RAKI (1): Let’s get more familiar with our precious raki!

RAKI (1): Let’s get more familiar with our precious raki!
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Turkish experts talk about the defining characteristics of raki.

Raki is the most common drink in our region, from the Balkans to Lebanon. But there are many variations. For example, in the Balkans you can drink "plum raki" which we don't consider raki. Or in Greece you can drink raki made without anise, which remains the same color -transparent- when you add water. We won't call that raki either.

You pour your raki into a glass and decide whether you want to drink a single or a double. Typically, you add water and ice and drink water alongside it. This way you are diluting it and I think you can't call it raki when you drink it without ice.

But, according to many, the best quality raki in the world is produced in the Zahle region of Lebanon. However, when you order raki in Beirut, it comes diluted, in other words, watered down. In Turkey, that might cost a waiter his job, but there, it's called service... Try and figure it out, if you can.

One of the features that distinguishes raki from other spirits is that you can "go for" it. Let me explain it for you: In Turkish we say "Let's go for a raki," and by that we mean sitting around a table and getting to the bottom of the raki bottles one after the other, accompanied by plenty of mezes and conversation.

No other drink is referred to in this way, and yet this is also the birthplace of beer and wine. You don't “go for” wine, and you don't “go for” beer neither. On the other hand, "raki is," in Murat Belge's words, "a drink with a personality" (see: 'Tarih Boyunca Yemek Kültürü' (Food Culture Throughout History) and the qualities that do not suit any other drink will suit it.

It is possible to drink raki only with white chickpeas like Ataturk did, or with a variety of meze and dishes ranging from kebabs to fish. Imagine it is the time of year when bluefish arrives in the Bosphorus. A freshly caught bluefish accompanied by raki, with lakerda, roasted eggplant, salted mackerel, fava on the side...

Such a table is guaranteed to give you a feeling of joy with every sip something that no other beverage can match. It must be this impulse that makes people proudly say: "I know no bird but the crow and no other drink but raki."

Raki also implies gathering around a table. It typically represents being with others and is not something you drink alone at home. I'm not saying you can't drink it alone; I'm just saying it's not the preferred way. On such an occasion, you might feel a little sad. Raki gets even tastier with conversation when there is a gathering of people.

Historian Resat Ekrem Kocu reports in his Istanbul Encyclopedia that raki used to be drunk in a stemmed small goblet. He also frets about the glasses we call raki glasses today, calling them lemonade glasses to insult them. Today, however, it is possible to make ice at home, and these glasses are better for drinking raki cold. Technology can change centuries-old traditions in the blink of an eye, but the essence of raki drinking has remained the same for a long time.

I spoke with three raki experts who shed light on the subject from different angles. We spoke with Ayca Budak, director of the International Wine Standards Association (IWSA), about what the official Turkish raki is. After this basic information, our guest is Metin Solmaz, who put a lot of thought into the culture of raki with his "Anason Isleri." Solmaz will explain to us what a tavern is and what it means in a way to "go for" a raki.

In the last part, we talked to Tan Morgul, who lives in the UK, about what the raki experience might be like abroad.

For some, this drink is the formula to happiness: "If only I were a fish in a raki bottle..." From literature to music, raki is an integral part of Turkish culture.

And we toast our glasses to the words "To honor!", a chin-chin wouldn't suit us, instead the glasses are raised to each other's honor.

Well, here we go, as another poet said, "It's the time, evening is upon us." To your honor!

AYCA BUDAK explains:

What is raki and can raki be made with ingredients other than grapes?

Raki is defined in the regulations as follows: "It is a distilled alcoholic beverage produced exclusively in Turkey by second distillation of suma or suma mixed with ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with anise seed (Pimpinella anisum) in traditional copper retorts of 5000 liters or less."

It is not possible to make raki without grapes, as at least 65% must be grape alcohol, i.e. suma.

We can briefly explain what raki is in the following points:

It must be produced with aniseed (pimpinella anisum) grown in Turkey.

It must be produced from sultanas, fresh grapes and agricultural products grown in Turkey.

It must be distilled in Turkey in copper retorts with a maximum capacity of 5,000 liters.

It must have an alcohol content of at least 40%.

It must have an aniseed essential oil (anethole) content of at least 800 milligrams per liter of product.

It is required a plant with a production volume of at least one million liters to produce raki.

If refined white sugar is used in the preparation of raki, the amount of sugar must be a maximum of 10 grams per liter of product. In the raki on the market, this proportion is 2-4 gr/liter, i.e. about 1 sugar cube. In other words, if you drink one liter of raki, you get one cube of sugar.

No coloring agents may be used in the production of raki.

The product must be left to settle for at least one month before being bottled.

No additives may be used.

Regardless of the source of water used in the production of raki, it must be demineralized so as not to change the taste of the raki. Raki is a geo-labeled drink.

What is the difference between Balkan rakija, Albanian raki, Greek ouzo and raki as we understand it?

Rakija is a drink widely consumed throughout the Balkans, but it is actually a type of fruit brandy. Besides grapes, it can be made from many fruits, such as plums, apricots, etc. It can be matured for a long time and unlike raki, it is not flavored.

Ouzo and raki are essentially similar. However, ouzo does not need to be made from grapes, but can also be made from other agricultural alcohols. It can also be flavored not only with anise, but also with other botanicals and even with anise aroma. And its sugar content is much higher than that of raki.

What is the reason that raki in the Balkans is usually drunk neat, while we usually drink it with water and ice?

The raki that is drunk neat in the Balkans is a drink similar to brandy, which is usually consumed as an aperitif. Raki, on the other hand, accompanies a meal. Therefore, raki must be diluted to lower its alcohol content so that it can be enjoyed along with a meal for a longer period of time. When you add water to the raki one to one, the alcohol content is also cut in half. Since people usually drink water alongside it, the alcohol content is reduced further and you can enjoy your raki longer during a meal.

Is it possible to age raki like whisky?

As I mentioned earlier, raki in the Balkans is different from our raki; it is not flavored and is more like brandy. Therefore, it tends to be positively affected by a longer rest. Turkish raki, on the other hand, is re-distilled with anise seeds and aged for a minimum period of one month. The regulations do not specify an upper limit for aging. However, if the raki is allowed to sit in oak barrels for an extended period of time, anethole and similar aromatic compounds volatilize and the raki will lose its defining character. Therefore, an optimal aging time must be observed in order to preserve its character.

How can we tell a good raki from a bad one? Is the grape variety important? Are there certain favorite varieties?

A well-whitening raki with a distinct anise smell can be defined as a good raki. Since it is distilled up to 94.5 degrees, there is no clearly identifiable smell/taste is left in it as in fermented beverages such as wine. The grape variety is therefore not especially among the distinguishing features of raki. In fact, it can be said that it is the smallest factor. There are many other determinants such as the distillation time, the resting time and the type of storage (like barrel or stainless steel tank) and the amount of anise used in the second distillation.