Bottoms up at Serbia's rakija-drinking competition

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Participants in the Rakija festival's drinking competition share a litre of the hard liquor between four people, before performing a series of tasks

Participants in the Rakija festival's drinking competition share a litre of the hard liquor between four people, before performing a series of tasks (AFP Photo/Vladimir Zivojinovic)

Pranjani (Serbia) (AFP) - Glass by glass, competitors gulped down litres of rakija -- a fruit brandy as strong as it is beloved in the Balkans -- in a rowdy drinking competition, not for the faint of heart, in rural Serbia.

To the rollicking sound of Balkan brass folk music, teams of four polished off a litre of the hard liquor between them in about 15 minutes Monday, before attempting a series of tasks, including walking across a wooden beam without toppling over.

Judges choose the winners based on "the speed and also the good mood of the participants," explained Ljiljana Bralovic, founder of the Rakija festival, held for the past 16 years in the central village of Pranjani.

Dozens of locals gathered to watch the merriment which, predictably, got louder and wilder as the day went on.

Each team had a fifth member responsible for pouring the liquor, preventing spillage, and driving their teammates home.

The alcohol content of store-bought rakija hovers around 40 percent but it is often significantly higher in homemade varieties, which are hugely popular across the Balkans.

The brandy can be distilled from a variety of fruits, including plum, quince, pear, or grapes.

In Serbia and much of the region, the traditional spirit is part of life.

"From the moment a child is rocked in a cradle to the last moments of life, not one ritual can go without it," summed up Bralovic.

Some people start their day with a coffee and a small glass of the drink.

Enthusiasts sometimes credit rakija with near-divine properties, saying it can serve as a tonic for all kinds of aches and ailments.

"They say rakija is better than God: when God takes your wits away he doesn't give them back, while rakija, when you sober up, does," Bralovic said with a smile.

One of the participants, Marko Vidakovic, said he came with friends who are part of a folk dance group that often frequents Serbian festivals together.

"Our goal is not to get wasted but just to hang out with each other," he said, optimistically, before the drinking began.