Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Every country seems to have a national drink and in Albania that drink is raki.  For those who have never tried it, raki is akin to good old American moonshine and the process for making it is similar.  (A more in depth history of raki can be found here).  I was first served raki on a rooftop deck in Arlington by Albanian friends of ours. I knew I was in trouble when I could smell the drink coming my way before I could see it.  I disliked it immediately and even Glenn only managed to drink a sip or two out of politeness. To me, raki tastes like rubbing alcohol with an after burn that just stays with you.  

When we arrived in Albania we were "fortunate" enough to find several bottles of raki that had been left in our house by the previous tenants and we have already been gifted with more bottles than we will ever drink.  (Being frugal, raki makers often store their potion in recycled water bottles.  If you see a water bottle with a broken seal in an Albanian refrigerator, be suspicious of its contents!).

Albanians are serious about their raki.  People will have grapes growing in their yards for the express purpose of distilling raki.  Men brag about the quality and taste of the raki they produce and insist that you try theirs since it is "the best there is".  (Fortunately for me, women aren't expected to part take in the tastings and I'm quick to opt out when the opportunity arises).  Meetings start with raki (regardless of the time of day), meals end with raki and for good measure, raki chasers accompany coffee.  In restaurants, raki may be brought to the table before or after meals (or if you are really lucky, both) by owners eager to share their version of this national drink.

To be fair, I have tried an occasional sip or two- usually out of Glenn's glass since I don't want to "waste" a whole glass on me. Some of the raki has been better than others but that is to say that the after burn doesn't last as long.

Fall is prime raki making season.  This past weekend we were invited to an Albanian family's house to watch the raki burning process. Yes, that is what they call it and I find it a wee bit ironic since that is what the raki does to you.  

The cauldron is sealed with a flour and water mixture
I'm not sure what I expected but the scene was everything I had imagined  a stereotypical Albanian experience would be.  An assortment of friends, neighbors and relatives were standing around in the backyard of a half finished house.  A makeshift still was perched over a fire.  The grapes had already been fermenting for some time so their mash was ready to distill.  The cauldron was sealed with a mixture of flour and water .  Once everything was in place a fire was lit and under the watchful eye of the adults, the children fed the fire with twigs, leaves, and the occasional tree limb.  All there was to do was wait.  And wait.  Actually, the wait was only an hour- during which time cups of raki were passed around.  After an hour a trickle of raki ran into the cup that had been placed at the bottom of the distiller.  

Here comes the raki
The trickle was slow but it kept coming.  It flowed on for several hours after which the process was repeated to ensure that the raki was "extra smooth".  Fortunately we didn't stick around to watch the  raki drip into the cup all afternoon.  We went out to a neighborhood "restaurant" where we had an Albanian lunch that lasted for hours.  Upon arrival at the restaurant we were taken on a tour of the chicken coop.  The meaning of the tour escaped me until our lunch arrived and it was fresh roasted chicken. The meal was delicious and accompanied by all of the traditional Albanian foods that seem to be a part of every dining experience in this country.  And yes, there was raki involved for those who chose to partake.  And we even got to take a water bottle filled with raki home with us.

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