From the fields of Nivokaz
Ax Alijaj’s Vidasus Distillery is creating unique alcohol out of local products.
The sun was high over the shallow valley where the village of Nivokaz sits. The snow was still visible on the peak of Shkëlzen Mountain. A road veering off from the Gjakova-Junik highway passes over the Erenik River and leads to the Nivokaz, where houses have now replaced the traditional stone kulla.
The kulla, once the defining feature of this village, are now few but you can still enjoy the view of what’s left. A characteristic door, small and surrounded by stone walls, leads to the Alijaj kulla.
Ali Alijaj, 47 years old, is known as Ax Alijaj. He recalls that when he was small his family had many members, like most of the families who lived in these buildings. When he was four or five years old, there were 20 other children his age in the extended family. They were small, but they helped their fathers in the fields, which were surrounded by plum trees in order to distract crows from feasting on the grain. What they harvested during summer ensured their winter would be easier, as this region is known to face hard winters.
“When we were done with the harvest, we put the corn in the basket and then we used to organize a dinner. It’s called the ‘Lama Dinner,'” said Alijaj. “We used to call close and extended family and friends. We used to roast a sheep that was injured or old, while the brandy from plums that had fallen to the ground was being prepared,” he said, before recalling that they lost the distillery cauldrons during the war.
He said that he was probably around five years old when he drank brandy for the first time.
“In the oda [guest room] when guests came, we as children were always ready to hand out ashtrays or something. And then the guest would call you and give you a piece of meat or pickles. Or then someone else would give you a glass of brandy. And I still remember when I drank it for the first time,” said Alijaj, who today is one of the most well-known distillers in Kosovo.
When he left Kosovo in 1993 as an 18-year-old, the village of Nivokaz and the old house his father had built always stayed in his mind. He’s lived in several European countries, but the longest stop was in Germany where he did a number of jobs, including working in a library for nine years. But his enthusiasm for alcohol never faded.
“I also worked as a cook and I really liked it. I have worked with exotic spices as well. I was enthusiastic. I worked on many drink and cocktail menus in different bars. I started working inside a distillery in 2004. First I worked outside the distillery itself, and then gradually started working inside,” said Alijaj.
As is the case in distilleries all over the world, fermentation, distillation, combinations, aromas and aging all have their own experts. Alijaj, who resembles a Viking, started to become an expert in each process, until he started to think of doing something himself. Eventually he bought used distillery equipment and started working in Germany.
“Rum liqueur was the first alcohol that I made with my cousin, we just put the mix in. With this distiller, I made gin for the first time. It makes 200 to 300 liters. We used to tell our friends and circle that we were going to distill, and we sold them directly in the local market,” Alijaj recalled back to 2013, when he first started to profit from the work.
In June 2015, Alijaj returned to his home in Nivokaz. His family had all moved to Germany in 2011 after his father died, so the family house was empty. Seeing the grassy backyard that awaited him when he returned was a turning point.
“The yard was filled with overgrown grass, no one taking care of it. Then I remembered how much my father had worked to build the house. He bought it in Gjakova because it had been demolished for the road, he took it brick by brick, and brought it to Nivokaz and rebuilt it together with my mother. I remembered what my father and my mother had done, and now, although they have five sons, the house is in that condition. There’s nothing worse,” said Alijaj.
“I should come back and do something,” he thought.
After that, Alijaj started visiting Prishtina, Gjakova, Prizren, Peja and other cities. He was looking at what people were drinking, how much they drank and whether they wanted something different or just the classic drinks.
After many trips between Kosovo and Germany, he started experimenting to make his first drinks. At that point, none of the vodkas or gins available in Kosovo were produced domestically. Between 2017 and 2019, Alijaj was driven by many sleepless nights and endless tests until he arrived at four drinks. The distillery is now named Vidasus, after the Illyrian god of forests and nature who was thought to be half-goat and half-man.
His gin he branded as “DukaGIN,” his vodka “Vodkulla,” the spice liqueur he named “Dashni me Brina” and the hazelnut and violet liqueur “Zanë”.
“Our river flows towards Lake Komoni of Fierëza, which has an Adriatic climate. There is fantastic vegetation and spices that only grow here. I used to go and collect them. I used to spend so much time in the mountains,” said Alijaj.
He flew between Kosovo and Germany 18 times just to design the branding of his drinks to the highest standard, which today are known for their special designs and Albanian names.
“By all means, I wanted the wolf to be part of Dukagjin,” said Alijaj about the design of DukaGIN gin.
Drinks made from local produce
Considering that his birthplace had everything he needed to produce his drinks, he made it a rule to use only local products. In 2019, after having created four drinks, without a partner, he created the distillery at home in Nivokaz, registered the company and started work.
“We used to have American grapes at home. I prepared that brandy first. I still have the wooden barrel filled with it,” he said as he pointed towards a wooden barrel from which had just been poured three bottles of brandy. In 2020, Alijaj started distilling four products that had been ordered by several bars.
But something happened that no one was expecting.
“The quantity I had made was sold. The packaging was delayed and we were just waiting to package the bottles. They arrived on March 19, 2020. I prepared them for distribution. On March 21, 2020, Kosovo went into lockdown due to the pandemic. The bottles remained in their boxes,” Alijaj said.
Direct orders to customers’ homes kept his business going and after changing distributors multiple times he started delivering the orders himself.
The distribution of drinks brought him new contacts. A woman from Drenoc in Rahovec, Brikena Gashi, approached him after she was enchanted by the “Dashnia me brina” liqueur. She told him about her family’s old vineyards, which no one was working on anymore. Alijaj quickly rented those vineyards to create another drink, “Syrrushi,” a grape brandy with three flavors that he manages together with Gashi.
In addition to the standard brandy there is one made with pomegranate and one that has been aged in a wooden barrel, which makes it darker in color. This last brandy is named “I pleqnumi,” from the Albanian word “aging,” a reference to the fact that it was left in the barrel for a long time. In addition to these drinks, there are also two special flavors — a walnut liqueur called “Andrra” and an apple brandy called “Loçka.”
He also created other flavors on request, such as “Vodkullën e zezë” which was requested by an international artist. Alijaj created this flavor with a plant he collected in the fields.
“I have created a network of plant collectors, blueberries, chestnuts and others. I buy these from them at a higher price than other traders have bought until now,” said Alijaj. “If they dry them properly in the sun, I pay them extra. In addition to collectors from these parts, there are also those that come from Tropoja and bring them to me,” he said, as the production from only local products and collected by the villagers continues to be essential for him.
“By buying our product, be it brandy, pickles, milk or cheese, you help a wide chain of people both directly and indirectly,” said Alijaj.
In the alleys of Nivokaz, hardly anyone passed by without greeting him. They said two or three words, joked a little and then continued walking. A herd of sheep surrounded us as we walked. Alijaj had his eye on a ram he wanted to buy, because the “Dashni me Brina” bottle has ram horns depicted on the label.
“I’d buy it more to get its horns. I’ll buy three rams just because of this,” he laughed.
The increase in demand led Alijaj to expand last year. A space that was intended to be a wedding hall in Nivokaz was converted into a distillery. In the corner of the distillery where wine barrels are stored there is a shelf filled with the many spices he needs. Just for creating “Dashni me brina” liqueur, he uses 101 different spices.
He has retired some of the equipment with which he started and placed it at the entrance of the distillery. Flames no longer touch the cauldrons. Instead, warm water, which also affects the quality, heats up the new cauldrons. The pipe coming out of them has several different levels that remove the water and produce the “holy juice.” Adapting all of this by himself, Alijaj has also created an electronic monitoring system for the temperature as it rises inside the cauldron.
“It’s all a matter of commitment… a matter of working with love. I make sure that the drink will come out the best it could be from the beginning to the end,” said Alijaj. “Drink as much as you want from each of the bottles, and if that gives you a hangover, come and break the bottle on my head.”
The use of the fruit waste left after distillation for producing more drinks is harmful, so Alijaj uses the waste to fertilize the vineyards. A number of villagers who suffer from rheumatism come and take the strong, undrinkable alcohol to rub on their bodies.
His liquors are today sold in Germany, Switzerland and other European countries.
Since 2022, he and Brikena Gashi have had a store in Prizren, where many tourists try his drinks. He is getting ready to open a store in Tirana this year.
Looking ahead to agritourism
Nivokaz, like most of the villages in that area, is quiet. Most of the young people have chosen to migrate and this was noticeable by the few who wandered its streets. This quietness was disturbed only by sheep, cows and chickens, which could be seen from every corner. They graze in fertile meadows, where organic trees and vegetables grow. The healthy nature of Nivokaz has set Alijaj a new commitment: to turn Nivokaz into an agritourism destination.
“The kind of food we have here, you can’t get enough of it. Our women prepare flia, burek and spinach pie that you can’t find anywhere else. The fruit and vegetables are all organic. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of all that comes from this fertile land and help my fellow villagers?” he asked, as he showed that he has already rented an old tower, almost 100 years old, to transform it into a restaurant where traditional food can be served.
Having Tropoja nearby, many tourists see this distillery on the map and stop to buy and sample the drinks. According to Alijaj, with such an agritourism project, it would be possible to make tourists’ visits longer and encourage more to visit.
Alijaj said he is getting ready to bring two new flavors to the market and with that, he will finish.
Surrounded by drinks everywhere, Ali Alijaj or Ax Alijaj, takes two bottles to give to our team.
“It is a tradition to provide to guests like this. Don’t say no to me,” he said emphatically, as he led us to the wooden doors and turned his back to return to work.
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Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0