Tsipouro, Raki, Rakiya, Rakija, Tuica, Palinka. A transparent spirit of fostering a spirit of transparency. Here is a story of perhaps the finest rakija I have ever drank and how I got it.
Vrnjačka Banja is a Serbian spa located in a verdant mountain valley. Its waters, deriving from various springs promising multiple cures, have healed bodies and spirits since Roman times. My wife, while a student at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Architecture, had spent a summer here restoring villas from a more elegant, bygone era when the spa hosted cure seekers from all over Europe. Such beautiful places are typical of Serbia: obscure yet significant.
The springs promise cures for a wide range of ailments. The main spa, located in the Hotel Merkur, houses many pools and treatment rooms staffed by expert masseuses, often enough bearing the angelic countenances of saints in Byzantine icons. When I mentioned this to one masseuse, she smiled widely and said, “Well, we are Byzantines!”
While the spa, the quality of the waters, and the personnel were world-class, the promotion and presentation were not. This was Serbia, and Serbian tourism is long on hospitality and short, very short, on infrastructure and promotion. Most tourist boards are in the hands of party hacks, but I digress. However, this is why Serbia, dense with history, will continue to be a land of the significant and the obscure.
My wife and children, who had driven up before me, joined me at the Merkur. Our hotel was built in the Yugoslav era, probably in the late 1970s, and was an impressive steel, concrete, and glass structure typical of the decade. Still, with a bit of that “decorativeness” I often find in late Yugoslav-era architecture.
Like many of the better establishments, this one had been reserved for members of the Yugoslav Army, a state within a state, at one time the fourth largest army in Europe. Officers had many perks, among them free vacations at excellent and well-stocked resorts in the mountains, the spa territories, and, of course, on the beautiful Adriatic coastline.
Entering the dining area, you could still make out the ex-military types, mostly pensioners in their late 60s and 70s: white-haired or bald, still maintaining the strut and stiffness of military types, with their clothes immaculately ironed, even if well-worn. Their pensions generally were considerably better than average and, often enough, supplemented the incomes of children or grandchildren. Some of them were with them at the hotel, becoming playmates to my children.
As we sought our assigned table, I caught the attention of the waiter, who saw me scanning the room and gently tapped my elbow. “You, Sir,” he said, “look like a fellow who enjoys his rakija!”
My sheepish smile betrayed me, both as a consumer and as a foreigner. Did this fellow recalculate his price, his marketing strategy after my “tell”? My wife grinned, slightly rolling her eyes, as I started to search for the Serbian words to respond, “Pa . . . [the Serbian equivalent of “well” or “ummm”] . . . da [the near-universal Slavic affirmative].” The waiter took over, motioning us to an empty table: “I will bring a small vessel of it as a gift to you. It is made from malina, grown in these parts.”
Malina—raspberries! Is there anything better than Serbian raspberries? Serbia is a world leader in raspberries; they grow everywhere, including in our backyard. A common morning activity would be for my daughter to saunter out to the garden, pick organic raspberries, and eat them while she talked up a storm.
But while I had heard of any number of fruits being distilled for rakija, usually larger ones like plums or apples, I had never heard of malina used for this purpose. I just imagined the tons of raspberries needed, or was it just an essence of raspberry and a lot of sugar? In Serbia, as in Greece, caveat emptor is a way of life. My wife still inspects anything she buys for mistakes, anywhere she is; it’s a smart habit.
We sat down, and before anything else appeared, the waiter returned with a small clear glass bottle containing his rakija, nearly a fourth of a liter of it, and it was 10 a.m.! Smooth, no bite, and the delightful aftertaste of raspberry, but just as subtle as the drink was smooth. When homemade spirits are done right, nothing store-bought can compare, even for hundreds of dollars. Looking up at the waiter, I smiled, “Dogovoreno [it’s agreed].” Four liters, forty euros.
While the hotel may have turned a bit of a blind eye to a poorly paid employee trying to make some extra money, the where and when had to be decided obviously. “Off campus,” I said, to borrow a term we used and abused in high school. I did not have euros on me and had no wish to exchange Serbian dinars for euros in a tourist area, as I knew the rate would be usurious, so the waiter agreed to a slightly jacked-up price in dinars.
The next day, I met him at his car, just a block from the hotel, with a small coffee cup—to try the hooch before buying. It was the real thing, and the waiter, who was probably five or six years older than I, and my height but far stockier, had the look of a man bred to resourcefulness. A crap job, crap government, and crap history weighed on him, but he had honed his senses. Such people do very well in societies with better institutions and gentler histories if they can make a mentality transition as well as a physical one. We shook hands; he got into his weathered Zastava (known here in America as a Yugo) and took off.
A few days later, we drove home, carrying a four-liter balon (balloon, a term for a large plastic water jug) carefully cradled in the trunk. Back in Sombor, the city in northern Serbia where we lived, I was anxious to share my find with friends and family, many of whom were more than generous in sharing their booze with me.
First, though, I had to decant the spirit from the degrading plastic balon. I got out some elegant glass bottles I’d “liberated” from my job at ABN AMRO Bank in Greece, slender vessels with a wire flip top, which had hosted countless types of my homemade wine and spirits.
Having decanted, it was time to share. There was Cika (Uncle) Kasimir, my next-door neighbor, a retired engineer with stories of projects all over Yugoslavia and the Middle East, whose rakija distillery often puffed with smoke, a telltale sign for me to come over and help him drink—I mean, work. Having lived at least three decades longer than I, and much of it in rakija-friendly territories, he pronounced my find excellent, though he opined that the distiller may have been overly generous in adding plain sugar to the still, something he rarely did, himself.
The liters did not last particularly long, but the memory from a decade ago remains.
Around the same time as our trip to the spa, as I often did, I went to Greece from our Serbian home and ended up drinking late into the afternoon with Thracians in Xanthi. As I scanned my tastebuds’ long, variegated memory for the finest rakija, though the list of candidates was long, the verdict took little time: the malina rakija bought from the waiter in Vrnjačka Banja.
A version of this article was first published in Weekly Hubris.