Drink Magazine

Serbian Rakija: Zaric Šljivovica & Hubert 1924 Quince

By Winecompass
Serbian Rakija: Zaric Šljivovica & Hubert 1924 QuinceRakija is an eau de vie styled fruit brandy popular in Slavic and Balkan countries and in Hungary where it is known as Palinka. It is the national drink of Serbia and the plum variety (Šljivovica) is actually a registered trademark with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Rakija is also distilled from other fruits such as apricots, grapes, pears, and cherries where the fermented fruits are "baked" and not boiled in the distillation process. The first distillation is referred to as "soft brandy" whereas the second distillation is called prepecenica -- or "double-baked".  Plums are double-baked whereas apricot, quince, and pear brandies are often soft brandies in order to retain the fruit fragrance.

Historians claim that the spirit arose in the Balkans in the 16th century as a result of the Turkish invasions of the 14th & 15th centuries. However, there is now three separate archaeological evidence that Rakija was being distilled in Bulgaria in the 11th century.  Regardless of origin, rakija has been and still is a family staple throughout Eastern Europe. 

With Šljivovica, producers use different plum varieties and blend these together -- either combining before fermentation or after distillation. Three of the most popular plum varieties are Požegaca, Crvena Ranka, and Trnovaca. The latter is an older cultivated species of plum which are small and round and provides rich fruit. Crvena Ranka is another ancient species that is larger and thrives in poorer and drier soils. It is also sterile and thus needs to be pollinated by another plum species - often  Požegaca or better known as Damson.  However, this plum is very sensitive to frost and the Plum plox virus (a viral disease), thus vigilant care is taken in the orchards. 

Besides varietal differences within a rakija spirit, there are also geographic differences. For instance, in the Kosjeric region of western Serbia, fruit ripens late in the growing season due to the area's higher altitude. This translates to a ratio of sugars and acids and higher quality fruit sought by distillers.  In the Vojvodina province on the Carpathian Basin -- the plain that remained when the Pliocene Pannonian Sea dried out -- is full of rich and fertile loamy loess soils.  As a result, agriculture dominates in Vojvodina as the soil ensures a good supply of plant-available water, soil aeration, and various minerals. I recently purchased two Serbian Rakija from each of these areas. 

The Zaric Distillery operates in Kosjeric and produces numerous rakija from local fruit including the Zaric Distillery Kraljica ($52). Kraljica translates to Queen, is PDO protected, and is a prepecenica Šljivovica produced by the three plum varieties discussed above: Požegaca, Crvena Ranka, and Trnovaca. After the second distillation, the spirit is aged for a minimum of seven years in oak,  converting the clear Rakija into a style similar to cognac.  Even with the oak aging, plums leap through the nose and remain on the palate with a layer of smoke that lasts in a low burn setting (42% abv). I really like the smokiness as it doesn't overpower the fruit. 

Destillerija Hubert 1924 is located in Vojvodina - specifically in Banatsko Veliko Selo - near the Romanian Border. The family distillery was founded in 2007 but the building that houses the distilling operations was built in 1924, hence the name. They produce six brandies (Quince, Apricot, Apple, Plum, Pear, Cherry) using an old family recipe and the traditional double distillation in copper cauldrons. The fruit is sourced from the 15 hectares family orchard estate. Since quince is not fairly known in the U.S., I grabbed a bottle of the Dunja Quince Brandy ($44). Quince (Dunja in Serbian) is a pome fruit, related to apples and pears, that when ripe is bright yellow and looks like a fuzzy, short-necked pear. As a raw fruit, it is too sour and astringent to eat so is most often used in jams, cakes, and rakija.  It also has a relatively low sugar content in that 70 kg of fruit is necessary to produce 1 liter of brandy and fermentation occurs from autumn to spring. The flavor profile of this rakija is quite interesting with strong tropical aromas like pineapple but a more subdued pear inspired core. And very smooth at 40% abv.

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