Destination: Balkan Rakia and Spirits Fest (Sofia, Bulgaria) ()

Gotta love festivals you hear about on the subway, although this definitely wasn’t aimed at tourists…

While you’ll see beer take up a lot more shelf space in grocery stores, rakia is Bulgaria’s national drink, and well-known by several names elsewhere in the Balkans. Whatever it’s called, it’s a fruit brandy of the 40% or higher ABV variety, and most commonly made from grapes or plums. It’s also potent stuff, so sip, don’t shoot.

Destination: Balkan Rakia and Spirits Fest (Sofia, Bulgaria) ()

Other fruits can be used, and some brands are aged in wooden barrels or have herbs added. While I’m sure someone with a bit more experience can get into the more common adjectives, ‘smooth’ is one of the highest praises I could offer…

Destination: Balkan Rakia and Spirits Fest (Sofia, Bulgaria) ()

Located at the House of the Architects near Sofia University, this tasting event was a great way to try out dozens of different styles of the local liquor… A 15 lev admission fee got you access to the event, a classy glass for your tastings, a bottle of water,  and all the tastings you want.

Destination: Balkan Rakia and Spirits Fest (Sofia, Bulgaria) ()

Tastings, as you might expect, are typically small — for a glass that would be quite full with two shots of liquor, most tastings were splashes that covered the bottom. It’s more than enough, of course, and I didn’t see any sort of pretentiousness associated with wine. Smell, taste, swallow, then dump the rest or finish it off. From there, grab a very bland roll or take a good swig of water to reset your palette.

I will freely admit I made two mistakes here. The first one was going on an empty stomach, and the second was going in the early part of the afternoon when it was open until 8pm. It doesn’t take much rakia to get uncomfortably buzzed, and personally it’s a bit odd getting buzzed at 2:30pm.

Destination: Balkan Rakia and Spirits Fest (Sofia, Bulgaria) ()

A small shop outside offered some (most?) of the rakia offered inside at ‘producer prices’, as opposed to retail prices..

For what it’s worth, almost everyone serving or representing their company spoke at least a little bit of English, and was able to share some good info about their offerings. I’m certainly not an expert on the drink now, but after an hour or so of tastings, you can begin to appreciate the variety that exists. The dozens of brands displayed here are almost uniformly potent (around 40% ABV), but the beverage can be 50% ABV or higher.

Beyond rakia, at least a couple of places offered up brandy and cocktails. The brandy by Svistov Winery, aged for 25 years, was spectacular. The cocktails by another company, which promised an ‘extraordinary experience’, was less so. I’m still unsure if rakia can be used as a substitute for vodka (easily the best mixer for lots of reasons) or other spirits… Clearly I’ll have to buy a bottle and experiment for myself…

It was a bit tough finding reliable information about the event in English, however. The official site is at balkanrakiafest.com, and Google Translate does a decent job of translating it. THere’s no need to buy tickets in advance (or pay any convenience fees for the privilege). For future events, bear in mind this is a three-day festival of the Friday-to-Sunday variety (Friday 4-10pm, Saturday 2-9pm, Sunday 2-8pm), and was not at NDK like it was in 2016.

Overall, it was a worthy event, and I’m glad we went.

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Also published on Medium.