This article was developed within the program Venture an Idea funded by the USAID.

After Kolo (traditional dance) and Slava (Patron Saint's Day), another Serbian item made the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It's Slivovitza.

Rakija Slivovitza, or plum brandy, is a double-distilled spirit fermented exclusively from organic, country-grown fruit and preferably aged in oak casks. But sublime as it is, it's not the spirit perse that gets the salient mention. It's rather the tradition, social practices, the complex knowledge of making it, and its revered status in the hearts and minds of Serbian people. Let's dig in to see what makes Slivovitza such an integral part of the country's identity.

A Wee Bit of History

Distilling fruit has always been a tradition thing in Serbia. Plums have cemented their status as the go-to ingredient for their quality and availability, but apricots, quince, or pears are not too far behind.

Throughout the centuries, almost every household would make their own stuff, hide it in barrels, and use it as a point of pride. Distillation Day (September) was a mini holiday for each household. Families and friends would gather around the pot still and raise glasses of yesteryear's product while the all-important drop would trickle its way down for the year ahead.

The best part of the tradition is that it barely changed in the last few hundred years, if at all.

What Makes a Good Slivovitza?

Every producer boasts of mastering the techniques that make their tipple the best under the Sun. It is, therefore, hard to pinpoint what makes Slivovitza such a mesmerizing drink. But there are a couple of practices agreed upon by the wider community.

In a nutshell, the fruit ought to be ripe, fermented with nothing in the way of additives for three to four weeks, distilled into eau de vie in traditional copper pot stills, rested in a glass container for a period, and then aged in oak barrels for two, five, ten, or sometimes even twenty years. The best plum varieties are ones native to the land and grown on altitudes of around 500m, while the domestic oak should be at least 100 years old and weather-dried for at least two years before being made into barrels.

In its purest form, Serbian Slivovitza is as unadulterated a spirit as they come, just a pure pot still spirit made of local fruit by local people and aged in local oak.

If, however, you can find it as such.

The Trouble With

This brings us to the most frustrating thing about Slivovitza.

Sadly, trying a good one takes a fair bit of homework. You don't just go into the supermarket and grab a fancy bottle. You'll have to have done your due research or, better yet, ask a local who knows their stuff.

The very best drop can only be found at specialist Rakija fairs or by visiting the distillers directly on-site. The benefits of such outings are that you'll get to talk to the people making it, see the orchard, smell the warehouse, and taste the different vintages before you commit to a purchase.

But even then, you need to know what to look for and where.

A Suggestion

The second-best bet is to visit the specialist retail shops and bars around Belgrade. Quite a few have opened in the last decade or so, and they are still very much a work in progress.

Nevertheless, you can try good stuff over there, and Rakija Bar is probably a good place to start. There, you can dip your toes into some of the best branded Slivovitza on the market. Also, when ready to make a bottle purchase, head over to the Rakija Market. Try a dram before you buy or take a knowledgeable suggestion from the good people at the shop.

And, most of all, drink responsibly. Like good Cognac, Whisk(e)y, Rum, Grappa, and the like, Slivovitza is a sipping spirit best enjoyed in moderation.



This article is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this program are the responsibility of Nova Iskra and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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