Being a Balkan country, Bulgaria is, to a great extent, defined by alcohol. Bulgarians drink when they are happy and sad, when they celebrate and mourn. Alcohol is served as an act of hospitality and people compete by comparing the quality of their homemade alcohol or by seeing who can drink more before passing out. If you visit Bulgaria for the first time, here are some of the most emblematic Bulgarian alcoholic drinks you should try, including how and when to consume them.
If you are invited to a Bulgarian home, you are almost 100 percent sure to be offered a generous glass of rakia. This strong alcohol is distilled from fruit, such as grapes, plums, pears, apricots and others. It’s infused with Bulgarian national pride, since many people still produce their own homemade rakia. It is served as an apéritif, usually with a big plate of Shopska salad or cured meat and local cheeses. On frosty winter days, it is served hot with honey (and sometimes black pepper). Its hot variety is believed to be a cure for colds as well.
Bulgaria has thousands of years of wine traditions dating back to the Ancient Thracians, and today it is proud to be a part of the world wine map with local brands winning prizes at international wine exhibitions. The soil, climate and topography of the country make it perfect for growing international grape varietals, such as Merlot, Cabernet or sauvignon blanc, but if you want to truly immerse yourself in the local wine scene, you should try wines of local varietals.
Pelin is a bitter wine-derived drink. During the process of fermentation, the herb artemisia absinthium (in Bulgarian, pelin, hence the name of the drink) is added to the wine. Pelin can be made from both white and red wine. It is relatively hard to find on restaurant menus except at traditional restaurants, but if you have Bulgarian friends, you can ask them to find a bottle of homemade pelin for you.
Menta is a mint-based strong alcohol that is one of the symbols of summer in Bulgaria. You will see many people on the beach sipping refreshing bright green cocktails made of menta and sparkling water or menta and Sprite. The boldest combination you can try is menta and milk. Menta means vacation, beach and relaxation in the collective mind of the locals, so it’s impossible to see it consumed during any other season. The alcohol itself is made of mint leaves (or mint extract), sugar and pure alcohol.
Another summer alcoholic legend, mastika, will remind you of the Greek ouzo. It is served ice cold and is clear until you add water or ice to it, which will turn it cloudy and fill it with little crystals. The strong anise flavor is not everyone’s favorite, but it’s worth at least trying if you want to indulge in a typical Bulgarian beach experience.
Bulgaria is still a terra incognita for beer lovers with just a few craft beer breweries in the country that are mostly unheard of abroad. It doesn’t mean they can’t surprise you with flavor combinations and bold experiments though. The richest craft beer scene is in Sofia, where you can find the biggest number of beer shops, beer gardens and specialized beer tastings.
For years Bulgarians have produced homemade fruit liqueurs, using rakia as a base, with the sour cherry liqueur (vishnovka) being the all-time star. These sweet alcoholic drinks are made of fruit, sugar and strong alcohol, and are mainly preferred by women.