Food and drink comes with an unwritten social disclaimer in Turkey. Lunch banquets are eaten elbow-to-elbow with friends and family, and evening dinner parties often run into the early hours of morning. Sitting alongside the salt and pepper on dinner tables is rakı. This colourless, aniseed-flavoured liquor has Greek (ouzo) and Arabic (arak) counterparts, and like its Mediterranean/Arabian neighbours, it is found everywhere.
The word ‘rakı’ is derived from the Arabic term arak, meaning ‘distilled’. Essentially, rakı is a clear brandy made from grapes and raisins, and flavoured with aromatic anise. When diluted with cold water and ice (and sometimes soda water), this potent alcohol (40–50 per cent) takes on a milky appearance, leading to its nickname, Lion’s Milk. It seems the locals are equally as lion-hearted, consuming some 60 million litres of the spirit each year.
Rakı is twice-distilled from solid grape residue after the fruit has been pressed for wine, though it can also be made from figs, plums and mulberries. In modern-day Turkey, rakı was produced exclusively by the state-owned alcohol and tabacco company Tekel until 2004, when the company was privatised and manufacturing transferred to Mey Alkol, and competition from smaller manufacturers came to the forefront.
Another popular brand is Yeni, whose Âlâ rakı uses carefully selected grapes, which are sundried and then mashed together with water. At the first distillation stage, aniseed sourced from Turkey’s Çeşme-Izmir region is added before a second and third distillation stage. Tekirdağ Rakısı, from the region of Tekirdağ, is renowned for its characteristic flavour, which is believed to be due to the waters of Çorlu used in its production.
But the most premium rakı is actually what’s left at the bottom of a barrel. Dip rakısı (bottom rakı) is thought to best capture the dense flavour of the spirit, and isn’t available commercially, but rather collected by rakı manufacturers to gift to large clients. While it may hence be a challenge to taste the most premium grade, rakı is as much about the ritual as it is about the taste. Although it does make guest appearances in cocktails, rakı is most commonly consumed in a small, cylindrical glass, ideally served between 8 and 10 degrees and diluted with nothing but water and ice, added in that order. It’s is often accompanied by melon and beyaz peynir (white cheese), and pairs nicely with grilled fish.
But of course, the best accompaniment for a glass of rakı is a group of people to share it with. And when you toast with a spirited “Serefe!”, be sure to clink your glasses from the bottom.
Four experiences to raise a glass to Turkey’s national spirit:
1. Like a local
The Nişantaşi quarter of the European side of Istanbul is a flâneur’s paradise, with winding streets leading to chic galleries, a plethora of cafés, streets of incredible shopping — and, of course, sophisticated hotels. Base yourself at the ultra-cool W Istanbul, which is in the converted Akaretler Row Houses, formerly the residences of royal staff of nearby Dolmabahçe Palace. While the W Lounge is a great chill-out space for some evening cocktails, you’ll need to venture out of the hotel’s door for the best rakı experiences — specifically, at meyhanes (traditional bars) such as Yazi Tura, which are always filled to the brim with locals and where you can sample rakı in its most common (and as some would say, rightful) form. Post-libation, it isn’t too far back to your 170-square-metre Extreme Wow Suite, where you can relax in the private Jacuzzi in the master bathroom, which is designed like a traditional hammam, before moving to the terrace to enjoy glittering skyline views.
2. A royally good time
While the Bosphorus splits the city of Istanbul in two, residents of both sides are united in their reverence of rakı. On the European side, check into Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus, which is housed in a converted Ottoman Palace. The three-bedroom Atik Pasha Suite will have you feeling thoroughly regal. The 377-square-metre space is resplendent in mahogany furnishings, period-specific artwork and an oversized master bedroom with sitting area. Yes, you can sample some of Turkey’s finest rakı over dinner with a group in the 10-seater dining room, or head to the in-house Aqua restaurant (get a seat on the terrace if the weather is fine) and tuck into chef Sebastiano Spriveri’s roasted sea bass fillet flavoured with lemon and thyme and served with artichokes, new potatoes, black olive and citrus saffron olive oil emulsion, which pairs well with the bar’s selection of rakı fusion cocktails.
3. Raki by design
While raki purists will maintain that only ice and water should dilute the spirit, modern bars incorporate it into more easily digestible cocktails. At the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum’s Mandarin Bar, you can sample the liquor in the specially crafted Cakir Keyif 50 cocktail created by mixologist Tolgahan Sarıbuğday, which calls upon the flavours of the Turkish Riviera with fresh melon, lime and Cointreau. Of course, an ample selection of rakı is also available to enjoy as is, and the staff are only too happy to share their wealth of knowledge on the subject. Make the most of your time at the seaside resort by checking into the ultra-luxe, 640-square-metre Oriental Villa, replete with hand-crafted Turkish rugs, elegant Ottoman-inspired furnishings, six bathrooms, a sauna and steam room, and an oversized terrace with private pool, sunbeds and a hammock looking out onto the resort’s two private beaches along Paradise Bay.
Price available upon request; Cennet Koyu Çomça Mevkii Göltürkbükü, Bodrum; +90 252 311 18 88;
4. Get thee to an island
Sitting between two continents, Galatasary Island is best known for its Suada Club, a favourite hotspot of visiting celebrities in the heart of Istanbul’s mighty Bosphorus river. Take a boat from nearby Hôtel Les Ottomans (another favourite haunt for visiting VIPs) and spend the day on this island paradise. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options that pair well with a glass of Turkey’s national spirit. G Balik serves up platters of fresh fish cooked whichever way you like, while 360 offers fresh octopus ceviche with green olives, corn, sundried tomato and thyme. Linger at Suada Club after the sun sets, when the chill-out lounge transitions into a late-night party palace that attracts the who’s who of the local social scene. Recover at Les Ottomans’ Kösem Sultan Suite, which offers open-plan living across two levels and comes with free access to the hotel’s spa areas.
Kösem Sultan Suite from EUR 2,400 ($2,730) per night; Muallim Naci Cad. 68; +90 212 359 1500;