What is Rakia?

A question many people not familiar with this drink might find asking themselves. Where does it originate from, and is it even worth trying? The second question doesn’t apply to you if you are from Central or Eastern Europe. In all seriousness, this spirit has a fascinating story behind it, and I believe it is worth sharing.

Rakia is one of the world’s oldest spirits and, at the same time, one of the unknown ones. It can be compared to the quality of single malts and cognacs in terms of craftsmanship and to an aged tequila in terms of smoothness and character; it has an abundance of different flavors.

The accepted definition of rakia is a fruit brandy made from grapes or fruits (plums, apricots, apples, and many others) with ABV usually between 40% to 60% (80 to 120 proof). It is traditionally served as an apéritif instead of brandy, which is an after-dinner digestif drink.

It is produced from wine distillate obtained by single or double distillation up to 86% (or lower) by volume of wine obtained from grapes or lower… (lower means more aromatic, in Bulgaria is 65% by volume) According to Regulation №110 / 2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council for wine distillate production.


Rakia (rakija) is extremely popular in the Balkans, Hungary, and Slavic countries. It has different spelling or even names depending on the nation but essentially follows the same production rules.
It is the national drink of a few countries such as Albania — raki, Bosnia and Herzegovina — rakija, Bulgaria — rakiа (ракия), Croatia — rakija, Hungary — Palinka, North Macedonia- rakia (ракия), Montenegro — rakia (Loza), Romania- țuică — pălincă, Serbia- rakija, and Slovenia — rakija.

The name rakia comes from the Turkish word raki, but not to be confused with raki and arak, which are redistilled with some herbs (commonly anise).

To understand the rakia better, I want to look at the origin of the distillation process, how the rakia came to the Balkans, and finally, how it became a part of the cultural heritage of so many people and particularly in Bulgaria.
Someone might ask, why Bulgaria? I have a couple of reasons:

  1. The oldest archeological pieces of evidence for rakia making, dating to the 11th century, were found in Bulgaria.
  2. I want to explore the history of distillation development and the possible way of introducing the distillation technique in the Balkans, probably one hundred years before the Arabs share it with the Medical School of Salerno in the 12th century.

Distillation – Brief History


We all know the history of wine and beer dating almost 10,000 years ago, but how about the process of distillation, the art of condensing the essence of the base product and extracting the flavor out of it?
It is not as simple as, let’s say, you are a caveman/lady sitting in front of the cave after a long day of hunting or fruit gathering, and suddenly you hear a bubbling sound coming from the vessel where you put some grapes and forgot about them.

Curiosity being part of human nature, you had no choice but to try it once, twice, maybe more, slept well that night, and the wine was born out of nothing; wild yeast and fruits did all the job.

It was not that simple with the distillation; someone had to envision the process, create the tools, and spend a long time experimenting.
Lots of historical writings have been lost over the centuries. Still, the remaining archeological evidence, scripts, and translations helped create an educated assumption of the distillation timeline up to the 13th-14th century. After that, the process is well documented.

Distillation is a process that has been known to people since the end of the fifth millennium in Mesopotamia. Considerable evidence of pottery resembling a distillation apparatus has been found.
One particular piece of evidence of such apparatus was found in Northeast Mesopotamia in the town of Tepe Gawra in Iraq, close to Mosul, dated between 4200-3800 BC. It is a large, deep pot with a double rim forming an inside channel and numerous holes in the bottom, most likely collecting back liquids from an extra top device.

Based on excavation drawings from 1935 (Speiser) and Tobler (1950), M. Levey (Pennsylvania State University), 1950 assembled it, recognized its function, and connected it with the functions of similar objects reported in Akkadian texts of the mid-1200s BC, as well as in the Muslim texts of Arab Alchemists Al-Razi (Abu Bakr Mohammad ibn Zakariya al Razi (864-930) and Jabir (Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan al (Geber), (721-815). In a way, he suggested the millenary connection and survival of the ancient Mesopotamia technology in Arab Alchemy.

According to archeologist Khaled Abu Jayyab, 2012, who was looking at similar objects, he observed an evolution of the manufacturing of similar tools, as he pointed out.

The inner rim is roughly the same height as the outer rim, while in later examples the outer rim is three times the height of the inner rim. 

Was the apparatus useful for alcohol distillation? Probably not; the most likely use would’ve been in perfumery, but how do we know if it was used or capable of being used as a distillation tool?
The only way to find out is to conduct an experiment and see if it works; of course, we can’t just go to the museum, grab the pottery and try it, or Can We? On second thought, there might be an easier way of doing it.

Say Hi, to the folks from the Perfume Theme park in Cyprus; they decided to replicate the apparatus to see if it works. I posted below a short video from their experiment. They have two more videos on their site with similar replicas, one found in Cyprus from the second millennium BC. The other was from1500s BC in Spišský Stvrtok, Slovakia Bronze age fortified village in the North East Carpathians.

A full article by Maria Rosaria Belgiorno on the Ancient Distillation and Experimental Archeology of the Prehistoric Apparatuses of Tepe Gawra, posted on exarc.net and PDF.

Tepe Gawra – Iraq 5th millennium BC apparatus distillation experiment
Perfumery Theme Park 25 August 2018 Korakou village Cyprus

Mesopotamia was not the only place the distillation was known to people. In 3000 BC, in what is known today as Pakistan, in the museum of Taxila, there was distillation apparatus used in perfumery. The pots were found in archeological excavations in northwest Pakistan.1

In China, some scholars believe that the technique for making Chinese liquor originated in the Xia Dynasty (c.2100 BC-c.1600 BC). Yi Di and Du Kang are credited as the founding fathers of making liquor.2

Aristotle (384–322BC) had done some work on discovering the distillation process by turning wine into water, but he failed in distilling spirit.
He is taught to be the founding father of the scientific method and wrote a treatise on the nature of alcohol and its place in society.

The distillation process was also known to the alchemists in Egypt during the 1st CE; it yielded low proof as the main focus was not on recreational drinking but on creating substances for medicine, perfumery, and experiments.

Around 200 CE, people were able to produce distilled water by distillation to desalinate seawater, according to Alexander of Aphrodisias in his commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorologica.

Later, at the beginning of the first millennium, the alchemists were using distillation and continuously developing their skills in alchemy to pursue the philosopher’s stone – the panacea – and create new tools to help them achieve their goals. They were refining the alchemy processes, experimenting, and creating a base that eventually became a stepping stone in the distillation process as we know it today.

Mary the jewess by Michael Maier 1 2

One of the most famous alchemists was Marry the Jewess, who lived in Alexandria between the first and third centuries. She is credited with the invention of numerous technical tools.

  • such as balneum Marriae or Bain-Marie
  • Kerotakis – the oldest description of still – consists of three parts:
    1. a vessel for a material to be distilled
    2. a cool part to condense the vapors
    3. a receiver
  • Tribokos – a more complex alchemical still – kind of alembic with three arms that were used to obtain substances purified by distillation.

Whether she invented these types of equipment or used and improved the already existing alembic is not exactly sure. Still, she was mentioned as their creator by Zosimos of Panopolis (Zosimus Alchemista) at the end of the 3rd-beginning of the 4rdcentury.

He was a Greek-Egyptian alchemist who wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, provided one of the first definitions of alchemy as the study of nature process with us and around us, and based some of his work on Marry the Jewess writings.

Zosimos distillation equipment
Byzantine Greek manuscript’s illustration of Zosimos’ distillation equipment, Public Domain

From the science and cultural point of view, the end of the 4th century is of particular significance as it marks the beginning of the Byzantine period of Egypt, which starts with the death of emperor Theodosius I in 395 CE and continues until the 7th century with the Arab conquest in 640.

Alexandria was the center of intense intellectual, philosophical, and scientific debates. For that period, Greco-Alexandrian alchemy was where Greek alchemy thoroughly flourished. The tools, ideas, and principles established at that time will form the basis for what was to come in the future. It created a bridge between old Babylonian Egyptian Greek alchemist experiments and the subsequent development in the Islamic Golden era of medicine and science, particularly in the refinement of the distillation process. 

Alexandria library
Artistic impression of Library of Alexandria, ancient-origins

Most of the alchemists writing at that time by Synesius (4th century CE), Olympiodorus (6th century CE), and Stephanus (7th century CE) are commentaries on the previous work by people like Democritus and Zosimos and indirectly on Marie Jewess.
Their commentaries were meant to clarify, systemize, help create a structure, and preserve, at the same time, historical knowledge.3

Synesius was writing about the natural idea of alchemy and that the principle of the natural laws was behind any alchemy process. The task was to create conditions so that the properties in the main products could become active and act as separate substances, by-products of the original material.

In the 7th century, Stephanus was the first to define in his writings the word alchemy. He referred to it as chēmeia, while the Latin term alchimia appeared in text from the 12th century.

Islam golden era map
Roy McCoy

In the mid-seventh century, after the Arab invasion (641), the Byzantium Eastern Roman Empire lost control over Egypt, which set the beginning of what was known as the Islamic Golden Age. That was when science, technology, literature, and education flourished throughout the Islamic world and lasted more than 400 years, from the late 8th to mid-13th century.
Some main cities were Baghdad, Mekka, Cairo, and Damascus, and the Islamic influences spread across huge territories, from parts of India to North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.

The desire and hunger for knowledge started in the early Abbasid period (mid-eight century), with the establishment of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language.4

The Arabs assimilated the scientific knowledge of the civilizations they had conquered, including the ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations. Scientists recovered Alexandrian mathematical, geometric, and astronomical knowledge, such as that of Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy.

World Civilisations

They were able to preserve the knowledge of the ancient world, which meant that the art of distillation was not lost. Still, it found a place to study, develop, and innovate. Even if it was a part of alchemy experiments or the main goal was not to distill alcohol, the vapor/flavor extraction know-how was preserved.

At the same time, after the fall and split of the Roman Empire (476CE) and the beginning of the First Wave of the Great Migration, the Dark Ages began in Europe and lasted almost 500 years (500-1000 CE).

While Europe was going through intellectual darkness, Muslims made scientific discoveries and contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry.

356px Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber Arabian alchemist Wellcome L0005558
Artistic impression of Jabir, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of these discoveries was how to distill alcohol, and the man responsible for that was Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721-815), Geber, generally accepted as the father of the science of chemistry. Some people are questioning whether he wrote all the writings, almost 3000, under Jabir’s name, or other contributors, which may be a valid point. Still, without actual proof, Geber has been credited as one of the most influential people in chemistry.

He did what Aristotle and probably other people were trying to do; he successfully distilled different fluids, including wine, and found that under higher temperatures, they release flammable vapor, describing it as

of little use but great importance to science.

By successfully distilling fluids, he paved the way for the next generation of scientists, like Al-Kindi and Al-Razi^, to continue the research into the distillation process and the isolation of ethanol.5

Jabir’s intentions were not to distill alcohol for recreational use but use it in science and perfumery. He also classified different substances based on their properties and was credited with discovering citric acid, the sour component of lemons, acetic acid, and tartaric acid.

If one is wondering, what was the taste of Geber’s distilled wine, I’m not sure, and I would love to know that as well, but I do know what Abu Nuwas, who lived around that time, thought of it. According to him,

…has the color of rainwater but is hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand”. He also used this quote to refer to the distilled spirit as another form of wine.

Al- Kindi (801–873 AD)

Another notable and influential person was Al- Kindi, the widely accepted father of perfumery who used the same distillation process to extract flavors as the alchemists did. Still, he was opposed to their beliefs and conquest of the philosopher’s stone at the same time.
In his book of chemistry, Kitāb Kīmiyāʾ al-ʿIṭr wa-’l-Taṣʿīdāt (The Book of the chemistry of Perfume and Distillations), which contains 107 recipes for different scents, he writes about the usage of the instruments for distillation, such as the alembic described by Synesius in the 4th century, and the procedure, step by step.

Al kindi
Takatomo INOUE – https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/orient/52/0/52_72/_pdf p.9 – 87

Al-Kindi also wrote about the result of his wine distillation experiment.

 “…and so wine is distilled in wetness and it comes out like rosewater in colour.”


Al-Razi (865-925)

Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes, is the first person to isolate ethanol as a pure compound and produce pure alcohol from distilling wine. His goal for obtaining alcohol through distillation was not for recreational purposes but mainly for medical use. Al-Razi advocated for the use of alcohol as an antiseptic on wounds before, during, and after surgeries.

In one of his most well-known books, The Book of the Secret of the Secrets, he writes about distillation, calcination, and crystallization. He also excelled in the exact writings about his experiments and the precise classification of natural substances.

Al-Razi was working as well on petroleum distillation. In his Book of Secrets, he described two methods for producing kerosene, termed naft abyad (“white naphtha”), by using an apparatus called an alembic. His book also described four types of alembics used for different purposes.

Early Arab Alambic
Al-Razi also used early Arab Alembic.

There are four kinds of alembics: one alembic with a very wide spout, for distilling the blackness from calcined substances and suited for the sublimation of sal ammoniac; then one alembic without an especially wide spout, this is for distillation of essences (K and impurities and colors) and suited for sublimation; then an alembic (with a spout) that is still narrower; it is suited for distilling stones at the beginning of the work; finally an alembic with a very narrow spout, it is suited to evaporate liquids and purify them.

The Alchemy of Al-Razi: A Translation of the “Book of Secrets”

Was he the one who was able the isolate pure ethanol? I’m not sure; according to the different sources I found, they contradict each other about who discovered or distilled ethanol first, Al-Kindi or Al-Razi.

Is it that important, probably not, as both made significant contributions to the science, but for the sake of argument, it might have been Al-Kindi. As most of the sources say for both, “he has been credited with the invention…” I’m going with the idea that it all depends on the definition of ethanol.

Ethanol is a colorless, flammable, clear liquid that is produced by fermentation or through biochemical conversion of renewable biological matter. For example, ethanol can be produced from feedstock (corn grain, barley, or wheat for instance), cellulosic feedstock (including grass, old newspapers, wood, or crop residues), or sugar cane, though it can also be made through the refinement of petroleum byproducts for industrial use.


Ethanol Origin?

If the goal was to produce an alcohol distillate, Al-Kindi achieved that through his wine distillation experiment. Even if he kept collecting the liquid above the evaporation point of the ethanol, 78.5oC, and didn’t separate the heads and tails from the ethanol, most likely the liquid that came was ethanol, but mostly suitable for medicine use, perfumes, and essential oils, similar to the plant-based distillation and its byproduct Hydrosol.

Al-Razi on the other hand was the first one to isolate ethanol through his work on petroleum distillation.

Regardless of that, the science of distillation began to take shape, rules were being written, and systematic observations were taken.

At that time, the word alcohol was not used to describe wine distillate. The resulted ethanol itself was not referred to as alcohol but as distilled wine and later as arak. One of the first pieces of written evidence for the use of the word arak can be found in Hikayat Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi – the 11th century (عرق النبيذ (the `araq of wine).6

As we know it today, the word alcohol was most likely first introduced in the West by Teophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541), a physician and alchemist. He called it alcohol Vini – wine alcohol, and the term probably originated from the word “al-koh’l” – a resulting substance from a distillation process in alchemy, being one of the meanings.

The apparatus used in the distillation process was still based on the good old alembic, but that changed to a certain extent in the 11th century when a Persian physician and scientist named Abu Ali Husain ebn Abdallah Ebn-e Sina or Avicenna described the chemical process of steam distillation. The technique was used to produce alcohol and essential oils.

steam distillation
Image by LisaLise

It was a chilled coil within which the steamed distillate is condensed back into liquid without waiting for the natural cooling process to occur. This was a breakthrough in distillation technology, especially in producing essential oils. Avicenna was the first to distill attar – an essential oil using steam distillation, specifically while experimenting with roses.
Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were mixtures of oil, crushed herbs, or petals that made a strong blend.7

The great scholars from the Islamic Golden Age had a great desire for learning and curiosity about how the natural laws work, made many discoveries and preserved the ancient civilizations’ knowledge.

The progress they made documenting and the systematic approach towards the distillation process allowed the Western world, through learning and interaction with the Arabs in the 12th century, to continue their efforts in the Medical School of Salerno, known as the first place in the Latin world to learn how to distill alcohol.

The earliest instructions for distilling alcohol from wine appear in a short introduction to the study of medicine written around 1150; the instructions were translated from early Greek and Arab texts.

Nevertheless, as the School of Salerno was beginning to distill alcohol mainly for medical use in the 12th century, it set a foundation for the use and production of alcohol on a larger scale.

We already saw how the transfer of most ideas, knowledge, and technology was slowly integrated from Arabs through translations and interaction in the West and later on used as a base to be built on.

One might also ask, “What happened to the scholars from the Byzantine (Greek-Alexandrian) period after the Arab invasion in 641CE?”. Do they continue with their studies, and where do they go?

Alexandria was not the only place where scholars actively pursued alchemy; Constantinople had a center for science and the University of Constantinople, 425 CE.

By Cplakidas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The main subjects of study in Constantinople were focused on rhetoric, law, philosophy, medicine, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music, and primary education was also widely available.

At the University of Constantinople, there was a complete separation between sciences and theology. The university was concerned only with secular subjects, and the theological matters later were taught in the Patriarchal Academy and even included subjects like philosophy, literature, and science.
In the monastic schools, though, the teaching was only about the Bible, theology, and liturgy.8

Byzantine science was based on the heritage of antiquity, especially in the Alexandrian schools. Unlike the West, the Byzantines were never cut off from this tremendous scientific heritage. They used the works of writers such as Euclid, Apollonios, Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Pappos and were also influenced by Arabs and Persians. The Byzantine scholars were polymaths who would study many different subjects.

The alchemy studies in Byzantium by the elites between the XII and X centuries were largely neglected. The Byzantines were still practicing it but were not eager to admit it.

Were the Byzantines not interested in learning? Of course not, but their interest was focused somewhere else; the elites concentrated on studying the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). The actual chemical experimentation and the ideas behind the alchemy were not regarded on the same level as philosophy or astronomy and were looked upon as being part of occult science.9

The rapid development of alchemy and prosperity in science in the Islam world far outpaced the Byzantine level regarding structured and methodological approaches towards their experiments. The Byzantine physical approach was more concerned with eternal life matters than the sublunary – the physical world.

Have the Greeks stopped being interested in alchemy during that period? No, they did not, but their efforts were far more isolated and erratic than in the golden era of Islamic science.

The domain of alchemy—metallurgy, dyeing, or tinting— was practiced by artisans. Even if there was a need for the results of efforts, they didn’t have the same systematic approach to classifying and recording their findings.
They didn’t keep detailed and precise records of their experiments; the results of their experiments were mainly a collection of recipes. The tools they were using and the knowledge of how to resulted from their contacts with the Arabs and the writings of the Greco-Alexandrian period.

There are some references that the elite was starting to be more interested in the science of alchemy, as can be seen from the writing by the XI-century philosopher and rhetor Michael Psellos.
A scholar in the imperial court tried to bring attention to the natural laws of the physical world. At that time, he was trying to convince Patriarch Michael Kerullarios of the possibility of making gold. One of the outlined methods to achieve that goal was heating and cooling, using silver, sulfur, and sand, according to Psellos, which will finally yield gold.

Michael Psellos
Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII By Unknown/ΆγνωστοςPublic Domain

“Heating and then cooling” are the main steps in the alchemy process. While this case has nothing to do with alcohol, it shows us there was knowledge about actual chemical transformation and the tools needed for that have not been lost in the “dark alchemist times” of the period between the 8th and 11th centuries in the Byzantine empire.

The writings by Psellos couldn’t be produced without access and knowledge of previous alchemy-related documents, which indirectly proves that the ancient heritage of chemistry has been preserved by the Byzantines, which brings us closer to our first objective.

How the 11th-century piece of distillation apparatus arrived in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria.

This period covers the time towards the end of the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018) and the subsequent occupation by the Byzantine Empire (1018-1185).

Looking at the geographical location and cultural interaction around the 10th and 11th centuries, we can see a few possible ways of introducing distillation to Bulgaria.

Going back to the archeological findings of evidence of early distillation in the XI century during their 2015 excavations of the Lyutitsa Fortress ( inhabited as early as the 1st millennium BC, the time of Ancient Thrace), near the town of Ivaylovgrad in Southern Bulgaria, and looking at this particular evidence we can try to make an educated guess on how the distillation has found its way to the Balkans.

10 th century Rakia making part

The archeologists discovered two more fragments from an 11th-century vessel for the brewing of raki, not shown, one in 2011 at the same place, and one in the northeast in Drastar (Silistra city on the Danube river).

Found in 2015 by archeologist Filip Petrunov from the National Museum of History in Sofia.

This [rakia making] technology was extremely simple but efficient, regarding the found evidence in 2015.

According to lead archeologist Filip Petrunov in an interview for Bulgarian National TV

There are four possible ways through which the know-how of distillation reached Bulgaria.

  1. Byzantium Empire
  2. Islamic World – Abbasid Caliphate
  3. Medical School of Salerno
  4. The Arabs of al-Andalus
10th century destilation amp
Wikimedia – Map 10th century

Byzantium Empire Influence

During the 10th century, Bulgaria was at the height of its power and cultural development. Having accepted Christianity under tsar Boris I in 865, his third son and future tsar Simeon was sent to Constantinople to study at the University of Constantinople. He studied theology for ten years, received an excellent education, studied Demosthenes and Aristotle’s rhetoric, and became fluent in Greek.

After his return, he introduced the Byzantium culture to the Bulgarian elite and encouraged and helped translate numerous historical writings and theological books. The education closely followed the one in Byzantium, which meant the focus on the study subjects was primarily on literature, art, theology, and architecture, and not so much on chemical experimentation.

A treatise of the 10th-century Bulgarian cleric and writer Cosmas the Priest described the Bulgarian elite as a wealthy, book-owning, monastery-building, and prosperous and settled society of Bulgaria.

Agriculture was the most important economic sector, but they also had small mining in the Rhodope Mountains and workshops that processed metals (especially gold and silver), stone, and wood. They produced ceramics, glass, and jewelry.

The craft of metallurgy was in the hands of the artisans, similar to the situation in Byzantium. Regarding the alchemy process of material transmutation, the focus was on the practicality of producing material needed for the economy and was not driven by the philosophical curiosity of experimentation.

In 716, the first trade treaty between Bulgaria and Byzantium was established. Soon after, it was based on the most favored nation principle, according to which they treated each other as equal trade partners.
Bulgaria mainly imported gold, silks, wine, and fruits from the Byzantine Empire. As a whole, there was an established stock and knowledge exchange between the two countries.

Bulgaria also had some favorable factors, which might have contributed to their interest in distillation. An abundance of vineyards and traditions in winemaking since the ancient Thracians (Homer, in his epic poem ‘Iliad” almost 3 000 years ago, glorifies “the wine of the Thracians,” which the Greeks drank during the siege of Troy).

By looking at the geographical proximity with Byzantium, their preserved Greek-Alexandrian-Byzantium-Arab practical knowledge of alchemy, and the social and economic development at that time IX, X, and XI centuries, I believe that the Greek and the Bulgarian artisans were able to establish, maintain connections, and learn from each other.

Whether it was as an alchemic experiment or for limited medicinal use, one thing is clear: Islamic innovations in using distillation found their way to the Bulgarian kingdom by the 11th century via interaction with the Byzantine Empire.

Islam World – The Golden Era

Did the Arabs contact the Bulgarian Empire and transfer their knowledge about distillation to them in the X century?

If we look at the trade routes around the X – XI century, Islam was in the middle of the Islamic golden era and had established trade routes to China, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, sailing through the Caspian Sea and to the Baltic and Sweden. They established footholds in Sicily and Spain in Europe, but the situation was different. in the East

Muslim trade routes
source: http://www.hursthistory.org/

At the beginning of the X century, in 922, the Bulgarian tsar Simeon sent envoys to the Fatimid Caliph Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi to establish contacts with only one goal, to establish an alliance against Byzantium, and in particular for the conquest of Constantinople. Still, nothing happened in terms of military cooperation.
As the official contacts were more military and strategically based, I doubt any cultural connection was made on an official level to the extent that the Arab scientific knowledge would’ve affected Bulgaria’s science or society.

We have to consider also that during the Islam Golden era, the elites there were the ones involved in supporting the study of the physical laws of nature. Bulgaria was more inclined to follow Byzantium’s interest in literature, arts, and theology. The only connection to the Arabs bringing the distillation process to Bulgaria would’ve been through direct contact with the local craft people.

This is possible, but considering the distance and the political situation in the XI century in the Balkans, Byzantium rule (1018-1185), the direct transfer of distillation knowledge from the Arabs to Bulgaria would be only possible in the late IX – X century.

The Arab’s relationship with the Byzantium Empire between the VII and XI centuries was never straightforward and was filled with many battles. The direct trade between them pretty much stopped, and they usually had to revert to a third party to complete any trade deals.

What that meant for science is that the constant tension led to a lack of frequent and consistent contact, which to a certain extent, might also explain the different paths science took and, in particular, chemistry. It didn’t stop the knowledge sharing ultimately. However, it made it more complex, and as we saw already, alchemy was still being used differently and more practically in Byzantium.

It looks most likely that the distillation was known in Bulgaria in the XI century again through the interaction with the Byzantium Empire. It would’ve been more challenging for the Arabs to establish frequent contact with Bulgaria due to Byzantium’s rule on that part of the Balkans.

The Arabs of al-Andalus – Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba (929–1031)

The period was characterized by an expansion of trade and culture and saw the construction of masterpieces of al-Andalus architecture, Córdoba was also the intellectual Center of al-Andalus, with translations of ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew, and students from all over attended the University in Córdoba. Science, history, geography, philosophy, and language advanced during the Caliphate.

The trade was conducted mainly through the Mediterranean routes.

Califato de Cordoba 1000 en
Caliphate of Córdoba c. 1000 AD, at the apogee of Almanzor, CC BY-SA 3.0

Just by looking at the map and the level of education in the Umayyad Caliphate, I can see two ways the distillation of knowledge would’ve been able to reach the Balkans.

  • Bulgarian students or someone from the Balkans were students in the Caliphate and brought back the process of distillation.
  • The knowledge was shared and later implemented in Bulgaria through trade routes and contacts in the Mediterranean area.

Again, was it possible for the Arabs of al-Andalus to be the ones who shared the idea of how to produce “distilled wine,” sure it was possible, especially as they knew how to do it?

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, a famous physician, also mentioned the distillation of wine when he described the distillation of vinegar from white grapes. He says: ”

…and similarly, wine is distilled by anyone who so desires.10

Even if the Moors in Andalusia knew how to distill alcohol, that doesn’t mean that their primary goal, especially in the X – XI century, was to distill alcohol for recreational purposes; as per Islam, the alcohol is haram –  (to be avoided). Their primary goal was to create a substance for use in cosmetics and medicine.
Under the Islamic rule of the Moors, the consumption of alcohol was forbidden, but distillation didn’t stop primarily for trading with non-Muslim neighbors.

One of the oldest brandies produced in the West was the Galician orujo, made pretty much like grappa from pomace.

The first mention of distilling brandy (Orujo) was in the 16th century. Still, indirect stories claim that it was produced in the 13th century, which is more like the right timing and pretty much on par with grappa-making. However, it is still a couple of hundreds of years after the Lyutitsa rakia distillation.

That time also was the beginning of more significant technology transfers from the Muslim world, such as the distillation process, which the Arabs introduced to the Medical School in Salerno in around the 1100s.

In the early 12th century, after spending seven years in Syria and learning Arabic, Adelard de Bath issued a revised edition of Mappae Clavicula, a collection of recipes on the production of colors and chemical products distillation process was used to achieve the desired results.

Sicily and Salerno Contacts with Islam Science

Suppose we continue exploring the Arab influence on the Mediterranean countries and particularly on the South of Italy. In that case, we will see that Sicily was a part of the Muslim Empire and, due to its proximity to the mainland, played great importance in transferring science and technology.

Italy 1000 AD
MapMaster assumed CC BY-SA 3.0,

Together with Spain, the port of Palermo in Sicily and Salerno Medical Schools were a bridge between Arab-Muslim knowledge and Europe.
The first translated book on alchemy was by Robert of Chester in 1144, which meant the alchemy process of distillation was introduced to and became known to the Latin world, but what about the East and the Slavic regions, how did they know about distillation almost a one hundred years before that.

Nobody is exactly sure, but in the end, looking at the four possibilities mentioned earlier, the distillation of the fruit brandy/rakia had two potential sources.

  • X century by way of Arab trade contacts. The Bulgarians were very skillful at making pottery, it shouldn’t have been that hard to create the alembic still.
  • XI century through the Byzantium Empire. They were Bulgaria’s rulers then. In the same time period, Avicenna created the cooling pipe needed for proper chilling of the “spirit” and faster distillation

At this point, even if there are no written pieces of evidence for distillation in the XI century, as most of the old records were destroyed, based on the archeological evidence found in a couple of different places in Bulgaria, I have to go with the pure facts and say the rakia was first distilled in that country. Until new pieces of evidence show up to claim otherwise, Bulgaria it is.

I have to mention here that I’m not talking about how good the rakia was, or that it was better than the one made in the neighboring countries. or better than arak, grappa, or orujo. I’m talking about how the old tradition of distillation traveled from the Mesopotamian ancient civilization and survived through wars; whether used to create drinking alcohol or obtain any other substances deemed necessary at that particular time, knowledge of it was preserved and shared.

Over the next couple of hundreds of years, new spirits were starting to be made and traded across the Mediterranean and Europe. The Arabs or non-Muslims living in the Arab lands and Meditarenian areas were probably responsible for larger production and exports to Europe through Mediterranean trade routes in the early 14th century by using skilled traders like Venetians and Genoese to reach distant destinations and to boost demand for distillation products across Europe.

By looking at the trade routes map, we can see that all of Europe was interconnected, from the Arab lands in the south to Eastern Mediterranean, going through the Balkans and reaching farther North. All these people had access to the products they needed.

Medieval trade maps
Late Medieval Trade Routes, Lampman, Public domain,

That might also explain how some of the oldest distilled alcohol was made at the same time and became popular across Europe. Grappa in Italy, Orujo brandy in Spain, Armagnac in Southern France, Raki in Greece, and Rakia in Bulgaria.

Brandy making timeline accross Europe
Map-based on Mascarinho10 – Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Not shown on the map is the granddaddy of all the distilled wine – Arak (in terms of distillation, not taste), produced around IX – X, initially not for drinking. The Arabs of al-Andalus were particularly active in developing the art of distillation, and there were also plenty of wine shops in Syria and Egypt run by non-Muslim Christians. The Arabs were not the only ones producing it; the Christians were also making arak in numerous monasteries and convents of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.

I did not mention the Turk’s raki here, as the exact production time is unclear. For instance, according to an article from Deniz Gürsoy, there is a couple of pieces of evidence that the raki was known in the Ottoman land by the XVI century.

Aşık Kerem, a 16th-century folk poet, also mentions raki in one of his poems:

Drink raki to be happy
Speak with the donkey to befriend
One who utters a couple of words becomes a masterHe dislikes the poems in front of the absolute

Selim II issued a decree in 1573 regarding a ban on selling alcohol to Muslims.

It is my command that on the proclamation of this decree, the Jewish and Christian communities and the gatekeepers of the city of Istanbul shall thereby be admonished and once again cautioned not to allow entrance to open casks and barrels and skins of wine and raki and not to sell to the Muslims what is brought in secretly at night for consumption by the Jews and Christians. 

In my opinion, the Turks knew raki a long time before that, and the reason I believe that is two pieces of evidence from the XIV and XV’s centuries connected to rakia.

The first evidence is from the late XIV century. It is connected with the invasion and expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans during the siege of Sofia, an important strategic and military center in the Bulgarian kingdom (tsarstvo).

During the initial unsuccessful siege of Sofia in 1384, Lala Sahin Pasha sent a letter to sultan Murad I, vividly explaining the challenges he encountered. In that letter, he also mentioned the rakia being enjoyed by the Bulgarian soldiers and their bravery in battle.

Rakia translation 1906
The text is published in the translation of D.A.Ihchiev, “Materials on our history under Turkish slavery” in “Bulletin of the Bulgarian Historical Society,” vol. 2, 1906, Sofia. pp. 92-94

Based on this letter, we can make a few assumptions about the consumption of the rakia at that time.

  • In the XIV century, rakia was a part of the Bulgarian lifestyle.
  • The rakia was known to the Bulgarians well before the letter was written. The question here is whether the rakia consumption was a result of the XI century rakia distillation, or the larger consumption began somewhere in the XIII and early XIV centuries due to the Latin merchants’ trade routes through the Balkans and the subsequent trade exchanges.
    It is hard to know what is the exact answer, but for all we know, the rakia might have been consumed prior to the encounter with the merchants, as the rakia production up until the XX century was largely done in small family and artisan environment, with not much of written records found.
  • Lala Sahin Pasha mentioned the word rakia. If we were to follow the official records I mentioned before, that’s almost 200 years before that, which means the Turks were aware of the alcohol’s existence, whether through their interactions with the Arabs or through the military expansion of the Balkans in the early XIV century.

Prof. Dr. Konstantin Totev’s team found the second evidence during excavations on Trapezitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo (the Assen Palace). The object is well preserved, and the inscription reads: “I drank rakinya on the feast.” Professor Konstantin Totev read the inscription and explained that it is unknown to which holiday it refers, but the word was indeed written after the beverage was consumed.

rakia archeological piece

“Аз пих на празника … ракиня” I drunk … rakinya (rakia)

XIV century, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

It is a part of a small bowl, or a glass, made in the famous “sgraffito” technique, practiced by the potters of Tarnovo. This technique distinguishes the vessels with characteristic artistic decoration, with images of plants, people, animals, etc. But the most interesting thing is that additionally after the vessel has already come into use, the text “I drank on the holiday” was scratched on it. … Rakinya ”. However, it is not clear which holiday it is. But such inscriptions are typical of various metal vessels, tableware, which in the past were inscribed by their owners. For the first time, however, we come across an inscription, so old, containing the word “rakia”. We assume that its owner was a citizen, or a military man, buried in the necropolis, south of this very large church, which we are currently discovering.

Prof. Konstantin Totev, 2011

By the end of the XIV century, most of the Balkans were conquered by the Ottоman Empire, and in 1453 Constantinople became their capital.

That caused many Byzantine intellectuals to flee to western Europe, bringing manuscripts of ancient authors, which enabled the Europeans to translate Greek philosophical and scientific papers directly instead of Arabic translations of the same books.

The migration of knowledge to the West also coincided with the beginning of the Renaissance era and the contribution of the Byzantium Empire, which one might say was the last but an additional and essential boost to the intellectual awakening of Europe.

Topic About Nothing

Before I move to the next part of rakia distillation, I wanted to speculate on a bit unrelated question but intriguing in some way.

Since the rakia was produced before vodka, is that mean the vodka was rakia at the beginning?
Hmm… where is Doctor Who when I need him? I’m not sure, but let’s look at some known facts.

The answer depends on the definition of vodka, is it made from grains, or can it be made from grapes as well? If the grapes are out of the question, the Poles were the ones who first produced vodka; on the other hand, if grapes are part of the definition, then the Russian were distilling vodka (rakia/grappa) before the Poles.
One thing to keep in mind is that alcohol back then was completely different from today; it had a distinct smell and taste, and it was not as refined as we know it today. This is relevant for Rakia as well.

The first recordings of vodka (gorzałka) distilling were recorded in 1405 in Poland, and it was made from starches – grains or potatoes.

In 1386 Genoese ambassadors brought the first aqua vitae to Russia; the distilled spirit they introduced to the Russians was grape-based – rakia or grappa? I don’t think there was much difference in the XIV century.

In the beginning, I believe, both were made the same way – grappa is made by distilling grape pomace left over from winemaking after pressing; rakia also can be made the same way and, to a certain extent, is still made today.

The Russians didn’t start the actual production until 1430, but they used grains, instead of grapes, as a base due to their abundance, known as “bread wine.” Until the 18th century, the name vodka was initially not associated with drinking alcohol but with its uses in medicine and perfumery.

Note: The word vodka was coined in the late 19th century by the famous Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, who formulated the Periodic Law, classifying elements according to their atomic numbers. Before that time, vodka was known as “grain wine.”11
In the XIX century, probably before that too, the quality of the vodka was not that good, which led to Czar Alexander III decision in 1894 to task Dmitri Mendeleev to figure out the best alcohol proof of distilling vodka, and if I’m not mistaken he came up with ABV 38o.

For tax purposes, although the Russians and other countries rounded up to 40%, currently, the EU set the minimum alcohol content at 37.5%. ABV.

Vodka definition EU 2019

Vodka definition according to the EU REGULATION (EU) 2019/787 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 17 April 2019.

According to the current definition of Polish Vodka from 2013, Polish Vodka can be produced from rye, barley, oats, wheat, triticale, or potatoes, and all the raw materials must be of Polish origin.

Last call for Dr. Who! We need some answers!

In the meantime, click here for the second part on rakia distillation.


  1. Essential Oils
  2. Chinadaily
  3. Cristina Viano
  4. WorldCivilization
  5. acsu.buffalo.edu
  6. history of science
  7. researchgate p6
  8. MiltonV.Anastos-jstore
  9. Christos Antoniadis
  10. history-science-technology
  11. Victor Erofeyev, The New Yorker, December 16, 2002

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