The Serbian Rakija Universe explained by PhD Ivan Urošević

Article inspired by PhD Ivan Urošević – TOK Distillery – “Rakija plum brandy production”

Rakija is one of the most produced and consumed beverages in Serbia and the Balkans, generally speaking. But what is Rakija?

The definition of Rakija:

  • Produced entirely by fermentation of fruits and distillation of fermented product (fruit mash) – the fermented product reaches 7-8% vol.
  • Maximum of 86% abv. to preserve the taste of the fruit
  • Minimum 37.5% abv.
  • No additives, no flavours


The first laws appeared under Emperor Dušan by 1354. Consumption increasingly grew during the 16th century despite the Ottoman rule (1459- 1830).

The most important centers are Užice, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Foča, Zvornik thanks to the good altitude  (400-600 m is the optimal altitude, but plum trees can grow up to 1000m).

The Rakija had always played a major role in people´s life in the Balkans. It was used as medicine, capitalization and investment mean but was also the traditional pairing for most of the foods.

Šlivovica, the plum rakija represents more than 60% of the market in Serbia.

Plum varieties:

Požegaca – the oldest variety suffers nowadays from viruses and therefore is consider threaten to  disappear in the 10-15 years. It also has the most complex aromas;

Crvena ranka has no virus problems, still being aromatic but not adapted for other purposes ;

Čačanska Rodna is very versatile (for drying, jams, juices, rakija) and so is Čačanska Lepotnica – they have both been produced by institutes  and offer excellent results ;

Stenly – American variety that is now overplanted, this variety also brought the viruses of the United States and is the most suitable for drying, because it is of a large caliber and very productive nature.  Stanly is often used in blends together with more aromatic varieties. Blending is very common, but several producers are focusing on mono-varietals to differentiate themselves in the market. Unfortunately, by the middle of the last century, research on varieties had stopped, for financial reasons.

Production steps:

  • Harvest at optimal maturity;
  • The stone must be removed because it contains cyanic acid;
  • Fermentation with or without yeasts – in domestic production no yeasts are used, but industrial production uses Saccharomyces Bayanus. This yeast is very reliable on, as it works fast and does not produce specific aromas, while allowing natural aromas to express themselves ;
  • Double distillation in copper pot still ;
  • Maturation for a minimum of 6 months ;
  • Dilution – reduction to the optimal percentage of alcohol ;
  • Filtration and stabilization.

What is the optimal maturity? Plums are usually harvested between the third quarter of June and until the end of September with a sugar level of 10-16% and up to 22-23% depending on the year, acidities neighbouring 2-5%, while the stone represents 6-10% of the fruit.

The pit must be extracted immediately at harvest which can be done either by hand in domestic production or more commonly nowadays, by machine. The same machine also kneads the fruits, transforming them into a puree. After removing the stone, pectolytic enzymes to ease the work for the yeasts further on. This is more common for quinces and apples but starts also being used with plums.

Fermentation takes place in polyester or stainless-steel tanks with a capacity of 500 up to 20000 liters.

Domestic production does not use yeasts or controlled temperature. The fermentation can last from 7 to 20 days, which can vary depending on the temperature and type of yeasts.

About 98% of the Rakijas are double distillated in traditional copper still. Domestic pot stills are smaller of about 80- 220 l , while commercial distilleries use Charentes pot still that can comprise up to 1000 l.

The first distillation produces a 25- 30% abv.  soft rakjia which is called “meka”. This used to serve as a currant drink thanks to its low alcoholic degree.

The second distillation traditionally consist in fractioning the distillate into three tiers:

  • Foreshots: the first vapors to come out with 86-75% abv. and representing 1-15% of the quantity. One can remove more for the white spirit, otherwise this fraction is interesting for the wooded ones, as aldehydes are needed for the various reactions with wood.
  • Middle cut with an alcohol level of 80- 25% abv. and representing 65-55% of the quantity.
  • Tails or feints for the rest of 25- 3% with lower alcohol degree and rich in aromas, including some unwanted aromatic molecules.

The soluble and non-soluble components interact during the first distillation, while the second distillation only plays on the soluble compounds. pH is usually around 3.2 to sterilize the product especially for vintages where hazards can occur producing various molds. The distillation lasts between 2-3 hours in the smallest pot stills and around 4-5 hours for the larger stills. Slow distillations tend to produce glycerin. But a long distillation can also lead to oxidations. Copper remains the best catalyst for esterification which does not happen with stainless steel.

The presence of methanol is important in fruit distillations. This is more apparent in distilled apple or quince. Some markets, such as USA do not accept certain levels of methanol and the products fall into the ordinary categories from 3g/l methanol up. This is the case of Rakija which often has 4-6 g/l. There are ways to avoid that level of methanol if using less ripe plums, playing on the pH, or including a rectification column to the pot still. Reverse osmosis trials haven´t given any satisfactory results. Blending is also a solution to obtain lower methanol rates.

Wood maturation is not mandatory, but some Rakija can be matured for 25 years.

The wood can be Q. Sessiliflora or Q. Robur, but also acacia and other woods, oak being however the best.  The angel´s share is around 3-4%, and even more on smaller containers. In 10 years – time one can lose almost the entire barrel and yet not improve the quality. Acacia is very traditional for home distillation, but industrial production only uses oak.

The distilled product must spend 6 months to stabilize either stainless steel or in wood. After this period the reduction occurs using distilled water and then the product is brought close to 0 centigrade and sometimes as low as to – 10°C for a few days before being filtered.

The only legal additives used are caramel (1 ml/l) and glycerol (1-1.5 mg/l glycerol).

Tasting notes:

TOK Alba 43% abv.  floral, with some lactic overtones,  plummy hints, that milky notes could come with the contribution of the tails. Oily, with soft attack, the palate is textured with fresh feel and well- integrated alcohol. Slightly warming finish with a peppery twist.

Zlatni TOK 05 43% abv. The nose is more on the plummy side, offering wood spices, touch of cinnamon, some vanilla. It has a rich and mellow attack, with integrated alcohol, and a fine tannic mesh. The mid- palate is smooth, the finish is focused with hints of cinnamon, cloves. A touch of blond tobacco and precious wood linger on the long finish.

Stara Sokolova 40% abv. The colour show deeper amber and the nose is vinous, recalling a wine brandy. It is spicy, with light ethereal character and very sophisticated offering vanilla, oriental wood, sandalwood, raisins and honey, notes of prunes coming on the background. The palate  is silky with digest sweetness, tannins that are fine and dusty, enveloped with lots of spices such as cinnamon and  cloves, a hint of vanilla, precious wood. The finish is long, lingering with cocoa, notes of raisins.

Kraljica is somehow less complex, more on the plummy side with a touch of almonds already suggesting some bitterness on the nose. Cinnamon cookies and smoky hints mingle with a rather earthy character. Silky palate with surprising freshness, nuanced with almonds and a touch of cinnamon, silky tannins and woody notes that are light and integrated come together on the back palate.

Gorda 8 years offers a discreet nose, with toast and milky character, while interlacing the with earthy overtones and hints of almonds. Few fruits, with smooth and satiny texture, the core is spiced up with pepper and cloves. Slightly tannic with warm spicy finish, hints of sweetness coming with honey and  dried fruits.