01/31/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Drinking Rakija In The Tiger's Wife and Los Angeles

In my last blog about The Tiger's Wife, I mentioned the prevalence of rakija drinking in Obreht's novel, and my subsequent plan to track some down to sip along with my reading.

It didn't take long to find. When I asked my Albanian friend, Ina, where I might find rakija out here in L.A, she promptly invited me over to sample her grandmother's homemade brew. The mass-produced, factory-made version, Ina told me, was decidedly inferior. This explains why, when Natalia walks into that seedy bar in chapter 5 of The Tiger's Wife, the town lushes are all drinking beer -- rakija is usually drunk at home.

Ina's grandma, Ikbale Dema, makes hers in her spare room in a town called Fier in southern Albania , where it's not unusual to have a home distillery.

"Most houses make their own rakija," Ina told me, "If you have a house with a yard and grapevines you are making rakjia and wine."

The rakija was a lot nicer than I'd anticipated. It's actually surprisingly drinkable; the first sip tastes pretty lethal, but it quickly mellows to something you can linger over. Here's a photo of the (almost empty) bottle Ina brought back from her last trip back to Fier.

Ikbale makes the rakija every year when the local grapes are harvested at the end of September. It's distilled from what Ina called the "worst parts" of the grapes, the skins and so on (the best of the grapes are saved to make wine). Her grandma keeps the fruit in a large container for 21 days to ferment. Next, she boils them over a wood fire in a copper container. Then comes the distillation process, where the condensation -- the rakija -- is collected.

The first bottle of booze made is apparently far too strong to drink, and is called '27 grade.' After that, the liquor produced gets weaker and weaker, and so Ikbale mixes them all together until she gets something that's pleasant to drink.

Then, said Ina, the rakija must sit for 40 days before it can be tasted, because of something her grandma refers to as a "lehone." Lehone, Ina told me, is an Albanian word that refers to the 40 days after a woman gives birth. Rakija takes 40 days to settle, clear itself of any remaining sediment, and become pure. Of course, 40 days is a time period rich with religious significance: it's the amount of time that Jesus apparently spent fasting in the desert, the Flood supposedly lasted, and those ancestral spirits of The Tiger's Wife spent rummaging through their drawers. As it is with religion, so it is with rakija.

A Serbian friend of mine in L.A. also keeps her home well stocked with rakija. In her kitchen right now are two different homemade plum rakijas (šljivovica) and "one made in a small distillery in Serbia" from pears (viljamovka). She's also a fan of apple (jabukovaca), quince (dunja), grapes (lozovaca) and apricot (kajsijevaca).

She added that she drinks rakija regularly with Serbian friends, and that its effect is "strong" but "warming." Her (British) husband told me that, when they are in Belgrade, he drinks it with his Serbian father-in-law at 6 a.m. with their morning coffee, which, he said, has a "lovely feeling of ritual about it."

Now I know what Albanian rakija tastes like, I'm looking forward to comparing it to the Serbian plum and pear versions. And, thanks to Téa Obreht (and Ikbale Dema), I got to drink a strange brew that had been lovingly made in a spare room somewhere in southern Albania. That's the power of a good book.