I first became acquainted with rakija — widely known as raki — through Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, where it seemed like he was always sipping on the stuff, invariably with a grimace on his face.
Raki is the national drink of Turkey and is widely produced in eastern Europe and the western countries of the former USSR. Raki recipes differ greatly, but it is inherently a fruit brandy, and said fruit can be anything from peaches to apricots to grapes to apples. Flavorings ranging from anise to walnuts may be added. And while raki is normally unaged, it can also be put into barrel for a time. As with everything, it all depends on who’s doing the making.
Yebiga Rajika is born in Serbia, and it’s made from plums — a very traditional choice. The company’s founder, curiously, is Bill Gould, the bassist for the band Faith No More. This bottling, called PRVA, is aged in oak for 18 months. The label features a small black-and-white photo of a babushka sipping raki from a glass. I originally thought this must be someone named Yebiga that was relevant to the brand, but it turns out I was totally wrong. There’s a lot of backstory on this bottling, so I’ll let the Yebiga folks tell it:
Rakija could be nicknamed Serbian Moonshine or Bulgarian brandy, because it’s most frequently made at home, on an old still, without pesky government laws or regulations. Serbians reach for plums as well as other ingredients, but the purest form of Serbian rakija is made with hyper local plums. Croatians might use grapes, and it’s easy enough to make from peaches or apples, quince and even Juniper. Each sip of Rakija carries notes of its farm origins in the Balkans, and the best Rakijas are found around someone’s dining table, made right in the backyard.
Rakija is a spirit you hoist, sip … or slam. It’s not for your grandmother––unless she’s a tough, old Serbian broad, of course. It’s exciting to see it finally hit Amerian shelves, thanks to a man who knows a great, late night, if anyone does.
Yebiga Rakija is a true rakija – just like the ones you’d find around someone’s table in Serbia. It is a premium, high quality product made with hyperlocal plums, grown in the richly nutritious soil of the mountains of Goc in Central Serbia. This beautiful, bracing fruit brandy might be on every table in Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Bosnia, but, until now, the finest family recipe version has never come stateside. Unless it was packed in a suitcase.
In Bosnia, people often say, “Drink some Rakija, and you are going to feel better.”
In Bulgaria, it’s, “A psychotherapist can help you, but Rakija is cheaper.”
Yebiga’s first expression coming stateside is PRVA, a style that favors the Serbian methods of starting with fresh, ripe plums, domestic to the region, grown in the country’s fertile soil, hand-plucked and barrel aged for 18 months.
Yebiga–should you Google it–is a feisty term. Roughly translated, it’s Serbian for, “Eh. Screw it.”
What else could we name a true, traditional Serbian-styled Rakija? In a name, like in a bottle, we needed something fiery and bold. Something unapologetic, but beautifully polite and sophisticated. And totally different. A spirit to straighten your spine, lift your chin and let the world’s worries float off where they belong. Yebiga Rakija is a welcome. It’s also a send-off. It’s the darkness in-between, when loveably bad decisions become great ideas.
“The fact is, the only way I could ever get a good Rakija before was to travel in the Balkans and load up the suitcase or wait for someone to bring a bottle from there,” says Bill Gould. “The best Rakijas are rarely purchased in shops in the Balkans, but are sipped around the table in someone’s home, kept for welcoming direct family and friends. It was my goal to have Yebiga be a Rakija that stands up in quality to rival the finest family recipes, so that we could enjoy the good stuff, without needing to wait for some life-changing event. I’m sure there are people in the US who miss this taste of home even more than me,” he says. “Lastly, there just needs to be more awareness among Americans about this criminally underrated spirit, and the deep cultural essence that is part of it.”
Gould focused on the two key aspects of crafting and exporting America’s first real premium Rakija. The first was a complete faithfulness to tradition that spans centuries with the technology and understanding of today. It’s looking at climates and weather, soil, and hyper-local fruit to get the most beautiful results across the category. The second was to refuse any time-saving steps via additives. The best rakijas are all natural, and Yebiga adheres adamantly to that philosophy.
Yebiga is best drunk as the Balkans would––splashed in a small glass, hoisted high and given to your guest with a toast wishing them well and making them laugh. It has a long, cozy finish that make it an excellent sipper. It’s also exciting in cocktails, if you’re willing to meet the challenge. This a spirit built for telling stories; for welcoming lovers and loved ones; for saying what you feel and for getting sauced.
Well, got all that? OK, let’s drink some raki!
Drinkers experienced with rustic fruit brandies will find this familiar from the start. A punchy nose of clean linens and spun cotton leads the way to elements of wildflowers, white pepper, and, eventually, the fruit at the core of the spirit. It doesn’t come across as particularly plum-like, but there’s something clearly fruity in the mix — on the nose, more of a fruit blossom than the fruit proper. The palate is boldly floral — again, much more flowery than fruity — with a slight sweetness that connotes unripe red berries filtered through a lavender-scented dryer sheet, tinged with pepper and tempered by notes of crumbled vanilla wafers. I mean all of that in a good way, as PRVA is surprisingly enchanting and approachable — rotgut that’s been tamed somehow and brought into some level of focus.
For what it’s worth, I drank two glasses over the course of this review. Something kept calling me back to it. And for what it’s worth, I had absolutely insane dreams the night after my sampling. Sure, this isn’t something I’d sip on every day, but for its sheer novelty value — or for those times when a Serb visits — I’m planning on hanging on to the bottle — itself a conversation piece before you ever open it.
B+ / $37 (1 liter) / yebiga.com