You don’t know Albania unless you know raki
I thought it would be apt to write my very first article here about this one drink that interestingly enough, has caused me a fair amount of identity questioning. Whenever I mention raki as our national drink, there will always be a Turk, Serb or Bulgarian in the room with a smirk at hand. To be fair, there are at least nine countries that claim raki as originally theirs. That is however what makes this liquor so special – wherever it came from first, every country has given it its own twist, creating many unique versions of it in our shared Balkan/Turcic culture. Without further ado, let me introduce you to the Albanian raki.
Raki has a history as animated as the party gets, past the second glass, and a culture as intricate as a Japanese tea ceremony. It is an eau de vie brought to the Balkans around the 14th – 15th century by the Ottomans. Traditionally, it is made by fermenting ripe fruit and distilling it twice. In Turkey and in many Arab countries, where it is known as rakı and arak respectively, it is anise-based and is mixed with water before drinking. In the Balkans, the principle of fruit fermentation and distillation remained the same, but the anise flavour and the extra water was removed.
The most common types of raki you’ll find in Albania are grape, plum and chestnut. The production process is almost an oeuvre d’art; the way the fruit is mashed and fermented needs to be flawless, and any mistake in temperature, amount of fire or flavor infusion can ruin all the effort. We take a lot of pride particularly in homemade raki and its 70% alcohol content. There is always that grandpa who won’t miss out on telling about how he picked the grapes himself and made it with his own special technique. Usually, he sips as he speaks, and the story never really reaches its end, it just culminates into toasts to health and happiness.
That being said, raki is not drunk like vodka. You take tiny, slow sips as you munch on meze, small dishes or appetizers, and you make sure to toast every time you drink (or turn the glass, as we say). It was traditionally a drink for men, as they would sit around the table and talk business. Today however raki has become popular not only among women, but also among the youths. There is something quite romantic and mystical about turning a glass of raki with friends, a subtle pleasure that you can’t find in any beer or fancy cocktail. Maybe it is because we taste a part of history and tradition with each sip.
I would definitely recommend you watch the short BBC documentary below about raki. Not only will you be able to see how it’s made, but if you pay attention, you’ll be able to grasp some quite important chunks of Albanian/Balkan culture in it. Most importantly, the documentary revolves around a glass of raki shared by a Kosovar Albanian and a Serb – no better use of an 80% plum liquor!
Click the picture below to go to the BBC documentary “the Bootleg Brandy that Kosovo Loves”