Rakija is the most popular distilled spirit in The Balkans. But, on my first visit to Croatia, I’d never heard of it, let alone tried it. That is, until we wandered into a nondescript bar in Zagreb for a night that changed my life.
What is Rakija?
Rakija is a distilled spirit that is incredibly popular all over the Balkan peninsula. It is made by distilling fruit like plums and grapes. In Croatia, rakija can be made with nuts and herbs as well.
The drink is potent. 80 proof for commercial rakija, while the homemade stuff can be 100 proof or higher.
Karen and I landed in Zagreb, Croatia exhausted. We’d taken the red eye to London and then endured a long layover before our connection. When we finally got to our hotel, we were beat.
But, we soldiered on. I’m a firm believer, and luckily Karen agrees with me, that the only way to beat jet lag is to keep moving. So, we cleaned up, put on some fresh clothes and headed out to see Zagreb.
After a couple hours of wandering aimlessly we grabbed a bite at one of Zagreb’s famous cafes. Then, knowing if we went back to the hotel, we’d be asleep too early, we looked for somewhere to grab a cocktail.
Orient Express was our choice for no other reason than it was close to our hotel and looked cool.
Inside, Orient Express, has a long bar. A group of young people were sitting at one end, so we sat at the other. I guess we stuck out because not two minutes passed before a young lady from the group at the end of the bar invited us to join them.
She told us her name, Vonda, and introduced us to her friends, taking care to give their nationality along with their name.
The message was clear. In a country that emerged from war a little over a decade previously, Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians were now friends.
We jump into the Rakija fire
Vonda motioned to the bartender and two shot glasses were placed in front of us and filled with a clear liquid.
“živjeli,” said Vonda.
“živjeli,” everyone repeated and then drained a shot.
Karen and I looked at eachother and downed the shot.
I’ve had grappa before and enjoyed it, but this rakija went down hot.
A second round of rakija was served, a toast of “živjeli” was given and shots were consumed. I was loopy and by the third round, Karen was discretely pouring her shot into a nearby potted plant.
How that night changed my life
We spent the next few weeks traveling through Croatia, spending quite a bit of time in Istria. I became accustomed to drinking rakija, which was usually not as potent as the version we had in Zagreb, but still did the job.
Flying back to the US, I had an idea for a story. It involved truffles and wine and food and, of course, rakija. My novel “Truffle Hunt” is set, mostly, in New York and Istria. But, I couldn’t leave Zagreb and The Orient Express out of book.
So, the character of Frank arrives in Zagreb before making his way to Istria. While there, he wanders into a bar, meets a woman named Vonda and her friends from other Balkan countries and overindulges in rakija.
In real life, there was no paraplegic bartender or monkey helper when we visited Zagreb. But, that’s part of the fun of writing a novel; you get to make up stuff.
Since that novel came out I’ve continued to write fiction and nonfiction. But, without that night in Zagreb to inspire me, who knows what path I would’ve taken.