Raki (rakı in Turkish) is a clear alcoholic drink with a relatively unique and strong flavor. Raki is the most popular alcoholic drink in Turkey and its varieties are found in other countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Similar spirits around the world are ouzo consumed by Greeks, grappa consumed by Italians, and arak consumed by Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, and Israelis.
Raki contains antioxidants and polyphenols, which might help lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and prevent heart disease (when consumed in moderation). While it can provide some long-term health benefits when consumed in moderation (that’s important to emphasize), it contains about 45% alcohol so you don’t want to go overboard thinking it’s like wine. For reference, your average bottle of red wine has between 12% and 15% alcohol. That means raki’s alcohol content is similar to other spirits like rum, vodka, tequila, and gin (which all have about 40% alcohol).
Where does the nickname ‘Lion’s Milk’ come from?
The nickname ‘Lion’s Milk’ (aslan sütü in Turkish) comes from the fact that after raki is mixed with water (which is how you’re supposed to drink it), it turns into a cloudy white color. This looks like milk. The ‘lion’ part of the nickname likely came from the symbolism of strength that lions portray. Unfortunately, it’s unknown exactly when this nickname originated.
What does ‘raki’ mean?
The word ‘raki’ doesn’t have any specific meaning. Over centuries, it could’ve been formed from the Arabic word arak which means ‘distilled’. Some scholars believe ‘raki’ originated during the Ottoman Empire and is and always has been a Turkish word. They cite an encyclopedia created during this time by a Turkish doctor named Kirios Stavrakis.
What is Turkish raki made from?
Turkish raki is either made from distilled grapes or raisins, flavored with anise. Anise (or aniseed) is a flowering plant that’s native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. It’s been used for centuries to flavor food, candy, and alcoholic drinks. The exact ingredients of raki depend on the brand because each brand uses different ingredients.
In terms of grapes, raki is traditionally produced from a raisin/grape spirit called suma, which is likely made from muscat or razaki grapes. The muscat family of grapes has been used for centuries around the world to make wine or be eaten as raisins or table grapes. Razaki grapes are widely grown in Turkey. In fact, grapes in general are widely produced in Turkey. Fun fact: Turkey ranks 6th for grape production across the entire world (as of 2020).
A Brief History
The history of Turkish raki hasn’t been recorded very well throughout history, so it’s almost impossible to be certain of its timeline. To our knowledge, mentions of a similar drink first popped up in 5th century Roman Empire. In 1630, Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi first recorded mentions of raki during his travels. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that production of raki started ramping up. Until this time, it was made entirely in small towns, taverns, and in people’s homes.
As production started to really increase, private companies started making a lot of money. Just for context, the Ottoman Empire ended in 1922 and the Republic of Turkey (that exists today) was founded a year later in 1923. When World War II brought an economic depression to Turkey, the Turkish government decided to end the privatization of alcohol production in the country by making it government owned and managed. This decision brought in much-needed funds for the government and helped get the country out of the economic depression it was in. Ownership of the production of raki was returned to the private sector in 2003.
How is Turkish raki made?
Similar to most whiskey and bourbon, most raki is distilled twice. Distillation removes impurities and some water, while concentrating the unique flavors and increasing the percentage of alcohol. The first round of distillation tends to increase the percentage of alcohol and the second round of distillation removes most of the remaining impurities. What’s left has a high concentration of alcohol and distinct flavors.
Types of Raki
The most popular type of raki is made from grapes and raisins. If you enjoyed raki at a restaurant, this is the type of raki you’d most likely be drinking. Other types of raki are made from figs, pomegranates, and plums. And sometimes you might find craft raki that has different Turkish flavors like mastic (pine gum) or clover spice.
The Best Times to Drink Raki
Raki definitely isn’t the best drink to have all the time, especially considering its high alcohol content. Just like with other spirits, there are a handful of best times to drink raki.
1. At Night
The absolute best time to enjoy raki is definitely at night, ideally with dinner or right after dinner. If you like alcohol, it can be a fun drink to enjoy because it tends to bring friends together. It’s a pretty social drink in Turkey and its culture is associated with a good time. It would be hard to find a person using raki in a negative way.
2. Special Occasions
Raki is best enjoyed with friends and loved ones, especially on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, high school and college graduations (the legal drinking age in Turkey is 18), parties, and other celebrations. Don’t be surprised if a friend whips out a couple of raki glasses!
Meyhane Culture in Turkey
A meyhane is a blend of a restaurant and a bar. There’s music, food, laughter, alcoholic drinks, and friends having a good time together. In the 1960s and 70s, only men would go. It’s only in the past 15 or so years that women have enjoyed meyhanes. In general, it used to be rare to see women drinking raki in public. Meyhanes are typically very simple venues (nothing fancy) and they usually serve a variety of sharing plates (called mezes in Turkish). On the more budget-friendly side, mezes are typically melon, feta cheese, and olives. On the more luxiourous end, a meyhane could also serve traditional cold vegetable Turkish dishes.
Before the last 15 or so years, meyhanes were known to play very sentimental music. Men would go to drink raki and get into their ‘feels’. Now, meyhanes are much more lively and joyful. Young men and women go together with friends and the music tends to be modern Turkish pop or Arabesque music. In fancier meyhanes, there’s even live music.
Here’s a meyhane in half-island Tarihi Yarımada, Istanbul (known for homing Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace Museum, and Sultanahmet Square):
What does raki taste like?
Raki tastes like black licorice – there’s no getting around it and there’s no middle ground. If you love it, you 100% love it, but if you hate it, you 100% hate it. The anise plant, which flavors raki, gives almost exactly the same taste as black licorice. According to licorice.com, anise tends to be spicy and a little sweet. Licorice can be more bitter, salty, and even sour. They smell similarly because they both have anethole, which is an organic flavoring compound.
Why is raki white and cloudy?
Raki turns white and cloudy when mixed with water and alcohol due to the louche effect. Because raki is made from anise (a flowering plant), the oils from it cause a chemical reaction called emulsion when mixed with a combination of alcohol and water. As mentioned earlier, this is how raki got its nickname ‘Lion’s Milk’.
Emulsion is actually pretty commonly used these days. A lot of food products, detergents, and personal care products are intentionally designed to use emulsion so they can stay stable over a longer period of time.
Does raki give you a hangover?
Yes, raki can definitely give you a hangover if you consume a lot in a short amount of time. Just like with any other spirit, raki has a relatively high concentration of alcohol. When a lot is consumed in a short amount of time, the human body has a tough time trying to metabolize all that alcohol. This takes a toll on the body, especially if you’re not 24 anymore, and can lead to a hangover the following day.
What’s the best way to drink raki?
The best way to enjoy raki is by far in a traditional Turkish raki glass. Why? In my experience, honoring the tradition makes it so much more fun and it feels genuinely authentic. These glasses are light, short in height, and don’t have any curvature (unlike traditional Turkish tea glasses).
It’s best to take small sips and make the drink last as long as possible. It has a high alcohol content, so it’s very strong and can make you drunk fast – especially if consumed on an empty stomach, like other alcohols.
How do you clink a raki glass?
The traditional way to ‘cheers’ with a raki glass is by clinking the sides of the glass. By the way, ‘cheers’ translates to ‘şerefe’ in Turkish (pronounced cher (like the singer)-f-eh). That’s not a proper phonetic spelling of course , but it’s the most helpful to pronounce the word correctly. If you’re with friends, don’t be afraid to offer a ‘şerefe’ and clink glasses!
Looking for your own raki glasses? These are a close bet (from Amazon).
How much does raki cost in Turkey?
The price of raki has changed a lot in recent years, due to Turkey’s steadily increasing inflation. As of 2019, the cost of 1 liter of raki was about 200 Turkish Liras or $35 USD. Since then, it’s gone up to about 450 Turkish Liras (which translates to about $24 USD as of January 24th, 2023), so it’s more than doubled for Turkish people but actually gotten cheaper for Americans and Europeans. The United States Dollar and Euro have been strengthening in recent years, while the Turkish Lira has been weakened in comparison.
Recommended Food to Eat With Raki
Raki is best enjoyed alongside seafood or mezes, which are small plates of hot and cold foods similar to Spain’s tapas. Some of these hot and cold mezes, for example, are yoghurt-based, vegetable-based, or can even contain yummy cheese. Speaking from experience, raki pairs nicely with all seafood, but especially fish, fried calamari, and grilled octopus. 10/10, I’d definitely recommend going to a nice seafood restaurant in Istanbul or alongside Turkey’s Western coast and trying raki with your dinner.
The Best Turkish Raki Brands
1. Yeni Raki
Yeni Raki is the most popular raki brand in the world. After an economic depression in Turkey during World War II, the brand was founded in 1944 by the Turkish government as a way to signify an important turning point towards prosperity for the country. From 1944 to 2003, alcohol production in Turkey was turned over to the government from the private sector. Sometime over the years, Mey İçki, the largest spirits producer and distributor in Turkey, acquired Yeni Raki and then sold it along with other alcoholic brands to Diageo for £1.3 billion in 2011. In 2021, Yeni Raki generated about $141 million USD in revenue, down from $202 million USD in 2020.
Not only is Tekirdağ a popular Turkish raki brand, but it’s also a city along Turkey’s Northern coast. The brand’s raki was originally from this region, although it’s not only produced there anymore. It was founded in 2000 and was the first raki made with 100% Turkish grapes. Tekirdağ is among the brands that were sold to Diageo in 2011 and its popularity has only gone up. Diageo’s collection of raki brands generated 10% more revenue in 2021 compared to 2020, largely from more sales of Tekirdağ.
Efe grows their grapes along the Aegean coast of Turkey and was founded in 2002. After it was introduced to Turkey, it was a hit! The company had to increase production from 5 million liters to 15 million liters in 2005 to meet the increasing demand. Efe took consumer safety really seriously by introducing a couple of safety features on their bottles, like red tape that appears once the bottle is opened and can’t be hidden.