RAKI: National Drink of Turkey

In its 4th year, Turkish Cultural Heritage Month is celebrated in September in Washington, D.C. To kick off the month, I sat down with the lead bartender, Jacob, at Ankara Turkish and Mediterranean Restaurant (1320 19th Street NW) to learn more about and taste Raki, Turkey’s national spirit.

What is Raki?

Raki is technically considered a clear brandy.  It’s first pot distilled and then double distilled with anise (herb).  It’s traditionally produced by twice distilling grape pomace and aniseed.  It can also be made from a variety of other fruits such as figs.

History of Raki

Due to religious restrictions in the Ottoman Empire, wine was traditionally served along with meze.  However, during a more liberal reign from 1839-1876, raki rose in popularity.  By the end of the century, raki began to be more consumed than wine.  During this period, raki was produced from the grape residue of winemaking that remained — skin, pulp, seeds and stems.

When the empire collapsed and modern-day Republic of Turkey was formed, grape-based rakı began to be distilled by the state-owned spirits monopoly Tekel in 1944.  The founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was very fond of rakı and would invite friends and associates over to debate issues while drinking the spirit.

Until 2004 when Tekel was privatized, raki was a state-owned product and there was only one kind.  Since then, several brands of raki have emerged, but the characteristics of the drink have remained the same.

How to Drink Raki

Because Raki is 45% alcohol or more depending on the brand, it’s usually drank slowly over a long period of time with many courses of food, beginning with cold mezze and salads, followed by fish and grilled meats, and ending with coffee and desserts.

It should be served cold and with ice.  When the ice melts, it causes raki to become a milky white color, giving it the nickname “lion’s milk.” Raki is actually traditionally only drank by men, although the younger generation of women will drink it with friends.

The ‘Big 5’ Types of Raki

While at Ankara, I sampled Raki’s ‘Big 5’ – the 5 types of Raki mostly available in the U.S.  All raki tends to have a licorice taste due to being distilled with anise; however, after tasting each type of raki below (left to right), I now understand the nuanced differences.

  1. Yeni Raki is probably the most popular and widely available type of Raki.  It has the strongest licorice aftertaste, but still goes down smoothly.
  2. Classic Efe Raki is the first family-owned raki distillery.  The classic version of this brand tastes much like Yeni Raki.
  3. Blue Efe Raki is made with classic raisins instead of traditional grapes.  The taste of anise is more upfront than in classic raki.
  4. Green Efe Raki is made with fresh grapes.  It is much smoother than the classic or blue variations.
  5. Black Raki is made using a newer method.  It’s distilled once, pot-distilled with anise a second time, and then distilled a third time to tone down the anise.  It’s then aged in French oak barrels for 6 months.  This Raki was probably my favorite.  It had a much more subdued, refined and round flavor.

I tried Raki while in Istanbul and made the mistake of tasting it as a shot instead of sipping it. Now that I’ve tried many types of raki, I realize I could not taste the innate subtleties before. What I like about raki is that you can enjoy it without being a connoisseur. And depending on how intense you want the flavor to be, there are different variations to accommodate your taste.

No matter the differences or your preferences, all raki goes down easily and is the perfect accompaniment to enjoy with Mediterranean food.

If you’re interested in learning more about Raki and other Turkish traditions, or attending any events in D.C., find more information about Turkish Cultural Heritage Month here.  And don’t forget to stop by Ankara and tell them I sent you!