If one is to try rakı only once in a lifetime, it has to be in atmospheric Istanbul; preferably on the shores of Bosphorus or with a vista of the sea. If no view is in sight, another good option is to find a meyhane in the heart of the city—a spot full of local regulars, the more cramped and crowded the better.
By Aylin Öney Tan
Rakı is considered to be Turkey’s national drink, often lovingly nicknamed “Lion’s Milk” due to its fierce, dangerous potency and its translucent milky color gained when water is added, the way it is typically consumed. For many, it is seen not only as a drink, but also as a vehicle to pause time, a moment to be savored, a ritual. It is a way of life.
This grape-based distilled spirit with a distinctive anise flavor is similar to other spirits found in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and the Balkans such as ouzo, arak, rakia, tsipouro, or mastika. It can even be considered remote relatives with France’s pastis, Italy’s mistral or sambuca, and Scandinavian aquavit. Rakı derives its name from the Arabic word “arak”, meaning “to sweat”, referring to the drop-by-drop distillation process.
It may seem strange to have such a strong spirit as the national drink of a predominantly Muslim country. Turkey has a rather complex Ottoman past, which was a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious empire. Though the majority of Muslims followed Sunni orthodoxy and observed the Quran’s prohibition on alcoholic drinks, they were exposed to other faiths and their traditions. The boundaries between communities could be blurry at times, and apparently there were always a sizable number of Muslim drinkers.
The great eighteenth century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote about arak flavored with anise and a wide array of other ingredients including cinnamon and cloves. But it was not until the nineteenth century that the popularity of rakı soared, displacing wine as the main drink of choice.
Though many of the sultans were known to be drinkers (yet did not blink an eye in banning other Muslims from drinking it) the first ever sultan who openly enjoyed his drink was Sultan Mahmud II, who reigned between 1785 and 1839.
The Tanzimat reform period (1838-76) led to a more relaxed attitude to Muslim drinkers, and drinking became more associated with ‘modernity’. The mid-nineteenth century brought another benchmark in the history of rakı; before the Crimean War (1853-56) it was illegal to distill spirits in Istanbul, but after the 1860s there was an enormous increase in places serving and selling alcoholic drinks, with many inner-city small-scale rakı producers coming into the scene. By the onset of the twentieth century, rakı brands were already numerous, openly and proudly advertising their rakı.
The secular Turkish Republic established in 1923 had a new take on spirits. The production of rakı was taken under the state monopoly Tekel, originally initiated during the last phase of the Ottoman Empire to control the trade of tobacco.
Tekel remained the sole producer of rakı in state-operated factories until the monopoly was ended in 2004 and regulations allowed private firms to produce distilled spirits.
Today’s rakı scene is now enormously varied; from oak cask-aged spirits to nostalgic rakı reminiscent of turn-of-the-century brands. Rakı has only gained in popularity over the past century and a half.
How to drink it?
Everyone in Turkey has strong opinions on how to drink rakı: neat; with ice; with cold water; with ice and cold water; one-third rakı with two-thirds water; half and half; one ice, or two, or three…the list is endless.
Just as rakı is distilled drop-by-drop, it is wise to savor it slowly; each sip followed by a sip of cool water, with intervals to take a break, exchange a few words, take a bite of mezze, and repeat the process.
Rakı is never drunk without food to go accompany it. One great nibble is leblebi, roasted chickpeas, which absorb the alcohol, and do not carry excess calories or upset your stomach like chips or fries.
Another must-have combination is the unwritten holy trinity of Istanbul nights: rakı with fresh white melon and briny white cheese. The saltiness of the cheese complements the sweetness of the melon and satisfies the need for a light protein bite to help the rakı go down. The anise flavor of rakı pairs wonderfully with the aroma of the melon, while its freshness spikes the cooling effect of rakı, again a quality imparted from anise, while the tang of cheese balances this wonderful taste trio.
Rakı also heightens the flavors and freshens the palate during the full mezze experience. Start with cold mezze: seafood such as lakerda (salt cured bonito), çiroz (dried mackerel), or ahtapot salatası (octopus salad) are mezze classics. Other popular mezze include acılı ezme (spicy red pepper and tomato paste), haydari (cool and minty strained yogurt), patlıcan salatası (smokey, lemony roasted eggplant), or satisfyingly smooth and soft fava bean paste.
Cold mezze is followed by warm dishes; with arnavut ciğeri (sautéed cubes of liver), paçanga böreği (pastrami-filled fried börek), kalamar tava (crunchy fried calamari), and ahtapot ızgara (chargrilled octopus) among the most popular.
It’s all about balancing and contrasting textures, sensations, and flavors, so that rakı and mezze never gets boring.
Having read this piece, you have now mastered rakı-drinking. You only need to learn one word to start clinking glasses and begin the anise-infused nights of Istanbul: “Şerefe!” To your honor!