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Interview 08 Jun 17

Belgrader Ships Rakija Tradition to Texas

Making fruity brandy in the backyard is common in the Balkans - but two enterprising young men, including one from Belgrade, have launched a successful ‘rakija’ business in the US.

Ivana Nikolic
BIRN
Belgrade
Bojan Kalusevic and Chris Mobley. Photo courtesy of Kalusevic

Almost four years ago, two friends from university, Bojan Kalusevic and Chris Mobley, decided to take the bull by the horns and make their dream come true.

Despite the scepticism of their friends and family, the two started a micro-distillery in the city of San Antonio in Texas. The beginning of Dorcol Distilling + Brewing Company, named after the Belgrade neighborhood where Boyan was born in 1982, was hard.

“Chris and I always blame each other for getting the other into this. We both enjoyed good career starts following college,” Kalusevic told BIRN.

“We’ve since cried ourselves to sleep more often than either of us will admit,” the owner and distiller added.

However, with the passage of years and growth of experience, the two-man team seems satisfied for now.

Their handcrafted rakija [their own brand is called Kinsman Rakia], cocktails and beers are now available in several cities across the United States, and Kalusevic says he and his partner are now looking to export them to foreign markets as well.

“Here we are today, going strong and continuing to share this passion of ours with anyone who’ll give us a chance,” Kalusevic said.

But how did it all start and why, I ask?

“It all began with a ‘bootlegging’ incident across the Atlantic in my teenage years, which started a family joke that I would eventually carry on the family tradition and distill Stateside,” the 35-year-old distiller recalled.

His family left Serbia for San Antonio, Texas, in 1992. In 2003, Kalusevic met Mobley at the University of Texas, and the two started talking about distilling. For a while, the students’ chats were merely dreams and it took years before they sat down at a dinner table in 2011 to develop a concrete business plan.

At that time, Kalusevic recalled, no one in Texas was doing this kind of job the way they wanted, which in a way was wind in their back.

Kalusevic and Mobley then started hunting for bank loans to finance the business. Then, late in 2011 and 2012, “we got lucky with some family and friends who thought we were just crazy enough to actually make it work so they invested in us and helped the project to fruition”.

Tradition comes first

Speaking of family, this is where Kalusevic found his inspiration and ideas. Born and raised in Dorcol neighbourhood in Belgrade he was surrounded by family members, grandfather and uncles. Like most families in Serbia, Kalusevic’s was also fond of making rakija, a fruit brandy, which is where his love for the drink stems from.

“I got introduced to booze by family at an early age, with the smell of barrels and cellars ingrained in my mind. It’s one of the earliest memories I have, and entirely brings back fond thoughts of childhood and family gatherings,” he recalled.

He said the team uses traditional recipes and methods, which also goes for the equipment. They are more into traditional handmade pieces – although they do possess large series production items necessary for distilling and brewing.

“The most inspiring, or admired, piece of equipment we have must be our traditional copper pot still, which was hand hammered and welded by a third-generation coppersmith from Novi Sad in Serbia,” Kalusevic recalled, adding that this same father-son team is to make them another still.

The same goes for the brewing equipment, Kalusevic said, which again comes from a small, traditional, family business, this time in America.

“A small family shop in California made all our brewing equipment, so we obviously embrace and embody the small, family manufacturing approach wholeheartedly, not only as producers ourselves, but as consumers,” the young manufacturer explained.

When it comes to rakija and beer-brewing, Kalusevic and his partner have taken a “non-compromising” approach.

“We never use industrially produced alcohols as a cheaper alternative, and we never use sugars or flavoring agents, natural or artificial, to boost the essence of the fruit in our rakia,” he said, adding that the same goes for every other beverage they produce.

“We always resort to yeasts native to the respective brewing regions for our beers, and brew true to each style.”

Big challenges

However, as Kalusevic explained, Dorć=col Distilling + Brewing Company is an expensive hobby. It is not the only thing he does for living. Apart from producing alcohol, he runs an insurance and risk management firm.

While the response from clients of his drinks business is good, Kalusevic said the business still depends on a slightly different audience, including those who can and want to pay more than is usual.

“Fruit spirits are substantially more expensive to make, so we find our biggest fans and supporters to be folks with an incredibly open and willing mind, not only wanting to try new things, but also having the financial means to do so,” the distiller said.

“It’s folks who value high quality and find satisfaction in supporting makers of good spirits and beers.”

Another challenge, he admitted, is that few Americans are well acquainted with rakija.

“Unlike in Europe, in the US, rakija, or brandy in general, for that matter, is considered a pretty obscure spirit,” he said.

“There is an inherent challenge in introducing a ‘new’ spirit category to folks, and then asking them to alter their drinking habits,” he added.

While these two challenges are tasks to be overcome, Kalusevic believes it remains possible, thanks to the support of many, including local food and spirit writers and other experts in the field.

“There are some rock-star barmen who love what we make, and we couldn’t thank them enough for including us in what they do in shaping the drinking landscape in the US,” Kalusevic concluded.

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