There are vodka bars, taverns devoted to craft bourbons and pubs carrying as many as 250 single-malt Scotches. Thanks to a Toronto entrepreneur, fruit-based spirits now also have a watering hole to call home.
Billed as the first establishment of its kind in North America, Rakia Bar is a tiny temple to the joys of brandies made from plums, apricots, raspberries, pears, apples, quince and juniper. Should you crave a shot of whisky in the 34-seat room, which opened last month on a yuppie stretch of Queen Street East better known for baby-stroller gridlock, you’ll be out of luck. Among about 40 selections available, there’s nary a grain spirit in sight.
“We wanted to showcase Eastern European culture, and this drink, to people who haven’t been necessarily culturally exposed to it,” says owner Dusan Varga, a Serbian immigrant.
Known as rakia (or rakija, raki, palenka and a few other variants) throughout much of Eastern Europe, the drink is considered a national beverage in such countries as Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, where backyard stills are almost as plentiful as sweet orchard fruit.
But it’s by no means confined to those nations. Most of us know rakia by another name: eau-de-vie. While that term technically captures all distilled spirits, it tends to be reserved for clear brandies made directly from fresh fruit, most notably Poire William, cherry-based kirsch and plum-based slivovitz. In contrast, cognac is distilled from wine, Calvados from cider, grappa from pomace and whiskies and vodkas from grains.
And don’t mistake these sipping brandies for sweet liqueurs, such as Cointreau or crème de cassis. Rakia is almost always dry and clear, free of added sugar or flavourings. The best are sublime, offering an uncanny essence of ripe fruit carried to a long, heartwarming finish on 40-per-cent alcohol – harvest hooch par excellence.
Served slightly chilled in a snifter, an apricot brandy from Serbian producer Podrum Lukic shows a delicate perfume of the stone fruit. On the palate it’s gently spicy, with a pure flavour that lingers minutes longer than a bite of fresh apricot. A pear eau-de-vie from Serbia is robust and spicier.
Though the selection in Canadian liquor stores leaves something to be desired (at least outside Quebec), fine offerings include Zwack Pecsetes Barack Palinka Apricot Brandy from Hungary, Nusbaumer Sélectionnée Eau-de-Vie de Framboise from France and Nonino Il Pirus di Williams from Italy.
For Varga, a former real-estate specialist with a global consulting firm, the venture marks not only a leap of faith for the unhip drink’s prospects here but also a leap across the ocean for the brandy-bar concept. Though a resident of Canada since 1993, when he emigrated as a teenager with his family, he partnered with a school-days friend to open the first Rakia Bar in Belgrade in 2006. They followed with a second Belgrade location in 2008 and have since granted two franchises to investors elsewhere in that country.
“We came up with the idea of repositioning something that, at least at the time, was looked upon as a grandfather’s drink,” he said. “We wanted to appeal to an urban populace, to a younger demographic, in a contemporary setting with cool, modern music.” Hence the pink-upholstered chairs, concrete floor and jazz soundtrack. “At the time, when you went to a nicely set-up bar in Belgrade, you would be hard-pressed to see anybody ordering rakia even though it was so prominent culturally.”
He retained one strong link to Eastern European tradition, though, encouraging patrons to sample the beverage with mezes, or appetizers. The bar serves items ranging from cucumber salad to wild-boar and duck-neck sausages, prepared in a small kitchen located beyond an antique copper still imported from Hungary (not operational, of course).
Lyubomir Radev, managing partner of Radev Trade, a Vancouver importer of a grape-based brandy from Bulgaria made by Black Sea Gold, says “any salads, especially green salads, do well with rakia.” He also favours the Bulgarian tradition of heating the spirit to a lukewarm temperature and serving it with an apple-slice garnish. “It’s amazing.”
Varga says he worked hard to keep prices in line with typical spirit pours in other bars (they range from $6.50 to $35). Good eau-de-vie is not cheap. It can take eight kilograms of wild strawberries or 15 kilos of pears to yield one litre of spirit, making all those potato and grain vodkas seem like robbery. “You go to the market and you buy a kilo of raspberries and a kilo of potatoes and it’s a big difference,” Varga says.
Most fruit brandies are made in 90- or 120-litre stills, craft operations that rely heavily on physical labour to harvest and ferment fruit around the clock while at its peak. New craft distillers in North America have begun to raise fruit brandy’s cachet here, in fact, if in a small way. And Varga plans to tap the movement by adding the excellent Clear Creek Williams Pear Brandy from Oregon as well as offerings from Okanagan Spirits of British Columbia.
Since opening the first European location, Varga and Serbian partner Branko Nesic also launched Rakija Fest, an annual Belgrade fair with more than 120 producers from across Europe. Today they’re in the final stages of negotiating a fifth European bar, to be located in Vienna, with plans for another in Berlin. And Varga says they’ve had serious inquiries for franchises from Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas from U.S. restaurateurs visiting the Belgrade locations. Rakia has never had ambassadors quite like this.
FRUIT IN A SNIFTER: HOW TO DRINK RAKIA
Typically served as an aperitif in much of Eastern Europe, rakia, or rakija, tends to be relegated to postprandial digestif status in Western Europe.
Dusan Varga, Rakia Bar’s owner, recommends serving apple and grape rakias fridge-cold. Other styles, such as plum, apricot and pear, benefit from only a gentle cooling in a frosted glass.
Treat good rakia as you would any fine brandy, served in a snifter to focus aromas; shot glasses are for grandpa’s illicit home brew.