Raki (Turkish raki IPA: [rak?]) is an anise-flavored apéritif that is produced by twice distilling either only suma or suma that has been mixed with ethyl alcohol in traditional copper alembics of 5000 lt volume or less with aniseed. It is similar to several kinds of alcoholic beverages available in the Mediterranean and parts of the Balkans, including orujo, pastis, sambuca, ouzo, tsikoudia, tsipouro, and mastika. The general consensus is that all these liqueurs preceded arak, a similar arabic liqueur, but it remains a theory. In the Balkans, however, Raki refers to a drink made from distilled grapes or grape skins and pips, similar to Italian Grappa.
Raki-water, the national drinking tradition, is called Aslan Sütü, meaning Lion’s Milk in Turkish, milk because of its color, and, lion as it stands for courageous, strong, a true man’s beverage.
The word Raki itself derives from the Arabic ??? [?araq], other variants being Araka, Araki, Ariki. There are many theories behind this beloved beverage’s name. Araq means sweat in Arabic, which could refer to “condensate”. or to that which makes one sweat (If one drinks too much raki one does sweat and when raki is being distilled it falls drop by drop like sweat). It has also been suggested that the word may derive from Iraq-i, which could be translated into of-from Iraq.. But the origins of the word remain a mystery.
Raki has been established in Greek territory since Byzantine times. Early references to Raki are made in numerous Byzantine manuscripts, one particular manuscript the Mount Athos Manuel (469) which dates from the eighth century mentions raki (that is raqi or alcohol) which is distilled four or five times.
Until 19th century, meyhanes, mostly run by non-muslim Ottomans, would mainly serve wine along with meze. Although there were many Muslims among meyhane attendants, sharia authorities could, at times, persecute them. With the relatively liberal atmosphere of Tanzimat Turkey, meyhane attendance among Muslims rose considerably. However, believers would still approach wine with a certain suspicion. Raki, which at those times resembled arak, became a favourite among meyhane-goers. By the end of the century, raki took its current standard form and its consumption surpassed that of wine.
During the days of the Ottoman Empire raki was produced by distillation of grape pomace (cibre) obtained during wine fermentation. When the amount of pomace was not sufficient, alcohol imported from Europe would be added. If anise was not added, it would take the name düz raki (“straight raki”) or douziko (in Greek). Raki prepared with the addition of gum mastic was named sakiz rakisi or mastika, especially produced on the island of Tenedos.
Mustafa Kemal (later to have his surname Atatürk), the founder of the Turkish Republic, had a great appreciation for the liquor and consumed vast quantities of it. During the first years of the Republic, the grape alcohol (named suma) began to be directly distilled from grapes by the state-owned sprits monopoly, Tekel. With the increasing sugar beet production, Tekel also began to distill the alcohol from molasses. A new brand of raki with an amount of sugar beet alcohol was called Yeni Raki (“New Raki”). Molasses gave raki the famous bitter taste and helped it to become a table drink.
The standard raki is a grape product, though it may also be produced from various fruits. Raki produced from figs, particularly popular in southern provinces of Turkey, is called incir bogmasi, incir rakisi or, in Arabic, tini. Tekel ceased producing fig raki in 1947. However, to this day, it has been produced clandestinely.
Suma is generally produced from raisins but raki factories around established wine producing areas (Tekirdag, Nevsehir, Izmir) may also prefer to use fresh grapes additionally, which help to obtain a better quality. Recently, the types of raki produced from fresh grapes, called yas üzüm rakisi, have become quite popular. A recent brand, Efe Raki, was the first company to produce raki exclusively of fresh grape suma, called Efe Yas Üzüm Rakisi (Efe Fresh Grape Raki). Tekirdag Altin Seri (Tekirdag Golden Series) followed the trend and many others have been produced by other companies.
Dip Rakisi (“bottom raki”) is the raki that is concentrated in the bottom layer of tanks during the standard production process. Bottom layer is the layer that is thought to capture the dense aroma and flavour of raki. It is named özel raki (“special raki”) and it is not presented to general consumption but kept at raki factories as a prestigious gift.
The most well known brands are Yeni Raki and Tekirdag Rakisi from the region of Tekirdag, which is famous for its characteristic flavour. The secret of this flavour is the artesian water from Çorlu, used in the production. While Yeni Raki has an alcohol content of 45% and 1.5 grams of anise per litre, Tekirdag Rakisi has 0.2 grams more anise per litre. There are also two top-quality brands called Kulüp Rakisi and Altinbas with 50% alcohol. Yeni Raki contains about 20% sugar beet alcohol, the other brands of Tekel are produced only from suma. Today with the privatisation of the state-owned sprit industry different producers and brands emerged. There are currently a considerable number of different brands and types of raki available, including Efe Raki, Mercan Raki, Fasil Raki, Burgaz Raki. Sari Zeybek Rakisi, another recent brand, is kept in oaken aging barrels, which give the raki a distinctive golden colour.
Raki is served with white cheese, melon and meze.