Rakija: Grape to Glass

The first time I tried Montenegrin rakija, I was seventeen and already intoxicated with the sense of independent entitlement found in a first trip over the ocean. Crossing the barriers of time zones, language and – more importantly – lawful restrictions meant limitless possibility, the empowerment of pseudo-adulthood. Here, I was legal. So when initially offered a small vial of foreign alcohol, it was all too greedily accepted.

In relishing my no-holds-bar brazenness, I overcompensated with the first too-bold swig, replacing a cautious sip with a mouthful of fire that would scorch its way into my chest. What followed was a humiliating production of spattering coughs and hiccups, made entirely worse by hardy men’s laughter erupting in surround-sound. So much for maturity.

Rakija is in fact pure alcohol: a colorless, caustic liquid-syrup made from fermented grapes found in abundance throughout Montenegro. While available from commercial distilleries, rakija is widely homemade, resulting in variants of flavor and potency (between 50 – 60 percent ABV versus the 40 percent commercial norm). Such is the case with my uncle Mirko, who forgoes the use of sugar or additions of any kind, relying only on the grapes’ sweetness to cut the sheer burn of the brandy.

GrapePicking

Obviously, this isn’t your standard Friday night cocktail. Despite its shot-glass presentation, don’t misunderstand:  rakija is typically served as an aperitif, meant to whet the appetite prior to the afternoon meal. It should be sipped gradually – and trust me, you’ll want to do so anyway.

The distilling process is fairly straightforward. Hundreds of pounds of grapes are gathered and set to ferment in large kettles or drums, where they are stirred daily according to the maker’s timetable until rakija-ready. The mix is boiled, allowing the vapors to burn off and cool before condensing again into purified alcohol.

Of course, devotees will argue that the true art form is more primitive – a seemingly appropriate fit for rakija’s etymology, which connects its origin in the Arabic word for “sweat” (a reference to the vapor droplets that form, though the process itself is not without a good deal of manual labor).

One day prior to my arrival in Petrovac, the men of our family had reaped about 500 pounds of grapes for a homemade batch. I was sorry to have missed such a harvest (kind of), but luckily had the chance to see how the process worked on a visit to my aunt Slavka and her husband Vasko – who produces his own rakija in a backyard contraption that includes 100-year-old copper kettle, a garden hose and PVC piping. It just doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to Montenegrin moonshine, in photos. Enjoy!

Rakija4

Fermented grapes are stirred and carefully inspected on a daily basis

Rakija1

The mixture is boiled in a copper kettle fitted with a lid where the vapors collect.

Rakija2

A series of cooling pipes condenses the alcohol through the water barrel; the distilled rakija emerges in droplets from the end pipe.

Rakija3

Cin Cin!

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7 Responses to “Rakija: Grape to Glass”

  1. Montenegro Says:

    That’s some apparatus, goes some way in explaining why I almost lost my tongue to that stuff… FIERCE! The second one went down a lot easier though!

    • gregogirl Says:

      Hah yes, it’s quite the lesson to discover rakija is very much a SIPPING drink! I get warm and flushed after just the one – to much amusement from my family. Hopefully will work up to rakija glass #2 again this summer!

      • Montenegro Says:

        Indeed, though i think my host deliberately downed his so as to derive maximum entertainment value when i did likewise. Warm and flush…? It felt like I’d swallowed a lit firework! I’m looking forward to trying the sipping method though… practice makes perfect!

  2. Milena Says:

    heh, Gregogirl, I just found out that in Montenegro a lot of the locals do make wine first and what’s left they add sugar and make the rakija. Mastika is what is made right away when they first distilled the wine….a very sweet drink. And on the Dalmatian coast (Croatia) they also make Bevanda…after the wine is made they add sugar and boiled water is added to what is left from the grapes…wait for a period of days and that’s Bevanda. But like I heard from my source it’s all PHONY DRINKS…… good way of putting it, eh? No, you can’t beat the rakija you described “from grape to glass”.

  3. G-Man Says:

    Hey Gregogirl, you forgot to mention that the 500 lb batch of fermenting grapes that uncle Vasko is stirring produced 50 liters – not bad, I’d say. Ziveli!!

  4. thelocalguide Says:

    hehe homemade booze.
    There’s also alcoholic destilled drinks similar to that here in Portugal but the instruments look better than that device your relatives built.

    And also, the grapes here are first used first to obtain wine and the destilled drink (Aguardente) is made with what’s left after.

    • gregogirl Says:

      Hah, I would imagine the instruments would not be quite so old-world. of course, therein lies the montenegro magic. =) but using leftover grapes???? that just sounds tragic.

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