Master Distillers – Serbian Rakija

October is harvest time in the Balkans and last weekend I had a special experience of learning how the national drink of Serbia, Rakija is made. Rakija is fermented and distilled from a variety of fruits, the most common and classic rakija being the šliva, or plum. It can also be made from walnuts, quince, pears, apricots, etc. Friends from the school took us to the small town of Obrenovac, which is about 30 kilometers from Belgrade, on the Sava River to see it being made first hand.

With typical Serbian hospitality, we got the royal treatment with a hearty BBQ meal of lamb, sausages, cabbage, and homemade bread, which was absolutely delicious. We were hosted by the Master Šliva (plum rakija) Distiller and restaurant owner, Ljubo Pljevaljčić. We also toured his restaurant, Pećina (The Cave) which is considered the best in the town. He is pictured in the front row next to me.

They had quite an operation going! In the foreground of the photo is the stove, where the fermented plum juice is heated. The fire needs to be consistent temperature, not too hot, which will burn the juice, or not too cold so it does not evaporate. The guys were adding wood when needed, mixing air and waiting for the moment to release the valve which brought the gas through the pipe where it is cooled in the water tank and condenses. They do the process twice, and after this first distillation, the percentage of alcohol is around 25%. They will do it again and will get the percentage up to around 40-45%. This is where a lot of šliva can be made with a poorer quality. Some people in order to produce more, add sugar to the left over mash and do the process again. This lowers the quality of the final product. Ljubo is a professional and never adds sugar.

They take the left over mash and dump it in a big pit in the yard and later bury it. They had several huge tanks of fermented plums. There is an incredible amount of juice that comes out of the plums, so much so that I thought they added water. The homemade rakija is quite smooth for having such a high alcohol content. It is much better than the cheaper rakija one finds in the supermarkets. Ljubo sells it in his restaurant and he gave us complimentary bottles. I do not drink alcohol often and find šliva a bit too strong for my taste, but it was fascinating to see how it is produced and it gave me an appreciation of the craft and this part of Serbian culture.

The leftover fermented plum juice

It was truly a Serbian evening and I was touched to be treated so nicely. It was a privilege to learn how authentic rakija is made. This is illegal in the USA, but here in Serbia it is quite common, with many people distilling their own “moonshine” in their back yard. Of course, it is not on the scale of Ljubo’s operation. When I asked about safety and did they know of distillation operations going wrong, and I always thought it was quite dangerous.

I would like to thank Ljubo, Hido, Goran, and the rest of the guys for a wonderful night. I will never forget it!   Živili!

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