Rakı Exposed: A Brief History of the Famous Turkish Drink

When you’re in Istanbul you should try rakı – fish & rakı – meze at the Bosphorus.”

This short sentence engulfs at least 500 years of Anatolian gastronomy culture. And for that reason when it comes to anise flavored spirits, “Turkish Rakı” is by far the most consumed distilled spirits in this geography.

The history of rakı isn’t well documented so we get bits and pieces of information from the historical books on food culture and social life, especially during the late Byzantine and Ottoman period.

When we investigate the origin of the word ‘rakı’, we come across different definitions. It is said to be derived from the words “Arak” and “Arakı”, meaning “sweat” in Arabic. Since words such as alcohol (al-kuhl) and alembic still (alambic) also have roots in Arabic, this seems to be the most realistic definition to me. It is highly probable that it got this name because during distillation, alcohol drips like sweat drops from the still.

The “razaki” grape, which is a long and thick-skinned grape used in the making of aniseed drinks in history, is thought to be related to the word “rakı” due to its similarity in pronunciation. Some others say it may have been derived from the word “Iraqi” (Iraqi origin), as it was the first distilled drink produced in Iraq and its surroundings. Whatever the etymological origins are, today, distilled spirits made from grapes or other fruits in this entire geography are either called “arak” (Middle East) “rakı” (Turkey) or “rakija” (Balkans)

Anatolia: Birthplace of Wine & Beer

Of course on these lands, the history of fermented drinks like beer and wine goes way back almost 10.000 BC, long before distilled spirits like rakı. Since fermented drinks like beer and wine can be produced with natural yeasts and no special equipment such as a pot still is needed, it is thought that fermented drinks originated in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt, which are also the birthplace of many civilizations.

We now have proof that beer was fermented in Göbeklitepe; a 12.000 years-old, ancient site discovered in 1963 by researchers from Istanbul and Chicago. Everyone knows about Göbeklitepe due to the fact that it has the world’s oldest temple, but there are several archeological firsts discovered at the site, among which are fermented malt / beer residues.

Wine also has a long history on these lands; in fact it may be more accurate to say that the “national drink” of Anatolia is wine. Abundance of vineyards in modern day Turkey and Greece and old texts in Greek and Turkish, point to the fact that grape wine originated in this geography (the famous Adam-Satan story, Dionysus story, etc).

When we go back to the Central Asian Turks, the national drink was “kımız”, a fermented low-alcohol drink produced from mare’s milk. We now know that distillation originated in Mesopotamia and Jabir ibn Hayyan (732 AD) was the work of one of the first scientists ever to create higher alcohols distilling beer and wine, it is also possible that Chinese scientists learned to produce high alcohol much before their Arab peers and the Turks in Central Asia produced “arakı” by distilling kımız due to their close relations with China, thus creating a “Milk Rakı”

Turkish Rakı: A history of 500 years

The history of rakı as we know it today dates back to the 16th century, the Ottoman Period. The art of distilling, as expected, ended up in Istanbul (former Constantinople) and here emerged several producers creating higher alcoholic spirits using wine. “Wine Rakı” is mentioned in Evliya Çelebi’s famous work, “Seyahâtnâme” (The Travelogue) in 1630. According to Evliya Çelebi, there were several types of rakı produced by non-Muslims in Istanbul, such as wine rakı, pomegranate rakı, anise rakı, date rakı, clover rakı, etc…

Somehow only anise rakı and “duziko” (grape rakı without anise flavoring) survived over the centuries, and when we arrive in the 19th & 20th century, rakı by definition becomes “grape spirit flavored by anise”.

End of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic has a large scale effect on all spirits, not just rakı. After the 1930s, modern day Turkey started to have a larger and more structured alcoholic drinks production. The government monopoly (TEKEL) produced not only rakı, but cognac (later called kanyak), all types of fruit liquors, gin, vodka, and even whisky (1959).

For the last 40-50 years rakı has been the leading spirit in terms of litre consumption. We now estimate that 40 million l/yr rakı is consumed in Turkey every year. Rakı and the pairings (mezes, fish, kebabs) are elements of a well established gastronomical culture and are appreciated by all age groups. Rakı is now well controlled by national laws and there are certain regulations for “Turkish Rakı” which also has Geographical Indication now. So not every rakı is “Turkish Rakı”.

Turkish Rakı:

In order for an anise flavored spirit to be labelled “Turkish Rakı”, it must have some basic characteristics determined by law:

  • “Suma”, a grape-based distillate, or suma mixed with agricultural ethyl alcohol mix should be used
  • At least 65% of the alcohol in the still should be suma
  • Suma or Suma + Alcohol mix should go to a 2nd distillation with anise seed (Pimpinella Anisum only) in conventional copper stills with a volume of 5000 liters or less
  • When sugar is used in its production, the sugar used should be refined white sugar and the amount of sugar used is maximum 10 grams per liter of product.
  • Anethole amount of essential oil coming from anise seed is at least 800 milligrams per liter of product.
  • Having at least 40% alcohol by volume when bottling

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