Bulgaria has a refreshing tradition of natural beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Many Bulgarian drinks are mixed together to create curious cocktails while others, like the classic rakia, are sipped pure. With summer slowly approaching and the weather getting sunnier and warmer by the day, here’s a list of 10 typically Bulgarian drinks to quench the thirst when you visit the country… and enrich your cultural experience of the Balkans!
1. The fruity queen of spirits: rakia (ракия)
A personal favourite and the most popular spirit among the South Slavic peoples, rakia is a fruit brandy that can be made out of practically any kind of fermented fruit. This legendary beverage is customarily made in home distilleries (called казан kazan). In Bulgaria, the most popular variety is grape rakia, though plum, apple, apricot, peach, cherry, quince are all appreciated and traditional for some regions like Troyan and the western parts of the country. The rose rakia of Kazanlak is another local variety that stands out.
Order a rakia with a shopska salad for the quintessential Bulgarian appetizer. And pay attention to the measures – a small drink in Bulgaria is 50ml while a big drink amounts to a whooping 100ml! Commercially-made rakia has an alcohol content of about 40% and the home-made spirit is even stronger, so a big drink is already a serious undertaking…
2. A healthy chilled yoghurt specialty: ayran (айран)
Bulgarian yoghurt is celebrated worldwide, and within the country it is enjoyed both in its thick and in its liquid form. Mix an equal amount of water with some quality Bulgarian whole-milk yoghurt, stir it and add salt to taste and you get ayran (or ayryan) – served chilled, the ultimate refreshing milk drink for the hot Balkan summers.
Ayran, though in a thicker variety and often with added herbs, is also popular throughout Turkey and the Middle East.
3. From the depths of Earth: mineral water
Bulgaria is abundant in mineral water sources, many of which have valuable healthy properties. Quality mineral water is not only bottled and sold commercially to low prices, but in areas where springs exist, these are usually available to the public to drink and fill their own bottles with. This is even the case in the capital Sofia, which has a public mineral water spring bang in the middle of its urban centre!
Famous mineral and spring water locations include Bankya, Knyazhevo, Gorna Banya (all three adjacent to Sofia), Devin, Hisarya, Sapareva Banya (site of the hottest geyser in continental Europe), Varshets, Velingrad and Mihalkovo (where water comes out naturally carbonated).
4. A millennial viticultural tradition: wine
Wine has been made and consumed in what is today Bulgaria since the age of the ancient Thracians thousands of years ago. Grape growing flourishes in practically every corner of the country, though the differences in terroir provide for characteristic wine varieties in each region.
Nowadays, Bulgaria is among the world’s top wine exporters, and not without reason – the local red and white wines are absolutely fabulous. From the spicy Mavrud variety of the Asenovgrad area through the deep dark Gamza of the northwest to the chilled whites of Dimyat of eastern Bulgaria, there’s unique local wines to enjoy throughout your stay.
5. An oriental stimulant: Turkish-style coffee
Ever since Ottoman times, this has been a favourite way to prepare coffee throughout the Balkans and many other formerly Ottoman lands. You won’t find Turkish coffee in the trendy cafés on Vitoshka in Sofia, for example – though many traditional restaurants serve it and many Bulgarian families regularly prepare it at home.
Turkish coffee is made in a special small copper pot called dzhezve. Finely ground coffee beans are boiled with sugar in the pot, resulting in a thick, creamy texture that leaves an undrinkable mass of grounds on the bottom of the cup – the pattern of this mass is one way Bulgarian fortune tellers tell the future.
6. A thick breakfast regular: boza (боза)
Another thick beverage of oriental origin, boza couldn’t be any more different than the previous item on the list. Typically enjoyed for breakfast together with a piece of banitsa pastry, boza is a beverage made of a boiled combination of wheat, rye and/or millet, with added sugar for the traditional sweet taste.
Boza is actually alcoholic, but with an alcohol content of about 0,5%, you’ll have to be a really dedicated boza drinker to even feel a buzz. Two Bulgarian towns which are well-known for the quality of their boza are Lyubimets and Radomir; in the latter you can even find a monument to the boza vendor!
7. A crystal-shaped passion: mastika (мастика)
Though similar in name to the Greek drink mastika, the Bulgarian version of this spirit is actually closer in taste to ouzo because it uses the same main ingredient – anise. Mastika has a strong, pungent herbal taste and while it is entirely transparent under normal conditions, the customary addition of ice turns it cloudy white and causes little crystals to form inside the liquid.
Mastika can be sipped mixed with chilled ayran or even injected inside a watermelon using a syringe. The classic mastika cocktail, however, is called Oblak (облак, “cloud”) – a volatile combination of mastika and menta.
8. A minty summer delight: menta (мента)
Another popular kind of liquor among Bulgarians is the green menta, a refreshing beverage made from spearmint oils. Menta is usually not as strong as other Bulgarian spirits, with an alcohol content of around 25%, and typically has a sweeter and fresher taste.
Menta is enjoyed cold during the summer and can be served in a cocktail with chilled fresh milk or a soft drink like Sprite (and a slice of lemon).
9. A natural wonder: elderberry juice
Now, elderberry juice is something you’re unlikely to find in a commercial establishment. Bulgarians like to prepare it at home, especially if they have a village or summer home somewhere rural and there’s black elderberry bushes in the area.
Elderberry juice is a delicious home-made beverage that boasts a whole list of health benefits. It has a semi-sweet, semi-tart taste and typically a cloudy yellowish colour.
10. A soft drink from socialist times: Etar (Етър)
As much as elderberry juice is natural, Etar is artificial. If it were better known, this carbonated drink dating from socialist times (pre-1989) may have been the Bulgarian equivalent of Scotland’s “other national drink”, Irn-Bru.
Etar is light brown in colour and has a faint sugary taste of fruit, though what fruit exactly has been a matter of great debate. What is sure, though, is that it was named after the ancient appellation of the Yantra River in northern Bulgaria. Etar is still produced and bottled by small companies for the admirers of times long gone. Personally, I and a handful of friends still like to use it as a side drink to rakia, though most Bulgarians hardly remember it.