Detective RHOB and the Riddle of Homemade Rakia
I’ve written quite a bit about rakija without revealing our secret: we didn’t have any in our home. Why was this a problem? Rakija is essential for Serbian hosting. A home without rakija is like a Nationals game without unforced errors. It’s like Charlie Sheen without a prostitute. It’s just…odd. We wanted to buy rakjia, but there was a dilemma. The best rakija is homemade, and we didn’t know anyone who distilled it. I had to don my detective lipstick and get to the bottom of my new case: the riddle of finding homemade rakija.
For those who think I’m just being a rakija snob, well, you’re right. With homemade rakjia, taste buds and local reputation are on the line; it’s not mere swill sold to tourists. And store-bought rakjia doesn’t just taste bad-it’s possibly dangerous. Serbia experienced a rakija scandal in 1998, when 56 people were poisoned by rakija made with methyl alcohol rather than ethanol. Not exactly what this drinker/shopper/detective wants to hear.
So on a recent trip to Zlatibor, I kept my eyes and ears open for clues about homemade rakjia. Fortunately, the spirits of Cagney and Lacey were with me, and I saw this sign on the way back from Sirogojno.
It was a strong clue. I drove up the steep driveway, parked by a tractor, and dodged chickens to cross the yard. A man emerged from the house. I mentioned his sign and he gestured toward a small wooden table with two rickety stools underneath. I didn’t take photos of the house-I didn’t want him to think I was being disresptectful, somehow.
He brought me a thimble-sized glass and poured me a drink from a flask. It was a nice plum rakjia but I was looking for medovica (honey rakija). He didn’t have any, but offered a sample of his juniper rakjia, poured from an old Courvosier bottle. I guess distilling is like making jam-use whatever containers you have on hand. Four hundred dinars later, I was the owner of a liter of juniper rakjia. To keep things mysterious, I received it in a sparkling water bottle.
The case seemed to be over…or was it? Later, I toured the Zlatibor market in the center of town. Rakija isn’t openly sold in Belgrade markets, but it was plentiful there. I looked for the least sophisticated label I could find and settled on the Terzic Jelena stand. She offered a sample, and I was as hooked as a three-eyed fish in the Anacostia River. We bought a bottle for five hundred dinars. It doesn’t look fancy, but at least it’s not in a water bottle.
We left Zlatibor content with solving the mystery not once, but twice. On a roundabout way home, we stopped at Studenica Monastery, where we were offered coffee and a smooth plum rakjia. When we complimented the bottle, we were informed us that it was made in the monastery. Ah, capitalism. We bought some as a souvenir.
Were my detective skills sharpening, or was this just a holy coincidence? Either way, we are now proud owners of not one, but three locally made bottles of rakjia. Now we just need to find rakija glasses…but that’s a mystery for another time.