That’s the Spirit
Emir Kovacevic explores the wonderful world of Eastern European alcohol culture
Is that classic cliché surrounding the eastern countries and their heavy alcohol consumption only a cliché? Of course not. According to data collected by the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health, eastern European countries occupy 8 out of 10 countries with the highest alcohol consumption - measured in litres per capita. This does not even include some countries such as Bosnia, Montenegro or Albania where the consumption of homemade (or illegally produced) alcohol is so high that it is difficult to have an exact measurement of total consumption. The top 3 countries in this list are Moldova, Belarus and Lithuania. Followed in order by Russia, Czech Republic, Romania and Serbia. Most of these countries have what is known as a Northern European pattern of alcohol consumption and form part of the ‘‘Vodka belt’’ (a region where 70% of the EU’s vodka is produced). These countries all have a noticeably colder climate which is historically the reason why distilled alcohols are so popular in the region. Even though these countries have similar patterns of consumption it is impossible to represent, in detail, exact consumption in every country because each has its own distinct characteristics. The name ‘’Vodka belt’’ does fit to Russia or Poland where vodka is indeed the most consumed spirit but it doesn’t apply to all of the countries in the area. Lithuania for example has a very old tradition of beer brewing - currently 80 breweries are still open. Recent studies also show that since the beginning of the 21st century beer has grown in popularity among these countries - to the detriment of vodka or any other spirit for that matter. Almost all of these countries have their own version of a specific distilled alcohol. As a local I can testify about the Bosnian fruit brandy called rakija - a word that may come from the Ottoman Turkish ‘raki’ or from the Arabic ‘araq’ meaning ‘sweat’/‘vine’. However, the drink’s exact origins
“Eastern European countries occupy 8 out of 10 countries with the highest alcohol consumption”
are slightly blurry because you can find a variant of it all the way around the Mediterranean. It is considered the national drink of the country - which is also the case for Croatia and Serbia due to their similar Yugoslavian roots - and a lot of it is produced by the locals. The most common rakija is produced from plums and apricots but you can do it with apples, peaches, pears, cherries, figs, blackberries and quince. It is supposed to be drunk from special small glasses which hold from 30 to 50 ml but some traditional wooden flasks are also used as it is often kept in wooden barrels (for extra
aroma and a golden colour). And as any other brandy, it is usually supposed to be drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It has been produced by my family for generations now and I still have fond memories of when I was younger and my whole family gathered ingredients to help make it for our own production. Until this day, no matter where we’ve lived, we’ve always had a bottle of homemade rakija in our cupboard.