Americans or Europeans sip wine with the meal, British do beer, and Turks sip their Raki.
Savored slowly with best friends or family, either on a special occasion or a casual gathering, after the sunset or before, Turkish Raki aka -Lion’s milk- is a centuries-old alcoholic beverage that has its own distinctive flavor and culture in Turkey. Most Turks will enjoy a delicious array of cold mezes and dipping followed by grilled fish or kebabs, fruits, or desserts during a Raki night, and of course, the closure will be made with a cup of ‘Turkish coffee‘.
We will look into the traditions of having this Turkey’s national drink in the coming paragraphs but first, let’s have a brief introduction to this phenomenal daily life spirit before you have your first magical glass.
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What is Turkish Raki actually made from?
Suma mixed ( grape pomace) and pungent anise-flavored Raki ( Ra-kıh) is a clear brandy mostly made from grapes or raisins which has its own distinctive taste. The second distillation is the key to the success of this national drink.
There are different types of Turkish Raki- one can find figs and plums used and flavors such as mastic (pine gum) and clover added in some regions.
Turkish Raki is potent having %40-50 alcohol thus it is commonly diluted with water or ice cubes to make the taste more enjoyable and (manageable).
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Behind the Raki, there is a story; Lion’s milk
By adding water or ice cubes, this alcohol drink Rakı turns into a milky white colour. That’s the reason why Turkish call it ‘lion’s milk’- (Aslan sütü). Since Aslan (‘lion’) is a common metaphor for a strong and courageous man in Turkey, this gives the term a meaning close to ‘the milk for the strong’. However, this national drink Raki is enjoyed by most people no matter what gender, age ( +18), or social class they hold.
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The magic behind the Raki; Locksmith’s table
To start with an expression referring to the nature of this traditional and alcoholic drink people would say while toasting their glass ‘ En kötü günümüz böyle Olsun!- Meaning ‘May our worst day be like this!’. The philosophy behind the Rakı is to savor each sip, relax, enjoy, polish soul, and have heart-to-heart conversations, and bring people together.
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Sipping Turkish Raki one after another, it’s the time when you unlock your emotions and thoughts, that’s why the ‘raki table’ is also called the “locksmith’s table” where either a problem is sorted out or a love story takes place.
Meanwhile called out for a Raki night is usually considered as an invitation to start a friendship or to get to know the person better in deeper conversation. So once you’re invited for a Raki night out, it always gives you an opportunity to make good friendships in Turkey.
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What is the history of Turkish rakı?
The history of fermented drinks like beer and wine goes way back to 10.000 BC in these lands and in neighboring countries, long before distilled spirits like raki. The earliest distilled spirits are seen in China back in 13 C AD and Rakı was distilled back in Ottoman times around 16C AD according to the bits and pieces of information we gather from historical books written on Turkish food & culture.
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So how the production of Turkish raki started?
The traces of Turkish Raki as we know it today go back to 16 C during the Ottoman empire when the art of distilling invented by the non-Muslims living in Istanbul.
There were several producers emerged creating higher alcoholic spirits using wine. So the first ‘wine raki’ without the addition of anise flavor was introduced during the Ottoman times.
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Today to make this actual alcoholic drink of Raki, grape pomace, or dried grape is commonly used with the addition of sugar, suma ( a grape-based distillate), aniseed, and ethyl alcohol on regulated amounts.
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Similar spirits like Raki in the world
Across the world, there are other similar distilled anise spirits produced from fresh grapes such as French pastis, Spanish anesone, Italian sambuca, Egyptian zebib, Greek ouzo, and Iranian / Israele arak.
However, there are some differences between the production processes of these spirits and the way they’re consumed in Mediterranean culinary cultures. On the other hand, Turkish Raki and Ouzo appear to be more similar than the others, just like brothers from the two shores of the Aegean Sea.
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The word ‘Raki’ means
There are different definitions of this Turkish drink today. It is said to be derived from the words ‘Arak’ or ‘Arakı’ meaning ‘sweat’ in Arabic, which highly refers to the ‘ alcohol drips like sweat drops’ from the still during the distillation process. And it is important to enjoy every single hard-earned drip in this case!
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Modern days of Raki in secular Turkey
With the collapse of the Ottoman monarchy and the foundation of secular Turkey in the 1920s, strict regulations on spirit production and consumption were removed, lucky us and a larger scale of alcoholic beverages were produced.
We now estimate that 40 million liters of Turkish Raki are consumed every year taking this traditional beverage by far to the top on the list as the most favorite alcohol in Turkey despite the high taxes.
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Early 1800’s Turkish raki was made exclusively by Tekel, the former Turkish government tobacco and spirit monopoly which produced Yeni raki, kulüp rakı, and Altınbaş rakı brands. Raki spirits monopoly was privatized in 2004 and monopoly ended with the opening of the commercial Elda company distillery which also started producing other brands in Turkey.
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Comparing Turkish Raki brands; Yeni Raki or Premium Efe Rakı brand
Nowadays as one can guess there are different rakı factories producing this favorite Turkish spirit but the most well-known brand among others is ‘Yeni Raki‘ which is produced from the best Anatolian grapes. Yeni Rakı bottle contains %45 alcohol percentage and 1,5 gram of aniseed per liter. Well-known other brands are ‘Tekirdağ Rakı’ produced from indigenous grapes from Tekirdağ region- north of Istanbul – Altınbaş rakı and Beylerbeyi Rakı also worth tasting.
One of my favorite brands is the Efe Rakı brand- among major rakı producing companies- it is the first company to produce Raki in Turkey exclusively from fresh grapes indigenous to the Aegean region, called ‘Efe yaş üzüm rakı- (Efe fresh grape raki). It tastes fruity and has a balanced flavor of aniseed aroma which can be drunk even by the most discerning rakı consumer. This fresh grape-made rakı tastes like ouzo with higher alcohol content. So if you ever tried Ouzo you will be familiar with the taste of Efe brand Turkish raki.
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Traditions of sipping Raki
The process of drinking Turkish Raki is an elaborate and detailed one and Drinking Raki in Turkey has a ceremony, a discipline, some traditions, and a good amount of food.
The first rule of drinking raki is ‘ To Get drunk with your loved ones and friends. Not Alone!
A second important rule is ‘ To drink raki with sips to avoid hefty alcoholic punch’.
The last but not the least rule is to stow away your mobile phones aside to enjoy the flow.
When sipping Rakı, it is customary to toast glasses by saying “Şerefe” ( To the honor) and the other replies before drinking “Sağlığına’ ( To the health).
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Turkish mostly enjoy different types of cold mezes and appetizers along with a bottle of Raki. The most popular pair is slices of white feta cheese & melon and white roasted chickpeas.
Drinking Raki cold is essential in rain or sun. In traditional meyhane ( Turkish tavern), the waiter will bring you bottles of cold water and a bucket of ice to serve. There are always two kadehs (thin long glasses) to serve the Turkish rakı, one glass used for the Raki itself, and the other is used for cold water.
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Do’s and Don’ts of Raki
It is important that you should not mix or chase Raki with other alcoholic spirits like beer to avoid getting drunk faster. It is very traditional to chase Rakı with mineral water, turnip juice, or Turkish tea.
It is a good idea that you don’t gulp down your Rakı but instead get drunk slowly to savor each sip. Rakı culture demands respect for the company’s presence at the rakı table and everyone waits for each other for the next serve.
Rakı is a strong drink that can sometimes surprise you with its intensity. So don’t be ashamed if you find yourself bursting into song or dancing after a couple of glasses of rakı, you’re under the influence – just let loose and enjoy yourselves!
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Most delicious mezes to pair with Raki
It is important that you don’t sip your raki with an empty stomach so here is the list of recommended mezes & pairings for your Raki night.
In Turkey, It is customary to order mezes and share. Most common mezes include garlicky yogurt-based cold starters such as ‘haydari’ ‘babagannush‘ also ‘hummus, ‘spicy ezme‘ ‘fava beans’, ‘saksukha‘, ‘tzatzki’ ‘samphire’ and seasonal salads.
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Kebabs or seafood options are also a great pairing for Raki depending on your palate. Even, there is a common saying among friends ‘ Let’s go for Raki – Balik ( Fish) where delicious and daily caught seasonal fishes are served along with fried calamari, casserole shrimp, and stuffed mussels.
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Tips & tricks of Raki
- When you toast Rakı glass with your fellow drinkers, make sure that you clink with the bottom of your glass. It is a sign that you are equal to them, not superior or inferior.
- When you knock your rakı glass on the table once, it is a sign that you toast for the honour of presence or for the soul of the lost/ or loved ones as well- a nice way to commemorate.
You’ll always find a list of this traditional drink Raki at the spirit/ alcohol (as we call) store for your home experience.
Meyhane Culture in Turkey
Meyhane is one of the most important parts of enjoying Raki in Turkish culture where we end up unwinding and savor the day. Whether it is a heartbreak that needs to be mollified or a joy that requires celebration or just for fun, you’ll find Turkish people in their best mood enjoying raki one after another glass and polishing their soul with a delicious Turkish meal.
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Looking forward to welcoming you for a meyhane experience in Turkey!
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