Croatians are very sociable people, enjoying the company of their friends, family and even total strangers in cafes. What are the most popular alcoholic drinks (spirits) in Croatia?
- Liqueurs, especially Pelinkovac and Jägermeister
- Whiskey and gin
Why are these drinks so popular? Could they actually be good for you, if consumed moderately?
Pelinkovac And Jägermeister
To the surprise of many, a 2019 survey revealed that LIQUEURS are the most popular alcoholic drinks in Croatia.
Well, they are SWEET. They contain HERBS (so you positively contribute your overall health). They are TASTY. And, last but not least, they contain ALCOHOL!
You probably heard of Jägermeister, a special drink made of as many as 56 herbs.
But what is Pelinkovac?
Photo by Ralf Roletschek
What Makes Pelinkovac So Attractive?
Well, apart from alcohol and sugar, it may well be its main ingredient: PELIN. What is pelin?
It’s the Croatian word for a herb named Artemisia absinthium, or WORMWOOD in English.
Rings a bell? Did you hear about ABSINTHE?
Pelinkovac has long been known as “herbal medicinal liqueur”. It is recognizable by the noticeable bitter taste of wormwood, from which it is produced, with the addition of 26 different medicinal plants that enrich it with a specific and pleasant aroma.
The liqueur contains up to 35% alcohol. It is drunk chilled without ice, as an aperitif before and a digestive after a meal.
Absinthe has had a bad reputation for more than 100 years. Many people believe that it’s hallucinogenic. It’s not hallucinogenic, but that doesn’t stop associations with green fairies.
In the minds of people who blamed absinthe for societal ills, one ingredient was responsible: wormwood. It was the ingredient that most defined the spirit, and a study in 1910 explicitly blamed wormwood.
The study specifically targeted a volatile compound in the plant called thujone, which can impact the central nervous system and can cause seizures. Belgium banned absinthe in 1905, followed by Switzerland (1908), Holland (1910), the U.S. (1912) and finally France in 1915. Spain was the only European country that kept the spirit legal.
Two famous artists who helped popularise the notion that absinthe had powerful psychoactive properties were Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh. (Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear, remember?).
In one of the best-known written accounts of absinthe drinking, an inebriated Oscar Wilde described a phantom sensation of having tulips brush against his legs after leaving a bar at closing time.
The ban on absinthe, and all things wormwood, lasted for decades. It wasn’t until 1988 that countries in Europe started realizing that the ban was based on a misconception. All wormwood does to absinthe is add aromatics and flavor. There isn’t enough wormwood or thujone in absinthe to cause seizures or other negative health effects.
That is true now, but was also true at the time of the ban—tests on pre-prohibition absinthe found that most of the old spirits also lacked enough thujone to negatively impact someone’s health. It’s understood today that the health problems were due to overconsumption of a high-alcohol spirit, not because of wormwood and thujone.
In 2007, the U.S. adjusted the amount of thujone that it considers safe for consumption. The change allows absinthe to have 10 parts per million or less of thujone.
So whether you go for Pelinkovac or for its better-known cousin, Jägermeister, make sure you use it responsibly. I hope that at least some of the more than 50% of Croatians who consume it, do it responsibly likewise.
Rakija (or rakia) is the collective term for fruit spirits (or fruit brandy) popular in the Balkans, including Croatia.. The alcohol content of rakia is normally 40%, but home-produced rakia can be stronger (typically 50%).
In the Istrian and Dalmatian regions of Croatia, rakija tends to be home-made exclusively from grapes, where the drink is also known locally as “lozovača” or “loza”.
In the following video by Croatian singer Danijela Martinović, get to know Croatian binge drinkers… The text says: “Cappuccino i dupla loza, kad je kriza ili nervoza” (cappuccino and a double “loza”, when there’s a crisis or you’re nervous”…
Rakija, in turn, becomes the base for many liqueurs (again adding sugar to the concoction!) and known and unknown ingredients, with known and unknown properties.
Rakija is the the second most popular spirit in Croatia. Some 20% of Croatians officially consume it, either daily or weekly. (Keep in mind that a huge quantity of rakija is moonshine… so no statistics include it)
Travarica (herbal rakija) is usually served at the beginning of the meal, together with dried figs. The Croatian Adriatic coast is known for a great variety of herbal rakija, some typical for only one island or group of islands.
The island Hvar is famous for rakija with the addition of Myrtus (mrtina—bitter and dark brown). Southern islands, such as Korčula, and the city of Dubrovnik are famous for rakija with anise (aniseta).
In the northern Adriatic—mainly Istria—rakija is typically made of honey (medica) or mistletoe (biska). Biska, which is yellow-brown and sweet, is a typical liquor of Istria.
In the interior of the country a spirit called šljivovica (shlivovitza) is made from plums, and one called viljamovka (viliam-ovka) is made from Williams pears.
Slivovitz from Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Serbia.
As is the case with Bulgaria, Croatia enjoys protected status of 3 rakija products, granted by the EU via PGI status, making it the only other country to have such protected rakija products.
Whiskey And Gin
These liquors are certainly not Croatian. (Neither is Jägermeister). However, although not being a traditional drink, they have long been highly esteemed by Croatian connaisseurs.
Gin a a relatively recent fashion fad in Croatia, popularised by “Gin&Tonic” craze.
Liqueurs are convincing leaders when it comes to the type of drink that Croatian users of the category most often consume, with more than half of the 52.9% share. Rakija, with a 20.6% share holds a solid second place, while whiskey with 10.4% and gin with 8.5% are relatively close in popularity.
With its 3.7% share, vodka still keeps its place on the list of the most popular spirits on the Croatian market, which, with very small shares, is concluded by tequila (0.6%) and rum (0.2%).