Greece has its ouzo, Mexico has tequila and mezcal, France has its Calvados, and Japan has its sake. Each has traditions and rituals wrapped around it, so exploring the typical spirits of a region can take you right into the soul of a nation.
In Bulgaria, for example, Rakia is an unofficial national drink. Like ouzo in Greece, there are a lot of rituals entwined with Rakia. It is a kind of brandy that can be distilled from any type of fruit. If someone invites you to their home, you can be sure you will be offered a glass of their favorite homemade Rakia.
Many people make Rakia at home, especially in the villages. I can arrange for people to visit a rural family to see how they make their Rakia and enjoy a typical meal, which can last for five to six hours. It is a chance to see the beautiful countryside, which is very green and mountainous, with lots of opportunities to hike to waterfalls, or in winter, to ski.
One of my favorite places to enjoy Rakia, along with authentic regional cuisine, is in Bankso, a mountain resort in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park. The restaurant is about halfway up a mountain, and you enjoy a home-cooked meal with locally sourced ingredients in a room that seems like a family living room. It is not fancy; the bathroom is clean, but it is of the squat-over-a-hole variety, so it is not a place for people who like everything to be modern and predictable, but the food is unbelievably tasty.
Another of my favorite spirits destinations is Northern Spain also known as Green Spain. It spans from West Galicia through Asturias all the way to the Basque Country. The Principality of Asturias sits south of the Cantabrian sea. Its climate is said to be the best environment for apple trees to grow. This is where some of the best apple ciders in the world can be found. Sidra, cider in Spanish, does not contain any added sugars. During its production, indigenous yeast is introduced to aid in the fermentation process. It is not a sparkling drink. To bring out the aromas and flavors there is a tradition called the “Throwing” or the high pour. This ensures that pour will be aerated, which causes a temporary natural carbonation also known as estrellas (stars). This one crucial step helps to unfold the bouquet of flavors within the Sidra. It is best to drink it right away so that you can enjoy every flavor and aroma that fills your mouth.
The cider pairs well with the hearty, rich cuisines of Northern Spain. The traditional cuisine is wonderful—it plays on a lot of fresh ingredients—seafood, lamb, beef, and seasonal produce—and is simple and comforting.
I find that in Spain, the work/life balance is good. They take the time to embrace every moment life has to offer. Bringing people of all ages together by breaking bread, sipping a crisp Sidra, and savoring local cuisine that feeds the body and spirit. Visiting a Basque Sagerdotegi, or cider house, is a very social thing to do. You will see friends and families, groups of young and old, all sitting together, talking and tasting. You rarely see people eating alone and if you are not with your own group, you will almost certainly be drawn into a conversation. It is something people do after work and on weekends.
Wherever you go, I can cue you into the local drinks, and either with a guide or on your own, arrange for you to go to the source for a tasting and tour or for a social experience at a traditional dining and drinking spot. Either way, you will have fun connecting with the local spirit and spirits. Cheers!