Rakija Is the Fire That Fuels the Balkans
“When you taste it, you can tell exactly what family made it,” one Macedonian man told me of rakija, a home-distilled spirit that's a staple in the Balkans.
Rakija is always consumed with water to temper the spirit's potency. All photos by the author.
It's impossible to make it through Macedonia without drinking rakija, and probably lots of it. The home-brewed liquor is a staple in the Balkans, and after trekking through Kosovo and eventually arriving in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, I found myself at the home of a local brewer, politely refusing my third refill of the blinding spirit, as the call to prayer filled the sobering air around us.
"My grandfather started making rakija in 1963. He had the same name as me," Kosta Bogdanoski says, as he shows me around the backyard of his Ohrid home.
Kosta's first taste of rakija came at a mere five years old. "I used to play in this garden while my grandfather cooked it," Kosta says. "He would yell, 'Kosta, bring some more water! Kosta, bring some more wood!'" And now, Kosta keeps his family's special recipe alive after his father passed away just six months ago.
By day, Kosta sells machinery for agriculture. His workshop, full of spare parts and scraps, is connected to the front of his home. But by night, you can find Kosta in the back shed, where he moonlights as his neighborhood's rakija distiller. For just 300 Macedonian denars (around $5.50 USD), Kosta's friends pour into his house, vying for his special rakija blend, bringing the necessary water, wine pulp, wood, flour, and honey in tow.
The shed contains a dual rakija system, inclusive of two large, copper heating vats (known as kazia in Macedonian) and two steam pots, each pumping out rakija to one white and one red plastic tub. The brick building is a relic of sorts: A tiny window beams in a ray of light, landing on a creaky bed in the corner, as if someone may have lived there at one point. But Kosta explains this bed indeed has a purpose. It's where the rakija maker passes time before the brew is ready.
"Sometimes rakija takes longer to make than we think it will… we may fall asleep, and the fire may go out," Kosta says, laughing. Above the bed, a warning reads, in loose translation: You may sleep, but be careful! Don't let the rakija overflow.
Kosta's system of rakija production doesn't differ much from his grandfather's, give or take a few instruments, specifically a gadget that helps Kosta read the potency of the brew. "My grandfather always tasted the rakija with his finger," Kosta says. "Only from his finger could he tell the proof."
Having been around rakija production for three generations and living in the same house since birth, Kosta takes pride in making the liquor for his community. "They come to me once they drink all the wine!"
Macedonia's rakija-making season lasts from November to March, with the process utilizing the leftover pulp of wine production, known as komina. As Kosta is a known rakija distiller, friends and family bring their own komina to Kosta, which he then puts inside his copper vats, sealing the top with none other than pasta, forming into a circular breadstick around the entire kazia. The bottom of the vat is lit on fire, beginning the first stage of the distillation process.
"We add water to the pulp because it has to be liquid," Kosta says. "And for the really good rakija, we add honey." Kosta also blends fruits with his rakija, mixing everything from plums to kiwi, lending to its distinct flavor.
The fire boils the mixture inside the kazia, creating steam that comes out through the top of the pipe. The pipe is connected to another copper vat, and the extracted steam becomes the rakija, which pumps into the plastic tubs. The entire process takes about five hours, producing 20 to 25 liters of the 50-proof spirit.
"People from the neighborhood bring over their own grape pulp," Kosta says. "It's a great time. Friends and family come. We have a barbeque that lasts for five hours…"
Kosta is interrupted by his friend Alex, who begs to differ.
"We don't wait five hours!" Alex yells. "We watch as the rakija comes out. Like tears! We wait, drip for drip, taking our cups right up to the copper pipe that drops out the rakija."
Kosta shakes his head and laughs, regretfully, sighing as he affirms Alex's statement.
When it finally comes time to toast Kosta's famous recipe, I surrender to the spirit, dismissing my headache from drinking too much rakija the night before. But Alex assures me this is totally fine—normal even. "Rakija is actually better after a night out," Alex says. "But you have to start drinking the rakija again first thing in the morning."
I ask Kosta what makes his brew so special, but he reveals a smirk and nothing more. "My recipe isn't necessarily a secret, but I like to have the quality be only mine," Kosta says.
Originating in eastern Macedonia, Kosta's blend is known as mastika, signifying its anise-like quality. Prepared by mixing a secret seed with pine tree sap, the blend fuses corn, coal (yes, coal), onion, honey, clove, and a secret ingredient Kosta is forbidden to reveal. As he's listing the recipe to me, his mother appears in the windowsill, yelling in Macedonian for him to stop giving away his prize.
Rakija is integral to the Macedonian identity, creating a bond rooted in tradition, breaking generational barriers into a singular commonality shared among Macedonians of all ages. "When you taste it, you can tell exactly what family made it," Alex says. "For us, rakija means everything."