Balkan Brandy, Your Favorite New Cocktail Ingredient

Stara Sokolova rakias at Ambar Washington DC and Ambar Clarendon. Image: Ambar Restaurant

Not so long ago, those bitter Italian aperitif spirits flavored with herbs, roots, spices and botanicals known generically as amaro were only found in Italian restaurants. Rarely were they featured in cocktails. But today, it’s nearly impossible to find a bar with any contemporary cred that doesn’t employ a handful of the ingredients to broaden the flavor profile of their drinks.

There is still plenty of room for more of these once mostly ethnic products to find their way and perhaps become the next new thing in the world of cocktails. If you look hard enough, you’ll find signs that some adventurous operators are giving it a try.

Take rakia, for example. This is the generic term for a host of generally unaged brandies made with plums, pears, cherries or whatever tree fruit is locally available produced in eastern and southeastern Europe. Rakias are still mostly under the radar in the US, but thanks to the efforts of Washington, DC-based Ivan Iricanin of Street Guys Hospitality and his three Balkan concept restaurants, they have a chance to shine.

At Ambar units on Capitol Hill in DC and in suburban Virginia, and this year’s new addition, Baba, versions of rakia are not only assembled for sipping but also as ingredients in cocktails.

At Ambar Capitol Hill, the cocktail menu includes drinks using plum rakia (otherwise known as slivovitz) in the Sarajevo Old Fashioned and the Belgrade Mule; and pear rakia in the Skopje (rakia, mezcal, spiced pear puree and sour).

Mixologist Danilo Simic of Ambar Clarendon and its sister restaurant Baba says rakia gets a well-deserved position on their various drink lists because it has been the most popular and traditional spirit of the Balkans for centuries. “Baba is home to seven different varieties of rakia, each made from a different organic fruit. Flavors available currently include: plum, apricot, quince, pear and grape. Each fruit gives the brandy a different flavor profile, offering unlimited opportunities when creating new craft cocktails, from light, easy and refreshing to strong and boozy, such as the Sazerac and Old Fashioned.”

The drinks at Baba, created by mixologist Esteban Ordonez, include the Monastery (plum brandy, lime juice, honey syrup, plum and fresh basil); CPR (chamomile-infused rakia, lemon juice, pear puree, ginger syrup and Ambar bitters); and the Zastava Sidecar (slivovitz, lemon juice, jalapeño, triple sec and hibiscus syrup). It is also home to 7 different varieties of rakia served as pre- or post-meal sippers, much the way grappa is. (Grappa also gets featured in cocktails at Ambar, considered as a fit in the category: there is a Grappa Smash with lemon and mint, and a Gimlet made with lemon-infused grappa, lemon syrup and candied lemon peel.)

Baba and Ambar may be featuring grappa as part of the mix, but that spirit that hasn’t managed to break through even though it was in roughly the same position as amari were 10 or more years ago – little appreciated and under-used in drinks. That’s partially due to cost but also because grappa remains a hard sell with an inaccurate reputation as Italian firewater.

At New York City’s Italienne, amaro features quite heavily in cocktails, with many different varieties employed in spritzes, fizzes, highballs, sours and other types of drinks. But while head bartender Travis Oler has tried using some of the dozen or so high-end grappas carried in cocktails – like the cobbler made with Byrrh, grappa, the slightly sweet wine dinderello, grapes, and raisins – it has not proven to be easy to get customers interested in the drink, even though it’s one of his favorites.

Italienne does feature its grappas along with amari on their drink cart that roams through the dining room, but grappa is pretty much still considered an old school tipple. But then, so was rakia, if thought of at all. Considering the variety of flavor profiles both spirits offer, perhaps all either one needs is a push to become more popular.