Local Spirits Claim Their Place in the Global Bar

It's pretty obvious that Croatians like spirits – rakija (fruit, pomace or herbal brandy) is the first thing you'll be offered wherever you set foot. A lot of them will be homemade, because making your own brandies and liqueurs is a matter of national pride.

If you don't make one yourself, surely you're well supplied by a friend or a relative who does. There are plenty of cheap, mass-produced spirits, and then there is the good stuff coming from smaller, quality-driven distilleries. With such a range of traditional strong drinks, which come in all colours and flavours, there's obviously not much need for globally popular spirits. Yet, every once in a while comes someone who takes an international classic, like gin or vodka, takes on the challenge and gives us the Croatian take on it. More often than not, these hand-crafted, small-batch Croatian products travel the world and leave a good impression.

Slika 1. “The colour tells you this is something distilled and barrel-aged...” Image credit: Brigljević Distillery FB

International Wine and Spirits Competition in London is one of those prestigious annual events, when producers from all parts of the world send their bottles to see how they stand on the global scene. Its last edition brought some previously unknown Croatian producers and brands into the spotlight. For some of them, a medal from a big international competition is the best possible introduction, their grand entrance into the market of premium spirits. For example, last year a lot of hype followed the news that a small Zagreb-based distillery had won the title of the best London dry gin both at San Francisco Spirits Competition and the already mentioned IWSC for their Old Pilot’s gin. It was a big boost for the local craft gin scene, blooming at the moment.

Slika 2. “Old Pilot’s London Dry gin, the first Croatian gin that made an impact on the international scene...” Image credit: Old Pilot’s Gin FB

And it wasn't accidentally, because both labels of the Old Pilot’s won some more medals this year. At the same time, Brigljević Distillery from Zagreb County, the pioneer of craft gin in Croatia, continues to experiment and innovate. After Barrelina, their interpretation of Calvados, distilled from naturally fermented apple cider and aged in American oak barrels, and Shabby Cat, the only Croatian gin in the Old Tom style, big news is that they’re working on their first whiskey. Like gin, vodka is another worldwide drink that has been produced in Croatia for a long time, but by large alcoholic beverage companies, designed for mass consumption. But it was only this year that the first premium hand-crafted vodka saw the light of the day – it’s produced in Zagreb suburbs under the name of PutIn Vodka.

 Slika 3. “Ta-da, presenting you the first Croatian craft vodka!” Image credit: PutIn Vodka FB

Considering the fact that Zagreb is surrounded by several wine regions, it seems logical that some of the grapes might end up in our own versions of Cognac or Armagnac. Before they emerged as the next big thing on the wine scene of Plešivica, Šoškić winery made a name as the producers of Dvor, premium brandy made from old indigenous grape varieties, twice distilled and barrel-aged. On the other side of Samobor Hills, Hedonica distillery created Mihael, a 3-year-old brandy. I expect a lot more projects in this particular department because we surely have plenty of resources and potential. This year’s IWSC results proved it – a small, previously unknown distillery started by Djurokovic family received Silver Medal and 91 points for their Rubedo Brandy.

Slika 4. “Who needs a Cognac when there are great brandies coming from wine regions around Zagreb?” Image credit: Šoškić winery FB

Often people still perceive rakija as a folksy, everyday drink, very traditional and common. When you want something fancy, something special to show off, you order one of the famous international brands of fine spirits. Well, things change, and now excellent, top-quality spirits can come even from your own neighbourhood or immediate surroundings, good enough to oust previously untouched universal crowd-pleasers. Have in mind – they also make a great Christmas present.

Slika 5. “Go to the source and visit your favourite distillery’s tasting room.” Image credit: Hedonica FB

Header image credit:Taste of Croatia

Author: Morana Zibar / Taste of Croatia