They say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, but I was in Bulgaria. What do they do in Bulgaria? They make rakiya! I'd settled in a small Bulgarian village and wanted to become a part of it, so when I was asked if I would like to make some rakiya I jumped at the chance.
I already knew the processes involved after making wine in the UK. Kiro, my neighbour, had all the equipment needed but he'd lacked the time and the confidence to make rakiya on his own. It was a lesson for us both.
We set off to the Gabrovo market early one Saturday morning to buy the grapes. An ancient van complete with huge plastic containers turned up at my front door and off we went. We chugged over the mountain to Gabrovo at about 20 kph. Not a good road at the best of times! We arrived in one piece, however, and so it began.
Up and down the rows of stalls we walked, tasting the grapes again and again. We disagreed. I wanted the sweetest, my friend wanted the cheapest. Eventually I persuaded him that quality was what counted and we settled on 500 kgs of sweet, juicy grapes. They were weighed on what looked like coal scales and then tipped into our containers. What an effort to lift each barrel into the van! We then drove back over the mountain at an even slower pace - at least uphill. Downhill was decidedly scary. The weight of the grapes gave us an unprecedented momentum. We unloaded the barrels at Kiro's and arranged to meet on Monday morning to start making our rakiya.
I turned up early and was met by Kiro who was off to the doctor's with a bad back. Before he left he showed me the equipment for crushing the grapes and how it worked. It was a type of mangle with serrated teeth on the rollers that didn't actually meet, meaning that the grapes were only broken and not crushed to a pulp. There was a hopper on the top to load the grapes into and it was balanced over an empty barrel. There were six barrels in all, waiting to be filled.
When he went I started to load and feed the grapes into the mangle and then into our barrels. The mangle kept slipping off the barrel. Trying to load the grapes into the hopper and balance the mangle at the same time as turn the handle and push them down with a stick wasn't easy, to say the least. Whilst struggling, an angel appeared in the form of a very old lady. On seeing my plight she asked me if I needed any help. At least I think that's what she asked as my Bulgarian was very limited back then. Anyway I took a chance and agreed to her offer, whatever it was. Wonderful! She loaded the hopper on the mangle and I turned the handle and fed the grapes through.
About four hours after I'd started, Kiro returned from the doctor's. He had a kidney infection, hence his painful back. I might add that he turned up just as the last batch had been finished. Had he been hiding round the corner waiting, I wonder? Anyway, the hard work was over.
I had to determine the sugar content of the grapes to work out how much extra sugar was needed. I used a hydrometer for this and because we had bought very sweet grapes the amount added was minimal. Next I sterilised the pulp with some Campden tablets used in wine making and then left it while the grape skins started to break down. We also put some heavy washed stones on top of the grapes to help hold them down. After three days we removed the stones and inserted some winemaking yeast to ensure a high alcohol content. We used a special stick to mix the pulp thoroughly. It was a metre-long piece of wood, about five cm in diameter with lots of nails knocked in one end, like a masher. We worked this up and down in the juice to help break up the remaining pulp. We put the stones back in and left it to ferment for four weeks or so.
The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and, as the sugar reduces, the alcohol content increases. I checked this regularly using the
hydrometer and once all the sugar had been converted it was ready.
Kiro had been a welder and had made his own stainless steel still. It consisted of a large cauldron shaped lower part with a round upper piece that acted as a lid. There was a pipe coming out of the top which went into a condenser. We strained the contents of the barrels into buckets and poured the strained liquid into the cauldron. The lid was put on and we pressed a special mix of mud round the join as a seal.
It also acted as a relief valve so if there was a problem the mud would blow releasing steam, rather than the whole still blowing. We lit a fire underneath and the heat caused the alcohol in the liquid to rise up the tube over to the condenser and turn back into neat alcohol which came out at the bottom. We worked on the whiskey-making principle of distilling it three times which would give us a spirit of about 90-100 percent proof and this became our rakiya. The 500 kgs of grapes made about 40 litres of alcohol at 95 percent proof which we diluted to 45 percent.
We coloured the spirit by adding a mulberry branch. The longer it is left in, the stronger the colour. We ended up with a golden liquid.
The hardest part of it all was finding enough screw-top bottles.