Now I wouldn’t really describe myself as a drinker. I mean a drinker of alcoholic drinks. I’m really the weddings, Christmas and funeral drinker. It’s not really that I don’t enjoy a whiskey or a beer, but I seem to prefer having fun sober rather than drunk.
Of course I’ve been absolutely drunk before, but these times are becoming more and more rare. And when I do drink I prefer to drink my alcohol straight. Rum and coke, whiskey and soda and brandy and whatever goes with brandy are all out for me, just give me the alcohol without the fizzy drink. Every blue moon, normally when I’m invited to dinner somewhere, I like a shot of rakija. Just one and that’s me done. If I drunk two glasses, I’d probably be on the floor talking to the pavement.
“We’re cooking rakija tomorrow, do you want and come and see how it’s done,” asked my neighbour. In hindsight the answer I should have given was “No, thanks, but thanks for asking.” But as ever curiosity got the better of me. Believe it or nor I’ve never seen the grapes go through the process that turns them into liquid fire.
Fresh from a business meeting and still wearing my formal clothes I made my way to the home-grown distillery the next day. It was only a couple of houses from my front door. And it was clear that the process had started due to the hanging alcohol aroma in the last afternoon air. In what was basically an underground bunker the neighbour and the “chef” were busily mixing, pouring and tasting.
This is what a Chicago meth lab or a Seattle marijuana farm looks like in Župa.
In fact, it immediately reminded me of two country boys from the swamps of Mississippi cooking up moonshine! The smell as I entered the bunker was overpowering, and also strangely alluring. “You know this is illegal don’t you,” joked the chef, looking like he had clearly enjoyed a few free samples already. Are we going to get raided by the CIA or FBI? USKOK would probably just join us for a drink.
“How does that God awful mess of red and purple produce something that is so clear and clean,” I was fascinated as what looked like pure alcohol slowly dripped out of the other end of the contraption. And when your next drink is dripping into a 15 litre tub of paint you know you are in for some fun.
Before I could even ask a glass of almost steamy rakija was thrust into my hand. That would be the first and only rakija of that day that I drank slowly and give grace. “What proof is this?” I asked through a cough. “Oh, we didn’t measure it yet, but probably around 48 degrees,” came the answer from my neighbour.
The lid was opened again and I saw the steamy mess that had just made the drink in my hand (I think I was on my third drink by then, lost count after two). “Oh, it’s Christmas,” I shouted as the boiling mass of grapes gave off a mulled wine aroma. I think it was at that point I started singing Christmas carols. “Oh, try this one,” said a voice as a five-litre bottle of water filled my glass, that’s the first batch we made. The name of the bottled water "Jana" stuck in my head because the rakija and water would have the same consistency.
“How much will you make,” I asked. For some reason my glasses had steamed up, but my brain was telling we “why are we in the clouds.” Did he say 9 litres, 19 or 90 litres, there was a 9 in there somewhere.
So imagine the scene if the CIA had turned up. You have a chef cooking the brew whilst chain smoking, my neighbour who had red grape juice down his clothes and looked like he just committed mass murder and me dressed in a suit testing the merchandise. You had the chef, the enforcer and the dealer.
For some reason the floor seemed to be sliding. Was I now on a boat?
All this time the rakija was flowing into the paint pot. Our never-ending source of fun just kept coming. “Oh, it’s dark outside,” I think I said. And wandered off into the darkness waving goodbye to my comrades, the rakija trio!
“Are you alright to get home,” called another neighbour from her balcony. “Just point me in the right direction and I’ll get there, I might not go the quickest route but over time I’ll get there,” I laughed back. But there was no reply. Had I imagined her. Was I now talking to myself. I was going to end by saying that was an afternoon I’ll never forget. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. I’d already forgotten most by the next morning.
Long Live Rakija!
Read more Englishman in Dubrovnik…well, if you really want to