The word “unique” is so often over-used, it seems to have lost its meaning. Certainly in the food & beverage industry, this is truer than ever. So when I had the opportunity thanks to the kind folks at Sizzling Communications, to visit a new establishment that truly warranted the adjective unique, I found myself somewhat at a loss for words.
Located in Leslieville on Queen Street East, the warm and inviting Rakia Bar (now permanently closed) features – you guessed it – rakia (also rakija, rachiu).
Rakia is a spirit made from distilled fermented fruit, other than grapes. (You could think of it as a fruit brandy.) It’s popular in the Balkans, with an ABV of 40% minimum – sometimes clocking it at as high as 60%. Generally clear, it’s usually bottled direct from the still without ageing in casks, thus maintaining the fruit characteristics in the final product. Even at 40% ABV, rakia tends to have a bite! Serbian Slivovitz (made from plums) would be the most well-known internationally.
It’s the most popular alcoholic drink in Serbia, and tends to be served with appetizers and savoured slowly in a social setting with good friends. A predominant part of the culture, custom includes placing a bottle in the grave of drinkers, to enjoy in the afterlife!
It is immersed in this culture that Rakia Bar thrives. Apart from an in-depth history lesson, we were walked through a structured tasting of six different rakias. Each was presented in a traditional chokan, a small (30mL) pear-shaped glass with narrow opening from which rakia is sipped. While beautifully authentic, I did find it helpful to pour a little in a small snifter for the tastings as a novice, to better appreciate the differing bouquets.
And indeed, they are remarkably different. There is much for variety than most who have only tried a harsh slivovitz in the past would expect. Amongst the five we tried, each had a distinctive profile.
The quince had a nose that immediately had me thinking of Turkish delight. (perhaps not a surprise, given quince is part of the rose family.) It hit you with immediate heat, but at the same time was remarkably smooth. A nice introduction. The pear was unmistakable, with a strong aroma of over-ripe pears hiding the alcohol. On the palate, the pear was there, subdued by the alcohol burn and notes of caramel. The apricot had a milder fruit nose, with hints of nuts. On the palate, I found this one more restrained, warming instead of burning. This would be a favourite after-dinner sipper. The plum had been aged for a time in oak, giving it a light golden colour. The nose was surprisingly light, plum in the background and (for me) – don’t laugh – a distinct nose of white LePage glue! I found this a bit more fiery, with a finish that was slightly bitter. Moving on to flavoured rakia, we tried juniper; really a plum rakia where juniper is added in the second distillate. As expected, strong juniper notes reminiscent of gin – unexpected from the medium golden colour. As a gin drinker I liked this immensely. Even moreso in the rakia & tonic the very friendly bartender made me, with added lime. Lastly, we tried honey; again, a plum rakia with added flavouring. This was slightly opaque, similar in appearance to a pastis with water. The nose featured more bitter almond than honey. But as soon as you sip, you’re stung with the flavor! This was the most subdued of the selection, ideal for those who might have trepidations about a high-alcohol drink. Very smooth and warming through the finish.
In Serbia, most rakia is made by very small producers. Dušan Varga, the owner of Rakia Bar, clearly knows how to source, and has a rotating stock. Some now produce only for his bar.
Rakia also represents good value, as fruit is generally cheaper to farm than grapes. At Rakia Bar this translates to 1-ounce glasses starting from as low as $6.50. For some of the higher-end exotic rakia, you could spend $35.00. Still, compared to a Cognac or Armagnac…
As rakia is meant to be sipped slowly, the evening featured some lovely mezze plates, matched to each of the different rakia. Along with fruits and nuts, we had pork crackling, duck neck sausage, cheeses, chocolate, and my personal discovery of the evening – kajmac, a creamy dairy spread similar to clotted cream.
The brunch menu is varied, and features a grilled cheese that has rave reviews. I’ll let you discover that on your own. As well as a few special rakia cocktails they’ve had fun experimenting with.
All in all, I found this a fun evening of discovery, and if you’re in the east end, Rakia Bar is well worth checking out – for the rakia, and also the food.
Disclosure: Neil attended the rakia tasting evening as a guest of Sizzling Communications. All opinions are his own and he has not been compensated for writing this post.
Hmmm, well it sounds like Mr Neil had a great night out at Rakia Bar, as for me, well I didn’t go primarily because I tend not to like hard liquor like these fruit brandies (though his description, especially of the apricot, made me wonder if I should give them another try…). However, cooking and baking with liquors like this is another matter. And as we approach the holiday season, I couldn’t think of a better recipe in which to use and fruit brandy than a classic trifle.
In my family, trifle used to be a traditional Christmas dessert when we would get together with family, so naturally, when I think holiday entertaining, I find it hard to go past a trifle for a dessert. No, it’s not haute cuisine, but it’s lovely and jolly and benefits from a good old glug of alcohol (as, indeed, do those who are indulging!).
Not so much a recipe as a guideline, using a fruit brandy in place of the traditional sherry…
I admit that I REALLY liked the extra kick that the fruit brandy lent to this. So often a sherry is overpowered in a trifle by the other ingredients, namely the custard, but a stronger liquor can stand up to this. Try it this holiday season!
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