There is more than meets the palate in Bulgaria's national drink
The easiest way for a foreigner to raise a Bulgarian brow concerns a sacrosanct pillar of national identity: rakiya, the spirit that Bulgarians drink at weddings, funerals, for lunch, at protracted dinners; because they are sad or joyful, and sometimes because they do not have anything better to do. Inexperienced foreigners tend to make three types of faux pas when they try rakiya for the first time. Some declare after a sip that they would rather have a glass of wine. Others, based on previous experience with the fruit distilled spirits of other nations such as calvados, ask their Bulgarian hosts why they serve rakiya as an aperitif and not as a digestive. A third group likes their first rakiya so much that they insist on drinking it from salad to desert or, even worse, mix it indiscriminately with other types of alcohol.
All of these types of behaviour go against the Bulgarian tradition of enjoying rakiya. If you insist on sticking to them, you risk your Bulgarian friends labelling you a hopeless case regarding integration into the local lifestyle.
Rakiya culture in Bulgaria has a long tradition and some peculiarities, but with experience, perseverance and the odd hangover you can learn how to navigate the minefield.
Rakiya is the Bulgarian iteration of a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit. The concept is hardly unique, and you will find similar drinks all over Europe and beyond: from Arabian arak and Turkish rakı, to Serbian rakija and Hungarian pálinka, to Italian grappa and French calvados (a very inexhaustive list).
The Bulgarian variety is usually made from grapes, but other kinds exist, some being region-specific. Plum rakiya is typical of the Troyan region while fig rakiya is made along the Black Sea coast. Quince and apricot rakiya are more exotic, you should try them for their delicate aroma.
For how long Bulgarians have enjoyed their rakiya has no clear answer. Some historians say that spirit distillation in Bulgaria started as early as the 13th-14th centuries. More probably, however, the technology of alcohol distillation, which was an Arab discovery, was introduced to the Bulgarians after the Ottoman invasion in the late 14th century.
Over the following centuries the new technology evolved into a local tradition. With their abundant fruit and vines, Bulgarian lands provided fertile ground for such a transformation. The inhabitants of mountainous regions were probably the first to start distilling rakiya, as witnessed by the large-scale production that started in the 18th century in Troyan, in the Stara Planina mountain range. Eventually rakiya production reached the plains where there was an abundance of grapes. This is probably why grape rakiya is the most widespread variety in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian version of a charcuterie board is best enjoyed with rakiya rather than wine
In the 19th century rakiya was already an established part of the Bulgarian lifestyle. During this time two interesting, but now largely forgotten regional varieties were also made. Aniseed rakiya was made in Karlovo, while the inhabitants of the Kazanlak and Karlovo region, where the emblematic oil-bearing rose thrives, distilled rose rakiya.
Industrial production of rakiya in Bulgaria started after Liberation in 1878, when specific varieties such as muskatova rakiya from the dessert grape Muscat Ottonel were developed.
Making good rakiya requires precision, attention to detail and the use of the best ingredients. Fermented fruit or wine is distilled under specific conditions, and the result is a clear liquid. According to the Bulgarian State Standard, rakiya should be at least 36º, but the run-of-the-mill varieties have an alcohol level of 40-43º. Usually rakiya is distilled once, but producers of high quality makes repeat the process two or three times. The drink gets its distinctive colour, which ranges from pale yellow to deep amber, during maturation in oak or mulberry barrels.
Due to its prominence in Bulgarian culture, rakiya has the aura of something special, authentic and traditional. Many locals distill their own rakiya. They are usually very proud of the result, but any boasts about the quality of homemade rakiya should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Way too many Bulgarians aim for a higher alcohol content (in extreme cases exceeding 60º) at the expense of taste. For consistent quality, it is best to rely on established industrial producers.
Bulgarians have their own way of enjoying rakiya. Unlike French calvados, which is a digestive, rakiya is an aperitif, the ultimate icebreaker of any meal involving more than one individual. Bulgarians would never have their rakiya without proper food: seasonal salads, pickles, or light appetisers. Rakiya should be served ice cold. Warm rakiya with added ice is not uncommon these days, but it is an outrage against good taste.
Of course, rakiya drinking rules are not set in stone. Some hip bars experiment with rakiya-based cocktails, while some producers have developed varieties that taste best as a digestive.
On your journey to discover Bulgarian rakiya, you do need to remember one more thing: enjoy it in moderation, as a true connoisseur.