Thursday, January 10, 2013

How to Make Rakia (Ракия)

Ракия (Rakia). Bulgarian moonshine. Firewater. White lightning. Whatever you call it, it’s the lifeblood of Bulgaria. It brings people together and connects them. Seriously.

I’m a beer drinker. Under certain circumstances, I like wine. Hard alcohol has never been and will never be my thing. But friendships in Bulgaria are often made at the table over a glass or several glasses of rakia. It’s how colleagues and acquaintances gain each other’s trust and become friends. As a result, despite only once actually paying for rakia (at a small hut in the Pirin Mountains), I almost never turned down a glass when it was offered. I also made it a priority to learn how to make the stuff.

Ask any self-respecting Bulgarian who makes his own rakia, “Who makes the best rakia?” and he’ll tell you he does. The pride Bulgarians take in their rakia used to amuse me. But, having made my own rakia, with a lot of help from a master, I now completely understand it. Whose rakia is the best? Mine!

Want to make it yourself? Watch this video and/or follow these instructions:

1. Select a Fruit. Rakia is typically made from fruit, so the first thing you need to do is choose one. Grape and plum rakias are the two most traditional varieties, but Bulgarians make rakia out of whatever is readily available and cheap – apple, pear, peach, apricot, and cherry rakias are all popular in certain parts of the country. Other varieties are made less frequently.

2. Pick and Gather the Fruit. Once you’ve selected a fruit, you have to “pick” it. Picking a fruit is often as simple as going to the market and buying as much of it as you need. But grape vines and fruit trees grow aplenty in Bulgaria, and most Bulgarians hand-pick the fruit they use to make rakia. With grapes, this means waiting until the right time in fall and bringing together friends and family for a grape-picking weekend. With other fruits, Bulgarians typically wait until the fruit is slightly overripe and then they shake the fruit out of the tree by vigorously shaking the branches and/or swatting at the branches with a long stick. Only the fruit ripe enough to make rakia falls out of the tree, after which it is all collected.


3. Make Juice. Once you’ve collected the fruit, you mash it up, make juice, and dump it into a large barrel. The mashing process can be done by machine or the old-fashioned way – by foot.

4. Measure the Sugar Content and Add Dissolved Sugar as Necessary. After the fruit has been mashed into juice, you measure the concentration of sugar in the juice with a saccharometer (захаромер). An ideal reading for making rakia is 23°, and a sugary water solution of approximately three pounds of sugar to every gallon of water should be added to the mash until the ideal sugar level is attained.

5. Stir the Juice and Allow it to Ferment. The fruit juice will settle to the bottom, and the fruit skins will harden and float to the top of the mash. To make sure the juice ferments, it is necessary to push the fruit skins down and stir the juice once daily. The amount of time for proper fermentation depends in large part on the weather, but fermentation generally takes around three weeks. You might notice that thousands upon thousands of fruit flies are attracted to the mash. Don’t fret. Believe it or not, fruit flies assist greatly in the fermentation process. As a matter of fact, the Bulgarian word for fruit fly, муха-винарка, takes its name from the Bulgarian word for wine, вино, and literally translates to wine fly. Not surprisingly, more than one Bulgarian friend of mine hopes someday to be reincarnated as a муха-винарка.

6. Distill the Fermented Juice. Distillation day is one of the most enjoyable days of the entire process; it is the day when rakia begins to flow. There isn’t much to the distillation process, although some people do a double distillation while others only do a single distillation. Regardless, the initial steps are the same. The mash is dumped into a still, which is sealed with a flour mixture to insure the still is air tight, and then a fire is lit under the still and distillation commences. Then you sit and wait. It typically takes about an hour before the first alcohol fumes begin to separate from the mash. This steam then makes its way through the sealed pipes before working its way through a cooling condenser and emerging as rakia. As the alcohol collects, measurements are taken. When I made rakia, we did a double distillation. On the first distillation, our rakia started with an alcohol content of around 60%, and we stopped the distillation when the alcohol content dropped to 20%. We then emptied and cleaned the still, dumped the alcohol we had produced into the still, and started a second distillation. On the second distillation, our rakia started with an alcohol content of 75%, and we stopped the distillation when the alcohol content dropped to 40%. The finished product was a potent 124 proof rakia (62% alcohol).

7. Age the Rakia. Once distillation is complete, your rakia is ready to drink. Some Bulgarians do nothing more, but most prefer to age and dilute their rakia to make it more pleasurable to drink. Rakia may be diluted by adding distilled water until the desired alcohol percentage is attained. It may be aged as long and in whatever manner you see fit, but most Bulgarians only age their rakia long enough to give it some color and a little taste. We aged our rakia in oak chips for a month and added distilled water to make it more drinkable at 90 proof (45% alcohol).

8. Enjoy. Of course, the final step of the rakia making process is drinking it and sharing it with friends. Хайде наздраве!

11 comments:

  1. Very happy you are still posting here! And very good rakia making manual! J.

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  2. Thanks! My wife and I were in BG from 2000-2001 with MBA Enterprise Corps and I was just thinking I might try to make some Rakia here in Carolina!

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  3. why u add baking soda in last step?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chemistry. In short, it improves the flavor, taste, and strength of the rakia.

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  4. After distillation, why do you not run it through filtering, activated carbon?
    It removes stuff that is unsafe to drink such as methanol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you distill it properly, this should not be an issue. Regardless, such devices are cost prohibitive for most Bulgarians.

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  5. Stego! I was searching and ended up arriving at your blog! Great post buddy! Nazdrave!

    ReplyDelete
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  7. Hi,

    How much oak chips would you recommend to use per litre to age it? Thanks

    ReplyDelete