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Ilbra Yacoob

Encino, California Travel Agent

Exploring the World through its Spirits

Greece has its ouzo, Mexico has tequila and mezcal, France has its Calvados, and Japan has its sake. Each has traditions and rituals wrapped around it, so exploring the typical spirits of a region can take you right into the soul of a nation.

In Bulgaria, for example, rakia is an unofficial national drink. Like ouzo in Greece, there are a lot of rituals entwined with rakia. It is a kind of brandy that can be distilled from any type of fruit. If someone invites you to their home, you can be sure you will be offered a glass of their favorite rakia.

Many people make rakia at home, especially in the villages, and I can arrange for people to visit a rural family to see how they make their rakia and enjoy a typical meal, which can last for five to six hours. It is a chance to see the beautiful countryside, which is very green and mountainous, with lots of opportunities to hike to waterfalls, or in winter, to ski.

One of my favorite places to enjoy rakia, along with authentic regional cuisine, is in Bankso, a mountain resort in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park. The restaurant is about halfway up a mountain, and you enjoy a home-cooked meal with locally-sourced ingredients in a room that seems like a family living room. It is not fancy; the bathroom is clean, but it is of the squat-over-a-hole variety, so it is not a place for people who like everything to be modern and predictable, but the food is unbelievably tasty.

Another of my favorite spirits destinations is the Basque Country of northern Spain. Its climate is said to be the best environment for apple trees to grow and they make unusual apple ciders using indigenous yeast. Because they do not use sugars to ferment the apples, it is not a sparkling drink. To bring out the aromas and flavors there is a tradition called the “High Pour.” This ensures that pour will be aerated, which causes estrellas (stars). You drink it right away and get a quick sparkling effect and the flavor fills your mouth.

The cider pairs well with the hearty, rich Basque cuisine. The traditional cuisine is wonderful—it plays on a lot of fresh ingredients—seafood, lamb, beef, and seasonal produce—and is simple and comforting.

In Spain, the work/life balance is good. They take the time to savor their food, drinks, and friends and breaking bread and sipping cider brings people together. Visiting a Basque sagerdotegi, or cider shop, is a very social thing to do. You will see friends and families, groups of young and old, all sitting together, talking and tasting. You rarely see people eating alone and if you are not with your own group, you will almost certainly be drawn into a conversation. It is something people do after work and on weekends.

Wherever you go, I can cue you into the local drinks, and either with a guide or on your own, arrange for you to go to the source for a tasting and tour or for a social experience at a traditional dining and drinking spot. Either way, you will have fun connecting with the local spirit and spirits. Cheers!

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