This expert guide on rakija was written by Andrea Pisac and Lara Rašin, with the generous hospitality and insights from the Đurčević family in Slavonski Brod.
What is rakija?
In Croatia, rakija is many things: a delicacy, an art, a pastime, or a sport, depending on who you ask.
This Croatian alcohol has been produced and perfected in the region for thousands of years. Simply put, rakija is a brandy that comes in various flavors, colors, and levels of intensity. Variations aside, one thing matters the most: domaća rakija [homemade brandy] is the best.
If you’re eager to learn more about the quintessential Croatian rakija, you’ve come to the right place. Our expert guide unravels all rakija's secrets. It includes rakija recipes, deep dives into different sorts, and locals' stories that give it a cultural context.
To create this guide, we enlisted the master help of the Đurčević family. Based in Slavonski Brod, their rakija- and wine- making tradition dates back over 100 years.
"My family has been making wine and rakija since around 1900.", Ivan Đurčević the second – who goes by the nickname Ica – tells us. "My grandfather Mato Đurčević started it all, my father Ivan Đurčević the first, nicknamed Ivo, continued, and then it was my turn. Soon it will be my son Đuka's. That's Ivan Đurčević the third", Ica chuckles as he explains his family suffixes.
Now, let’s visit the Đurčević’s vineyard and fruit groves. We’ll find them near Slavonski Brod, at 200 m high on what the family endearingly calls Ivanovo Brdo, [Ivan's hill].
For those who think eastern Croatia is all flatland, visit southern Slavonia – the gently rolling hills that await at each turn here might surprise you.
Get to know the various types of rakija
Ica, who learned the rakija ropes from his grandfather and father, helps us pinpoint the different types of Croatian rakija.
Rakija made from grapes
Lozovača (also known as loza or lozova rakija) is created from grapes picked right off the vine. These grapes are specially separated from those that go into winemaking.
The Đurčevićs have multiple grape varities planted in their vineyard. Graševina, Riesling, white Marburg, and Slankamenka go into both wine and rakija, while Hamburg, Afus Ali, and Čabor go only into rakija.
However, exact grape varieties are less important when it comes to rakija than when it comes to wine.
Next is komovica, rakija made from groždani drob – everything that's left over after grapes are pressed and their juices drained. This magical mush, also known as kom, is a pomace of grape peels, pulp, and seeds. "Komovica, however, is lower quality rakija than lozovača", Ica's son Đuka notes.
Rakija made from plums
Šljivovica (also known as simply šljiva) is made from plums. Plums come in various types. Like most families, the Đurčevićs use an older sort of the European plum (Prunus domestica) known locally as šljiva mađarica or bistrica.
"Each type of plum has its own unique taste and aroma. White plum, for example, is even a bit reminiscent of rosemary!", Ica notes.
Here’s ones of the reasons šljivovica stands out. It gets its true flavor, aroma, strength, and richness after the first distillation. “Every other rakija has to be distilled twice, except šljiva”, Ica says. Twice-distilled rakija is called prepečenica.
Rakija made with herbs
The rakijas produced by the Đurčević family aren't the only types out there. Just as there are wine regions in Croatia, there are also rakija regions.
Another well-known Croatian rakija, called travarica, is mostly produced along the coast. Travarica is usually made with lozovača as a base, with various herbs added in. The herbs traditionally used in travarica are believed to have medicinal purposes.
In Lika, for example, there is rakija made from hawthorns: glogova rakija or glogovača. Lika is also proud of drenovača or rakija od drijenka (cornelian cherry brandy). This brew is considered a cure, not so much a drink. Our saying zdrav ko dren [healthy as a cornelian cherry] confirms that belief.
Rakija made from other fruits
Numerous types of rakija are produced all across Croatia. In fact, any fruit containing the sugar needed to create alcohol can be used. Though, as rakija experts will tell you, the making of this respected Croatian alcohol should be bestowed only upon choice fruits.
The most common fruit-based rakijas get their names after the fruit they are distilled from. A few examples are:
Vilijamovka or kruškovača – from pears
Jabukovača – from apples
Sadna rakija – from a fruit medley
Dunjevača – from quinces
Kajsijevača – from apricots
Drenovača – from cornelian cherry
No matter the type of Croatian rakija, Ica reveals one common similarity.
When it comes to rakija, 100 liters of liquid will usually provide you with 5 liters of quality rakija. There are rare exceptions, though. For example, made from European plums gives you 12 liters of quality rakija per 100 liters of liquid. She's the most generous of all
Remember the difference between Croatian rakija and Croatian liker
There is one big difference between Croatian liquor (rakija) and Croatian liqueur (liker). The former has 30-40 % alcohol content, the latter only 18-20%.
Liqueurs use rakija as a base. This is usually lozovača because it has the most neutral taste of all rakijas. Sugar and fruit are added, then steeped for a while in the sun. This makes liqueurs sweeter and less strong. The only exception is pelinkovac, which is both bitter (the word pelin means wormwood) and sweet.
The most beloved liqueurs in Croatia are orahovac made with green walnuts and višnjevac with sour cherries. In Gorski Kotar, the liqueur borovniček, made with foraged blueberries, is thought to strengthen the blood.
Somewhere in between is rakija with steeped fruit but without added sugar. This is the case with smokovača [fig rakija], rogačica [carob rakija], and medica (honey rakija). These drinks also contain high percentage of alcohol.
Because of its alcohol content, rakija is dubbed a man’s drink [muško piće], while liker is commonly offered to women. You might even hear that something is žensko piće [a woman’s drink] if it’s not as strong as a real rakija.
Let’s summarize Croatian types of rakija
šljivovica/slivovitz – plum
lozovača/loza – grapes
komovica – grapes
vilijamovka – pear
jabukovača – apple
sadna rakija – fruit medley
dunjevača – quince
kajsijevača – apricot
drenovača – cornelian cherry
DISTILLED AND STEEPED
travarica –steeped with herbs
medica – steeped with honey
biska – steeped with mistletoe
smokovača – steeped with figs
rogačica – steeped with carob
Croatian types of liqueur (liker)
orahovac – walnut
višnjevac – sour cherry
borovniček – blueberries
mirta – myrtle
kruškovac – pear
Maraschino – Maraschino sour cherry
limončelo – lemon
arancino – orange
rozulin – rose petals
teranino – Teran red wine
pelinkovac – wormwood and other herbs
Baking with rakija
Rozulin (rose petal rakija or rakija od ruže) and Maraschino (a translucent liqueur made from the special sour cherry variety) are two most common liqueurs used to scent our desserts.
Have you got your copy of the Croatian Desserts cookbook? You can learn how to bake Croatian sweets, of course, using rakija and liqueurs.
Bestselling cookbook of traditional Croatian Desserts
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Get ready for rezidba, the pruning period
So, we've covered the various types of rakija; and maybe you're already feeling thirsty…
But there's still a long way to go in the process of making this alluring Croatian alcohol. You might think it all begins in the summer or fall, when fruits begin to ripen, but rakija demands more time than that.
Whether you're making rakija from a fruit grove or a vineyard, you'll have to participate in the springtime process of pruning – or rezidba in Croatian.
The first rezidba takes place at the end of February or beginning of March. During the rezidba, dry or wilting branches and leaves are removed. You only leave fertile branches that will bloom.
The last rezidba is usually during Josipovo, the holy day of Saint Joseph, celebrated on March 19 across Croatia.
"Then, the fruit is left to grow up!" says Ica, grinning.
Watch your fruits bloom during zrioba, the ripening process
Growing up, for fruit, means ripening or reaching maturity. Ripening lasts from spring through summer for most fruit.
Blossoms are pollinated by bees, and then the tree or vine bear fruit. In the Đurčević family, this process is overseen by the watchful eye of Ica or Đuka who make sure the fruits don't catch disease. – or the attention of too many hungry Slavonian rust mites.
Ica's wife and Đuka's mother Mirjana Đurčević chimes in: "In a vineyard, you always have work to do. That's why we say, 'The vineyard seeks a servant, not a master' [Vinograd traži slugu, a ne gospodara]."
"Some things you just can't control, though. Hail hits and all you can do is wait to see what the damage is", Đuka comments.
But if all goes well – your fruits should thrive under the Slavonian sunshine, soak in the sporadic summer rains, and fill the air with their blooming fragrance.
Bring on the berba, it's harvest time!
Once the fruit is mature it's time for the harvest.
Harvest times and methods vary depending on your fruit of choice. The grape-based lozovača might not be ready until fall, but plums, for example, can be distilled as early as July.
Fruits like apples and plums are shaken from their branches and collected on the ground. Grapes, on the other hand, are cut from the vine with gardening shears.
Most harvests in Croatia are a family affair. So, participating is completely voluntary.
"These are friends and family. We don't pay them; just like we don't expect to get paid if we help them. But we do show our thanks in other ways”, Mirjana says.
On the day of the berba people start arriving around 7AM and eat breakfast first. Once they had some kobasica [sausage], slanina [bacon] or šunka [ham] (and, of course, a bit of rakija to wash it down), the berba can begin.
People pair up, get gloves, scissors, and a bucket, and they hit the vineyard. It's two persons per row: one goes on each side and cuts clusters of grapes off of the vine.
When a bucket is filled, a putunjaš comes over to empty it. This is one of the younger men whose duty is to carry a huge container on their back.
Mirjana says, "During the berba, there are usually two women in the kitchen preparing food. There are always snacks and drinks available for the harvesters.”
Grapes are then categorized. Those set aside for lozovača are washed and placed into a kaca, an open barrel. “The kaca isn't covered with a lid, because some air has to get in for the fermenting process”, Ica says.
Other grapes are pressed for juice and wine while the pomace leftover is made into komovica.
Make merry at the grape harvest's after-feast
Berba doesn't end with the harvest itself.
Friends and family receive products that are borne from the berba: fresh grapes and fruits, jams, rakijas and wines. But those who work hard during the berba itself get treated to another special occasion: the famous after-berba feast.
Mirjana gives us the rundown:
While the berba is ongoing, another woman and I cook food for later. Our most common dishes for the berba are chicken paprikaš [a hearty stew enriched with paprika spices] as well as prase na ražnju [pig on a spit].
"We set a big, communal table where we serve food and drinks. Dessert is also a must. I usually make makovnjača and orahnjača [sweet roll cakes filled with poppyseeds and walnuts, respectively]. Coffee is served to anyone who would like it, too.
There is a hidden logic in how a Croatian harvest operates. Lots of people come in, the harvesting gets done quickly and then there is time to relax and hang out.
Ica chimes in, "Guests can stay for a long time, though, it can turn into a party. It often does!"
Hiring workers would make more sense financially. But having the harvest on a voluntary basis keeps the communal bond aflame.
Locals, distant relatives and family members spend time together during a harvest. It’s work, but it’s also a celebration. It's a chance to see people you haven't seen in a while.
"We have people in our berba that are older than our vineyard", Đuka jokes, laughing with his parents.
Stay patient during vrenje – fermentation!
The fruit has to ferment for a few weeks before rakija cooking can begin.
Ica explains, "The fruits' slador [natural sugars] create alcohol during the vrenje [fermentation]. We don't add any yeast, the yeast microorganisms on our grapes do their part."
Fruit flies (also known as Drosophila) are particularly important in cases of spontaneous fermentations. They bring and carry yeast, which can't be dispersed alone across vineyards.
So next time you make a toast, think about dedicating it to fruit flies; without which your glass would be empty.
During fermentation, a top layer forms called krovina. It's very acidic, and if it was mixed into the rest, it would make the rakija sour. The longer the fruit ferments, the bigger the krovina grows.
Ica explains, "Once the fermentation process is over, the krovina will be black in color. 10 centimeters of krovina are taken off the top of the fermented fruit."
Fermentation times can vary depending on a number of factors. But experienced rakija producers know exactly when it’s time for the next step. They use their eyes, nose and ears to spot the signs: when the krovina turns black or the fermented fruit stops making fizzling noises.
The length of fermentation depends on the temperature. At temperatures 14-20 degrees Celcius, it usually takes 21 days. Warmer wheater shortens the fermentation process.
In this phase of rakija making, you'll have some time to kill. When you have a 120-year-old tradition like the Đurčević family, you'll have plenty of rations to help you pass the time.
Or, if you've ever made Croatian friends… Chances are, they've bestowed upon you a bottle of rakija or wine at some point.
Prepare for pečenje, distillation, cooking – when rakija becomes rakija
Distilling rakija is known as pečenje. Croats say peći rakiju [to cook rakija].
The equipment you need for that is a kazan [a still]. Even today, entire neighborhoods can share a kazan. Locals take turn renting it because not everyone distills at the same time.
As for who owns the kazan, it's a word-of-mouth thing. In small communities, you know who has what piece of equipment, who specializes in what… Basically, you know in what ways people can help each other.
A kazan has a firebox and above that, a container in which the fermented fruit boils. There is also a cylinder through which the condensation is cooled, and another container for the alcohol that comes out. The best kazans are made from copper and those for non-industrial purposes hold from 50 to 200 liters.
How distilling works
First, the fermented fruit is added to the kazan's container. Then, the fire beneath is lit. It shouldn’t be too hot, as it can burn the fruit, but it has to be strong enough to turn liquid to gas.
When the fermented fruit heats up, hot condensation rises up, separating the alcohol from the mush. This alcoholic gas is then diverted into the cooling cylinder, where it turns into liquid. And this liquid is rakija.
Pečenje lasts multiple days, or even weeks, depending on the size of the kazan and the amount of fruit. Each day is spent distilling over the course of multiple hours.
There's no big feast after the pečenje is done. Rather, the whole distilling period is when the men hang out, sip on rakija from last year, tell jokes, and reminisce on old times.
The kazan and the surrounding area turn into a makeshift man cave over the course of the pečenje.
Flavor your Croatian rakija, if you wish
There is no universal rakija recipe. It's totally up to you and your taste.
What you can do with your rakija boils down to three things:
Leave it as is (lozovača, šljivovica, vilijamovka… see chapter 2)
Flavor it by steeping (travarica, smokovača, medica, biska…)
Sweeten it by turning it into a liqueur (višnjevac, orahovac, pelinkovac…)
Seeking to steep?
Travarica is a great choice if you'd like a rakija that's tasty and, per tradition, medicinal at the same time. A commonly added herb is sage, thought to heal respiratory ailments and contain antibacterial properties. Another is the immunity-boosting rosemary. If you're looking to lowers your stress levels, throw in a few sprigs of thyme, too.
If you're looking for a liqueur, Mirjana gives an example of an old family recipe for orahovac.
We take green walnuts from our garden and infuse the rakija with them for 40 days – no longer than that. Sugar is also added, as well as vanilla, lemon and orange peels, and juice. Some people add coffee beans to orahovac, but we prefer it without. For orahovac we use lozovača as a base.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor!
Again, which rakija is best is really up to taste and it varies from person to person. These are the Đurčević family's favorites:
"Vilijamovka is the best", Đuka claims. This particular Croatian rakija is made from the so-called Williams Pear sort, also known as the European Pear.
"All of the non-flavored rakijas are equal to me! I have a soft spot for orahovac, though", says Mirjana. "I also love eating the rakija-soaked cherries that I make višnjevac from!", she adds, laughing.
"My personal favorite is vilijamovka… šljiva… loza… and all fruit rakijas", announces Ica, to everyone's laughter. "Ok, if I had to pick one, then loza, or vilijamovka."
Now that you’ve stocked up with plenty of rakija, do you know how to drink it?
Did you know that rakija cools and wine warms the body? It might seem counterintuitive, but it's true.
Ica explains, "Rakija cools the body down when it's consumed, and wine warms it up. Rakija lowers blood pressure, making us feel colder. Wine increases blood pressure, making us feel hotter. The worst would be to say Let's have a rakija to warm up. It should be Let's drink a little wine to warm up."
Nonetheless, wine and rakija – of all sorts and flavors – are enjoyed in Croatia all year long. Croats don't discriminate.
So, živjeli – cheers!
Which is your favorite Croatian rakija? Let us know in the comments below.