Asking for a Friend: Does This Slovenian Spirit Actually Exist?
Ruda in Ljubljana
On our final night in Slovenia, our hosts asked us if we would like to try some of their ruda. It came in a clear, unlabelled glass bottle, with sprigs of grass and slices of lime inside. It was the color of mint-flavored Listerine. They said they’d made it themselves from a local herb they’d collected out in the hills. It tasted quite pleasant for a hard liquor, like a limey, herbal schnapps.
Slovenians are hard drinkers, even by Central European standards. They consume a respectable 11.6 liters (about 10 quarts) of pure alcohol a year, which places them 24th on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s rankings of the heaviest drinking nations.
They have two major beer breweries, Lasko and Union, both of which produce very little for export. What they do export, a lady at the Union brewery told me, mostly goes to Slovenians abroad, like Melania Trump. Plus there are all the local artisanal and microbreweries. (Which is not to say Melania drinks Lasko or Union. I’m pretty sure she’s blasted 24/7, but that’s just a theory.)
Slovenians are also incredibly proud of their wine, and boast 28,000 wineries around the country. This equals an astonishing one winery for every 71 people. Again, most of that is drunk happily at home.
Finally, on the spirits end, there’s a whole line of brandies and liqueurs to send you over the edge. Borovnicke is a special kind of nasty, a sweet, syrupy blueberry liqueur that tastes like Robitussin. On the other hand, there is Viljamovka Paradiso No. 4, a clear pear brandy that is mellow, slightly sweet, and a brilliant accompaniment to an evening watching Slovenians go about their business in the central market.
But there is no ruda on the menu. Our hosts told us you can’t buy it at a shop or find it on a menu. You’ve got to roll up your pants, get out there into the wild, and pick the ingredients yourself.
I went online to verify this information for myself, and I could find nothing. Ruda doesn’t exist at the Slovenian liquor store. It doesn’t exist on Google. It doesn’t exist on any websites dedicated to Slovenian liquor, country liquor, or liquor of any sort. Ruda is not real—except we drank it.
Had our hosts played a joke on us? I had double-checked the name and spelling when they gave it to me. Had they invented the stuff? Were they giggling away, because they’d really just fed us grass and lime ethanol?
I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume ruda is all over Slovenia, just kept hush. It’s in the cities, in the hills. Ruda exists if I will it to.