The Glorious Blue Flame of the Good Stuff

One time, when I was in Albania, I set my fingers on fire to test my beverage.

I’ve mentioned before that when I was in the Peace Corps, raki was one of my favorite drinks. It’s basically a form of Ouzo, with a faint anise/licorice flavor, but with a lot more punch. It tastes good both at room temperature and chilled, and, for reasons we never understood, didn’t deliver a powerful hangover. Instead, you spent the day after stuck in slow motion.

The traditional way to test the quality of raki was to dip your fingers in it and light your fingers on fire. The bluer the flame, the better the raki. I did that once–but more on that later.

My best Raki experience involved a weekend that, in the short run, would cause me a lot of problems. However, at the time, I had a lot of fun.

I went to Elbasan to proctor an entrance exam for a local university. I was supposed to stay at a local hotel managed by the gregarious and funny Abdul (not his real name). However, as soon as I arrived in Elbasan, Abdul informed me the entrance exam had been cancelled but that I was welcome to stay at the hotel a couple nights.

The next morning, Abdul took me a to a local vineyard to see how Raki was made.

In a nutshell, grapes are crushed in a concrete vat and left to rot. At some point, and this is a key step, the rotting mess attracts flies. Eventually, though, even the flies are disgusted by the rotting mess as it swells up out of the vat and move on to a fresher rotting mess. Finally, the rotting mess deflates back into the vat and it’s time to distil it.

Because I was apparently the first American to ever visit the vineyard, I was given the honor of the “first drink” from the still. It was still a bit warm and was awesome. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, because I was the first American to visit, every Albanian who worked there or who was visiting (all 9 or 10 of them) wanted to toast with me.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, there were only two glasses. I got one and everyone else shared one and took turns toasting with me. My glass was refilled for each toast. This meant that by 10:00 a.m. I’d had 10 or so glasses of raki and had developed the power to fly and shoot laser beams from my eyes. (More or less.)

This remains one of the best experiences I had in two years in Albania. I didn’t test the raki by lighting my fingers on fire. I’d do that later and discover I was drinking high quality raki.

It wasn’t as good as that trip to vineyard though. That was real quality.

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