of alcohol of total quantity of liquid should be around 40 - 45%. Those are the basics, and if you want to make it more interesting, you can later mix it with walnuts, sour cherries, honey, herbs and so on. The best and the most respected is the rakia that is home brewed (either from plums, grapes, or those aromatic) and it is a custom to offer it to your friends, neighbors and guests to try it – sometimes, if not always, it creates good and warm interpersonal relationships.