Rakı is by far the national alcoholic drink of Turkey. It is a clear liqour, but turns milky white when ice and water are added. It’s made from grape skins and stems that are sometimes mixed with ethanol. Aniseed is added which gives it a licorice flavor. It’s not as versatile as most liquors, but all the rules and stipulatlations attached certainly reflect the culture and values of the region. Scotch, whiskey, and bourbon are flexible drinks which may be consumed in a variety of ways and in numerous social or non-social situations. Whiskey is perfect for a rousing night at a Dublin pub belting Abba mega hits. Scotch is always useful, especially when trying to understand what a Scottish person is saying. And bourbon, which is just a fancy name for “moonshine,” “corn-squeezin’s,” and “tonsil-polish,” drinks well with loaded guns and rocking chairs.
However, rakı may be consumed in only a few clearly defined ways:
1. You should only drink rakı slowly with food. Usually, this means with some “mezze” (generally cold appetizers). These little plates of food are specifically designed to be eaten alongside rakı and are shared family style with everyone at the table.
2. Drink rakı in a meyhane (may-han-nay). A meyhane is a uniquely Turkish restaurant that specializes in usually seafood, mezzes, and rakı. Inside one of these places you will see large parties seated at long tables. They are singing and eating off each other’s plates, and there is usually a gypsy band of some kind playing everyone’s nostalgic favorites for tips.
3. If you are a wealthy man about town, rakı goes well with slices of cucumber and white cheese after a large meal cooked by your mistress. Don’t feel guilty about the fact you’ll never leave your wife. Do rush off after dinner faster and faster each night. (see Elif Shafak’s wonderful novel Flea Palace).
4. You may imbibe at a park or seaside, but only with your buddies and only with a barbecue. Make sure to invite plenty of street dogs to be patient spectators at your picnic.
5. If you have established a brand new republic, you may drink rakı anytime you please. You’ve earned it!
As an example of just how closely associated rakı is with specific food, here is a very clever add. The government has introduced new and restrictive laws regarding alcohol. One of the oddest ones is: you can no longer advertise rakı with any of its stereotypical foods. There is actually a law saying you can’t show rakı (in pictures or writing) together with fish or cheese. This add for Yeni Rakı deftly sidesteps this new law:
The empty plates have the outline of a fish, a slice of melon, and a slice of white cheese. The idea is: you can’t imagine these things without our product.
Which Rakı is Right for You?
Five years ago this would have been a pointless question as there was only one kind: Yeni Rakı. The government controlled Tekel which produced Yeni Rakı. This monopoly meant you had one boring mediocre choice. However, Yeni Rakı was produced in a couple of different places in Turkey; one of them was Tekirdağ. This is a city near the border of Greece and Bulgaria, and it was renown for producing the best rakı. At first, there was no way knowing if the bottle of Yeni Rakı you you purchased was made in Tekirdağ. Eventually, resourceful folks figured out that rakı bottled in Tekirdağa had a specific number code. If you wanted to give a bottle of rakı as a gift, you would go from store to store looking at the bottoms of bottles until you found the special number code ending in ’0033′ for example.
Nowadays, just like wine, rakı is experiencing a renaissance in Turkey. New distilleries are popping up and providing degrees of quality and subtle twists on the classic recipe. Here is a brief and incomplete guide to some of your options.
This is the Budweiser of rakı. It’s the default rakı at all mayhane’s. It is delicious with a strong bite, but you should definitely try other brands which offer more subtle quality for roughly the same price or cheaper.
Bitter disputes will sometimes occur between Turks who insist that either Yeni Rakı or Tekirdağ is superior.
For me, Tekirdağ has a smoother taste. It is also very commonly found in restaurants. Really, these are the two big rakı players, and you should branch out from them.
That said, Tekirdağ’s pretty bottles make for more impressive gifts.
Certainly, my favorite choice of Rakı. It’s harder to find, but well worth the effort. Unlike Yeni Rakı and Tekirdağ, it is triple distilled. The blue bottle is made from dried grapes. Whereas, the green bottle is made from new grapes and costs a couple of lira more. You really can’t beat the price. It is the best tasting boutique rakı and the lowest priced.
The little things over the letter ‘a’ in ÂLÂ make it really hard for me to pronounce the name of this brand correctly. I usually just end up saying something that sounds like ‘Allah’ which causes confusion. “Why is this foreigner looking for ‘God’ in a liquor store?” The best idea is to point. This is the newest brand of rakı, and it is manufactured by Yeni Rakı. Because it is new, it is difficult to find. It is also expensive. However, not only is it triple distilled, it is aged in oak barrels which is a first for rakı. Rakı is usually not aged very long and it’s almost always aged in copper barrels. So, ÂLÂ has a very unique smoky flavor and aroma. It’s a splurge and would really impress as a gift. I personally don’t feel it’s worth the price though.
Efe is another triple distilled option. The company claims to be the first independent distillers after the monopoly ended. Efe seems to have a following and can be found pretty easily. I can’t comment on the flavor because I’ve never tried it. I have heard good things though. If you’ve tried it, leave a comment on your opinion.
Well, that’s that. Hope you found this post helpful and begin experimenting on your own. Always remember the cardinal rule: Sip slowly with food and with ample friends. If you follow this maxim, you’ll always have a great experience.
If you would like more help and information about local wines and spirits, you should check out Rind at Caferağa Mah. Sarraf Ali Sok. No:3 Kadıköy İstanbul. The owners of this shop are very friendly, speak superb English, and are very knowledgeable and helpful.
Side note: Every time a macho student in one of my classes pounds his chest and describes rakı as “lion’s milk,” this image always comes to mind.