There are several rules when it comes to drinking raki (“rocky”), Turkey’s signature spirit.
But one is particularly crucial, according to Ferit Sarper of Istanbul’s Munferit restaurant.
“Pick your friends accordingly,” warns Sarper, whose family also owns Beylerbeyi, a raki distillery in western Turkey.
Raki “is a drink you spend quite a long time with,” Sarper says. Strong and anise-flavored, it is meant for slow sipping — customarily as you while away the hours conversing with good friends and snacking on an assortment of mezes, or Turkish tapas.
“Nobody would like to sit down and have a few glasses of raki with a boring person. A boring person would bore you twice,” Sarper says.
Produced for centuries, raki presumably dates back to the early 1600s and is most often likened to its Greek cousin, ouzo. Most commonly, it is produced through a double distillation process that incorporates fruit (such as grapes, plums, raisins or figs) and aniseed. Beylerbeyi distills its raki three times to create a higher quality product. And it offers two varieties: a more expensive version made from fresh grapes as well as less pricey raki produced with raisins.
“The fresh grape one is little smoother; the other is a little rougher, even though they have the same amount of alcohol [45 percent],” says Sarper, who prefers a more rustic raki.
There is a very specific ritual when it comes to serving this celebrated spirit. The crystal-clear raki is first poured into a narrow, cylindrical glass. Chilled water is then added, causing the drink to turn cloudy — and thus explaining its preferred nickname, “lion’s milk.” Ice tops it all off.
“If you add the ice first, it will crystallize,” Sarper says. “It will freeze the aniseed oil in the raki, and it’s not pleasant to drink.”
The ratio of raki, water and ice is generally 1:3. (Raki can also be served straight up with a glass of water on the side.)
Food — along with conversation — is a key component of the raki-drinking experience. Sips should alternate with small bites.
“I would advise you to sample the raki with a lot of simple stuff — spreads, simple vegetable dishes and those sorts of things,” Sarper says. The drink also pairs nicely with fish, seafood and grilled meats.
Between 1944 and 2004, raki was produced exclusively by Tekel, the government-run tobacco and spirits monopoly. With the raki world now open to competition, better quality products have come on the market, Sarper says. And what once was considered a “man’s drink” — because of its strength and rough character — has now found an audience among many modern-day Turkish women.
“[Competition] changed the whole look and taste of the drink,” Sarper says. “It made it more appropriate for women to enjoy it as well.”
Yeni Carsi Caddesi No. 19