You’d expect to toast “Živeli!” with a drink in hand on one of the famous splavs, or floating clubs, in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. What you might not expect is that some travelers are toasting in Serbian monasteries — with Serbian monks.
There are over 400 monasteries of the Orthodox faith in Serbia — including a few that are UNESCO World Heritage sites —with approximately 200 still actively in use and managed by monks and nuns. Many of these monasteries are open to the public for religious and historical tours and close-up views of magnificent medieval frescoes. Unless you’re a fan of history, a monastery tour in Serbia may not sound like the most exciting time, but that's where you’d be wrong. See, there’s one interesting aspect of these monasteries that most people don’t know about: in Serbia, monks sell homemade alcohol.
While religion and alcohol may seem like two things at odds, monks making alcohol is not a new thing. Dom Perignon isn’t just a brand of champagne, it’s the name of a French Benedictine monk who invented the bubbly drink. Even in North America, priests and friars have been making wine since the late 1500's at places like Casa Madero, the oldest winery in Mexico.
Similarly, Serbian monks have been self-sufficient for centuries, from growing food to harvesting honey, and like those in other parts of the world, they’ve made their own spirits and continue to do so, selling it to locals and tourists to fund the upkeep of their homes.
Wine lovers will want to head to eastern Serbia to the region of Negotin. Their local monastery, Bukovo Monastery, was established in the 14th century and offers an idyllic setting surrounded by woods and a rich soil perfect for growing grapes. They have a long tradition of viticulture, boasting the first vineyard school in the region in 1887. The monks are widely known for creating a unique and ancient variety of wine with black muscadine grapes.
After thoroughly tasting the wines of the Bukovo monks, head north to Kovilj Monastery, which is said to have been founded by Saint Sava, a prince and the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in the 13th century. The monks at this monastery are known for making rakija, a Serbian fruit brandy that comes in flavors of peach, quince (a tart winter fruit), plum and blackberry, among many others. Their quince rakija is especially beloved and is distilled in the old practice of smashing the quince, letting them ferment in the cellars of the monastery for a few weeks and then aged in oak barrels.
The monasteries of Bukovo and Kovilj aren’t the only Serbian monasteries to produce alcohol. Many of the monasteries, even some of the most well-known, like Kosovo's Gracanica Monastery, sell bottles of homemade brews in their gift shop. All it takes to buy one of these souvenir-worthy bottles is to rent a car or book a local guide — Explore Belgrade is extremely knowledgeable — and drive to them.
Once there, don’t be shy to ask one of the monks to join you for a glass of rakija or wine. You might be surprised by the stories they tell — like the adventurous tales of a Kovilj monk who used to live in New York City. Whatever you do, don't forget to cheers, Živeli!