First of all, don’t confuse rakia with raki. As well as being entirely different in its taste and the way it’s drunk, raki is Greek whereas rakia is Bulgarian. In fact, rakia is probably Bulgaria’s national drink and is seen by many as a panacea for everything from colds, fevers and toothaches to stomach pains, sunburn and, in the early days of the pandemic, COVID. Rakia probably does help with all of these things in so much as you forget about them while you’re drinking it.
It gives you a joyful kind of buzz, a lovely feeling of confidence and optimism. The people you’re with are the best company you could ever wish for, you’re in an environment that suits you perfectly, you have the solution for every one of your problems and you’re capable of achieving anything you want – just as long as you drink it correctly.
When I first got to Sofia, I went for a drink with another newly arrived Englishman. He had the advantage over me as he’d been to Bulgaria before and was keen to show me his insider knowledge about all the customs and local specialities that he’d uncovered three years ago on his week long holiday in Sunny Beach. ‘You must try rakia,’ he said, ‘you can’t come to Bulgaria and not drink rakia’. Fair enough then.
This was in a bar on Vitosha Boulevard, a wide, cobbled promenade in the centre of the city that’s lined with cafes, restaurants and branded shops. You probably hear as many foreign voices there as you do Bulgarian as it’s the natural place for tourists to head to. If you’re looking for drunk British stag parties, they’ll be on Vitosha Boulevard.
Therefore, you can’t really blame the waitress for the rakia she brought us. She was only giving us what she’d come to expect from her experiences with Englishmen. The drink we received was:
– A chaser to the beer we were drinking
– Plum flavoured
– In a half pint glass
This was remarkable as every single one of these elements was wrong.
Don’t drink rakia as a chaser
It’s not even meant to be drunk on its own. You drink it with a meal – but not at the end of a meal like a brandy or port – you drink it at the beginning as an accompaniment to a salad.
It really enhances the flavours of all salads, but especially Shopska (tomato, cucumber, white cheese) in the summer, or Royal Salad (pickled cauliflower, peppers, garlic and carrot) in the winter.
I don’t see why more cultures haven’t embraced the idea of drinking a strong spirit at the start of a meal. It puts you in a warm, happy mood right from the off which means you’re more likely to enjoy your meal, be lively and engaged company, and not leave stuffed and drunk as it allows you to effectively moderate your drinking.
A warning, though: Don’t continue with the rakia after the salads.
While you might feel all dashing and charismatic for the rest of the meal, this doesn’t reflect how you’ll appear to your companions. Your indignity will then be compounded when you stand up from the table at the end of dinner and discover that your centre of gravity has moved to somewhere outside of your own body.
The taste won’t go well with the main meal anyway – rakia only really works with salads. This means you have a few options available to you after the starters:
1. Switch to water. The rakia buzz doesn’t last very long and the water will dilute it even further so you’ll finish your meal in about the same condition as you started it.
2. Switch to wine. As long as you don’t overdo it, wine – particularly white wine – will keep you on about the same level of buzziness for the rest of the meal.
3. Switch to beer. This is taking things up a notch and will most likely get you drunk.
Don’t drink flavoured rakia
There are several popular options; plum is one of them, so is fig or apricot. You can also get ‘aged in the barrel’ rakias that have a burnt, woody taste that edges towards whiskey. The flavours aren’t strong, but they are there.
What you want is a rakia with a neutral taste, one that draws out the flavours of the salad you’re eating and allows you to focus on the food rather than the drink. The best for this is the rakia that’s made from grapes. This has the added benefit of fitting well with the wine that you may switch to when you eat the rest of the meal.
Don’t drink rakia from a big glass
Well, you can I suppose, as long as it’s not full to the brim.
Don’t drink it like a shot though. It’s not a tequila or a Jägerbomb, you don’t neck it in one go and then wince, you sip it between mouthfuls as you’re eating your salad.
A traditional rakia glass is small and stemmed – quite similar to a sherry glass. I also like it from a tumbler but this is a little dangerous as you’re likely to pour in too much.
Don’t drink rakia warm
Warm rakia isn’t really rakia, it’s melted fire. It’ll leave your throat scorched, your stomach churning, and your meal ruined.
It needs to be drunk as close to freezing as possible. It must always be served with plenty of ice from a bottle that’s been stored in the freezer – many restaurants keep their glasses in the freezer too which is a practice I fully endorse. In an ideal world, it would be so cold that you’d need woolly gloves to pick up the glass.
Don’t drink home-made rakia
Anyone with enough money and outdoor space for a still, makes their own rakia. In villages, the still is usually owned by the whole community and people can book a specific time to use it. There is undoubtedly a social element to the distilling process as it requires two or more people and they have to spend time sampling the product over the course of a few days.
The resulting moonshine will be decanted into whatever glass bottle that’s available and, because their rakia is always the best rakia, it will be given as a gift at every opportunity. I have a cupboard full of home-made rakia in a variety of gin, vodka and whisky bottles, all of them slightly different in colour, all of them with a much stronger alcohol content than the usual 40%, all of them unopened.
If you’re a foreigner, home-made rakia isn’t for you.
You may be tempted – and that’s completely understandable; home-made rakia is more authentic, more traditional, more personal – but don’t mess around with it. This is a drink for Bulgarians who know what they’re doing when it comes to alcohol. Even Boza, their breakfast drink, has a 1% alcohol percentage.
Stick to branded, commercialised rakia. This may seem like drinking a pint of Heineken in a real-ale pub, but this way you know what you’re getting into.
Follow these rules and you’ll find that drinking rakia is the most civilised way to consume alcohol. It’s a little polish to enhance your social life rather than a sure-fire way to get drunk quickly in Sunny Beach or on Vitosha Boulevard.