Every April during Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, I think about how the Seder meal, its symbolic foods and the prayers that extol them are the very same foods and prayers that celebrants partook of thousands of years ago.
In other words, I think about heritage. It is nothing short of astonishing to consider that something we do today is directly and immediately connected to something that was done millennia ago.
To some, particularly readers of these pages, it might be stating the obvious to say that heritage is what inspires whisky production today. Countless distillers I’ve encountered over the years have told me that to make whisky is to carry out their family legacy, from the Noes of Jim Beam fame and Wild Turkey’s Russell clan to an assortment of American craft distillers who speak of great-grandfathers who cooked up moonshine in the hills of Appalachia. Honouring heritage was, I believe, the driving force of the American rye and bourbon revivals, or the engine of the Irish whiskey rebirth, and even the single malt Scotch boom.
That song has played all over the world since at least the mid-aughts, when the cocktail renaissance took root: young entrepreneurs from Peru to Brazil, from Martinique to Mexico, and throughout the Nordic nations took note of the distilling traditions of the generations that preceded them and had a revelation: this is my legacy.
They took cues from the bourbon and rye whiskey renaissance underway in the US, where premium products were coming to prominence and drawing attention away from cheap bottles that now often collect dust on bottom shelves, relics of an earlier time when the booze you drank wasn’t quite the status symbol it is today. In the last two decades, we’ve seen pisco, cachaça, rhum agricole, and, perhaps most manifestly, tequila and mezcal take their deserved places in the premium and super-premium realms.
It’s a story that echoes in the Balkans, too. Last September I had the opportunity to visit Belgrade, Serbia, with musician Bill Gould. While touring the region in the 1990s with his band, Faith No More, he encountered fans who offered him the highest form of welcome: rakija, a fruit brandy, most commonly plum, or šljivovica. And it was delicious. Bill fell for it and today he works with a small family distillery to produce Yebiga, a šljiva he’s importing to the US.
Not long ago, attempting to buy šljiva in the US meant settling with slivovitz, a coarse brandy produced in Eastern and Central Europe. Slivovitz is to šljivovica what mixto tequila is to 100 per cent agave tequila. With Yebiga, Americans got a serious upgrade. And Bill’s timing was perfect. In December, šljiva was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, joining the ranks of glass-bead making in Italy, carpet-making traditions of Turkmenistan, Jamaican reggae music, hurling in Ireland, and more than 650 other customs.
Bill developed Yebiga with Jovan and Ivan Urošević and their father, Ljuba, who oversaw rakija production at the biggest distillery in then-Yugoslavia. He built Destilerya Tok when he retired as a legacy to his sons. Bill met the family through Ilija Malović and Zoran Radoman, high-school teachers in Belgrade who are rakija evangelists, to put it mildly. As they observed the renaissance of heritage spirits around the world, they realised rakija is of similar cultural importance and, as such, poised for an artisanal awakening. They started their blog, Rakija, Mostly, in 2008.
“When you have a hobby, you need to connect it with community,” Zoran told me. “We wanted to give something to Serbia. We wanted to create a rakija scene. It was always there, but people – especially young people – weren’t talking about it the way they could be. There was no website or YouTube channel dedicated to rakija.”
In Yugoslavia, large-scale industrial production dominated, but today, small producers define the scene.
“Now it’s all craft. It’s the perfect time if you’re looking for small batch,” Zoran said. “The market is no place for amateurs, we need consistency.” That’s good for business and for heritage.