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An Introduction to Raki

a plate full of food sitting on a table

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By: Erhan Kostepen

An Introduction to Raki

Like all countries along the Mediterranean, Turkey has its very own anise-flavored spirit, Raki. If you are new to the Aegean cuisine offered at Doya or have a flavor for a traditional liquor, then allow me, Erhan, the executive chef and co-owner of Doya, to give you an introduction to Raki and its important place in Turkish cuisine and culture. I will also highlight the finer points of serving this refreshing drink, including the ‘rules and rituals’ involved. 

Background on Raki – How It’s Made

Raki is more than just simply a drink and has a history that stretches back at least 500 years, or so it is believed. The spirit is distilled two to five times from grapes and then re-distilled with aniseed to give it that unique flavor. Similarly, to other anise spirits, the addition of water to the mixture is what gives it that cloudy look and is in part the inspiration for its local nickname of “lion’s milk”.

Aslan (where the lion is derived from) is the Turkish colloquial metaphor used to describe someone as strong and courageous, it gives Raki a meaning that is close to “the milk for the strong”. 

a person sitting at a table
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A Bit of History

Raki was first produced using the residue of grapes left over from winemaking. When there was a shortage of this all-important residue, spirits were imported and then processed with aniseed. This was how the drink was produced up until the First World War when raisins, dried figs, and even mulberries were used to make Raki. 

For the best quality Raki - at the time, people looked to seedless raisins and aniseed from Cesme, a place I am especially fond of. 

As I noted at the outset and as many of you will probably know, there are many countries along the Mediterranean basin that have aniseed or anise-flavored drinks. Italy has Sambuca, France has Pastis, while our neighbors in Greece have Ouzo. If you have ever tasted them all, you will know they all differ, and this difference is down to the ingredients and amount of sugar used as well as the production process itself. 

The biggest difference between these other anise-flavored spirits is that Raki is only made using the highest quality of grapes and aniseed in the distillation process. There are no herbs or extracts added at all. Another huge difference is the fact Raki contains the least sugar. 

a group of people sitting at a picnic tableJerry and Erhan enjoying Meze and Raki

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How to Drink Raki

Now that I’ve given some background information, it’s the part of this post most of you will be looking forward to – how to drink Raki!

As with all spirits found around the world, it is down to personal preference more than anything. Some people drink Raki straight (where it is served alongside some chilled water in a separate glass. This is called sek. 

The majority drink it mixed directly with chilled water, which gives it a cloudy look. It’s customary for ice to be added too.

If you want to share a friendly moment with another drinker and want to clink glasses, do it with the bottom. Why? In Turkish culture, clinking glasses with the top of yours is a sign that you think you are superior to them. Which at best, no matter how right you might think you are, is rude. 

“I hope you will come to Doya someday soon and enjoy Raki along with our tasty mezes”.

Bonus Tip 1 – Never Drink Raki Alone

You should never drink Raki alone. Always drink it with family, friends, and people you love. In a restaurant setting, like Doya, Raki is served in a glass with an accompanying glass of water when the first mezes arrive at your table. Raki, in case you didn’t know, is a big part of mezes.

Bonus Tip 2 – The Host Serves and Toasts

When I have guests over, personally, I always like to be the one who serves the Raki. This is for several reasons. For one, I love Raki, I want the balance of water and ice to be just perfect. The other reason is that when I have guests over, I will have prepared meze, so as I mentioned before Raki is part of the whole experience. So when I serve Raki, this is what I do:

Raki first, then water, then the ice. 

Then I will always propose a toast. Glasses have to touch and people to connect. It is all about togetherness, friendships and family.

As you can see, there are various traditional rituals involved in serving and drinking Raki. With that in mind, I must highlight the most important rule of all when it comes to Raki. What it is served with. The main meze of Raki that should never be changed is white cheese. 

“However, throughout an evening or afternoon, Raki is drunk with a variety of different mezes and always with friends and family and lively conversation”.

Erhan Kostepen is the Executive Chef and co-owner of Doya

Please see these links of Yeni Raki to learn more: