My night with the Balkans’s beloved Rakia

Aaron’s post on the Czech alcohol Becherovka had me thinking about the Balkans’s beloved drink, Rakia, which I had the displeasure of tasting on my recent travels in Slovenia. Rakia (?ganje), you see, must be the complete opposite of Becherovka (of which I’ve never tried), at least in terms of Aaron’s “gingerbread and Christmas” description.

Long ago I stopped taking shots of hard alcohol because I couldn’t handle it. Beer is my friend, but one too many Jagers or Rumplemintz has turned me off the bottle entirely. But one evening while knocking back a few Union beers in Bled, Slovenia’s only Irish pub and hostel combination, George Best’s, I was confronted by an old man carrying a tray of shot glasses filled with clear liquid. “Rakia,” he mumbled. “For you!”

I suppose I should back up a bit. A few minutes before this, I had set my beer down on a table to grab something out of my back pocket. When I looked back down at the table a few seconds later, my beer was gone. I knew it couldn’t have gone far, and sure enough, the older Slovenian gentleman with whom I had just been sharing a drunken conversation, was holding it in his hand. “Hey,” I said, getting his attention. “You’ve got my beer!”
I expected a confrontation. I spoke absolutely no Slovenian, the man barely any English, and our prior communication didn’t amount to much in the way of actual conversation. It took 15 minutes, for instance, for him to explain to me what he did for a living which, as far as I could tell, involved replacing o-rings on toilets. Instead of confrontation, I got the most heartfelt apology I’d ever received. It was obvious that the man had no intentions of swiping my beer, he was just too drunk to know that it wasn’t his. He apologized profusely, handed my beer back, and disappeared into the crowd.

This is when, only a few moments later, I saw him heading back in my general direction with a tray full of shots. “No, no — really, it’s OK!” I pleaded. I really didn’t want the shot, but in line with typical Slovenian hospitality, he insisted. And in the interest of maintaining diplomatic relations, I obliged.

The taste of Rakia could be described as a mix between brandy and rubbing alcohol, or “lighter fluid and Halloween,” if forced to link it with a holiday as Aaron did. The subtle hints of fruit promised by the labels on popular brands were nowhere to be found, probably because what I was drinking was distilled in a dirty bathtub somewhere. “Gee thanks!” I said, downing the first one. I put my hand up in protest for the second. The way I saw it, there was absolutely no chance I’d be drinking another shot of Rakia without ultimately ending up face down in the bathroom. Luckily, a friend with a higher tolerance and more hair on his chest stepped in and took the last one for the team — a selfless act I will never forget.

And that was my one and only night with the Balkans’s beloved Rakia.