“Wine is for those who live, Rakı is for those whose stories are cut short…”
Rakı And Meyhane Culture in Turkey
Rakı is a traditional beverage that is indigenous to the Turkish region. It is produced from raisin/grape spirit and is a strong drink usually containing around 45 to 50 percent alcohol. Even though the true origin of Rakı has not been documented, it is believed worldwide that the beverage first originated in Ottoman lands. A drink similar to Rakı was identified to have existed in the Eastern Roman Empire during the 5th century. Turks adopted this recipe in the 11th century and it was brought to Anatolia and Rumelia mostly by the Bektashi people. The story of Rakı in Anatolia goes back 300 years. The word ‘Rakı’ is a Turkish word and Greeks adopted this word while under Ottoman rule. Even in Greek encyclopaedia, the inventor of the traditional Greek drink ‘Uzo’ is recorded as an Ottoman doctor named Kirios Sravakis. The true origin of Rakı has been long debated among the Turks and the Greeks.
Viticulture and winemaking in Constantinople was mostly conducted around monasteries. However most of the city’s wine supply came from Thasos, Crete and Chios islands. Some of the monasteries in Istanbul were famous for their special wines. Wine merchants known as ‘Kapelos’ had shops called ‘Orgasterion’ where wine was served with food. There were also sections called ‘Leskhe’ within caravanserais which were run like taverns or inns.
Wine was the primary drink of choice in the Byzantine palaces. Some of these wines were prepared with scented herbs which is similar to vermouths we use today. As well as grapes, different fruits such as; apricot, plum, date palm, fig were also fermented and made into fruit wines. When the city was besieged by the Ottomans, taverns were set up beneath the ramparts in order to keep Byzantine soldiers sharp and lift their spirits. During the siege, Genoese boats constantly supplied the city with wine from the Greek isles. Even then, Istanbul had become famous for its taverns around the Galata district. Still to this day, the oldest and most traditional taverns are located around Beyoğlu district.
Various sources corroborate that taverns (meyhane) have existed in Istanbul since the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror and that these taverns are left over from the Byzantine period. Some of these sources state that the taverns of Istanbul were renowned throughout the world in those times. Even in the Ottoman era people primarily preferred to drink wine. However their preference slowly shifted to ‘Rakı’ over time.
After a period of prohibition, an era of reform took off (1826 – 1839) and after the declaration of constitutionalism (1908) prohibitions slowly lifted and people’s perception shifted which drastically increased the production of ‘Rakı’ and other alcoholic beverages. During the second half of the 19th century - more accurately the ‘Tanzimat’ reform era – big changes started to take place in social life. It was during this period of westernization when Sultan Abdülhamid’s head chamberlain and treasury secretary Sarıcazade Ragıp Pasha established the first ‘Rakı’ factory in the 1880’s.
During the 19th century, ‘Rakı’ was very popular among the non-Muslim population. Muslims were forbidden to be proprietors and ‘Rakı’ was mostly served in taverns and inns run by non-Muslims. It is quite difficult to obtain definitive information about the techniques used in the production of anise flavoured ‘Rakı’ in this period. Today ‘Rakı’ is exported to many countries including; Germany, USA and China. ‘Rakı’ has been consumed in Turkish lands for centuries and it is engraved in its culture and traditions.
Almost all publications about the subject state ‘Rakı’ as a Turkish beverage. First during the Ottoman period and later during the Republic era, ‘Rakı’ has slowly transformed together with the people’s palates and reached its final form. Its production is now standardized. Today, special features of ‘Rakı’ cannot be found in any other drink. The Greek drink ‘Ouzo’, Middle Eastern drink ‘Arak’ and Balkan drink ‘Rakija’ are very different beverages. Grape alcohol is not required for producing ‘Ouzo’. The anise used can be Pimpinella or star anise and the aromatic flavours of these two are quite different from one another. There are no restrictions to the herbs and seeds that can be used in the production of ‘Ouzo’. It is estimated that ‘Arak’ has been developed by Middle Eastern Jews and Christians.
When together with friends in a tavern or a restaurant, Turkish people raise the first glass and say; “sağlığına” (to your health) or “şerefe” (cheers). English people say “cheers”, the French; “A la Santé”, Czech, Slovak and Bulgarian people – with small variations on the spelling and pronunciation- say; “nazdravi-nazdravye”, Chinese; “Yungsing” (drink and win), Germans;” Zum Wohl” and Rûm people say; “Jamas” (to your health).
Hitting the bottom of the other person’s glass with yours shows respect. People usually practice this gesture with their elders. It is also quite common to clink glasses with each other, say “şerefe” and hit the table with the bottom of your glass before taking a sip. This gesture means; “however close our friendship is, after the alcohol takes effect and we utter words we might later regret, I swear on my honour that whatever is said at this table will stay at this table”. Hitting the table with your glass also is a nod to those who are not able to be with you at the table.
The Ritual of Rakı Table
Traditionally, water equal to half the amount of rakı is added into the glass. Rakı is poured into the glass first, then water is added and finally ice but it is better not to add ice at all. If you disrupt this order, the anise will rise to the surface. This will ruin the taste and experience of rakı.
Before starting to drink, eating appetizers –especially olive oil dishes- is a must. As your stomach fills up, the olive oil will rise to the top and prevent the alcohol from coming up.
Nobody lifts up their rakı glass until the oldest person at the table raises their glass for a toast.
Rakı glass can’t stay empty. Even when leaving the table, a little bit is left at the bottom. Traditionally, the youngest person at the table serves the drinks.
Every last drop of rakı in the bottle is distributed evenly. If the intent is to continue to drink, a new bottle is ordered before the last one finishes.
Rakı is not a drink to be enjoyed by itself. Rakı is enjoyed slowly, together with appetizers. It affects the stomach and the brain leading people to delightful conversations... In short, it is both the story teller and the listener. Rakı table is a social event. It can be a democratic forum, a place where universal and personal problems are discussed, a place to exchange ideas and even a group therapy where people can find closure. Rakı table is a prestigious club. Those who are invited are respected by the others and in turn must respect those at the table.
Rakı table is not a place to talk about serious matters. It is a place to have fun, to save the world, to reminisce and to gossip. The best appetizer for rakı is conversation.
The topic of conversation can range from; “there was this girl, I loved her for 5 years but she didn’t even give me the time of the day” to semi-philosophical subjects like, “why does the sun rise from the East and set in the West”?