Greg Alonzo: Raki:Turkish White Lightning

Sunset on the Bosporus is a momentous spectacle. Great golden swathes of sunlight blaze across the dusk sky, until at length, giving way to the open expanse of Black Sea. It is here that Europe is separated from the Anatolian peninsula of western Asia.

Today I am in Istanbul and joined by my friend and fellow sommelier, Dilara Yilmaz. Though we have only known each other a short time, we have already shared some very interesting wine and spirits tastings.

“Gregory, how is it that you came to know Turkish wines?” Dilara queried.

“As a United States Marine, I was assigned as a courier and worked for the Naval Attache. Our embassy in Ankara was on my route.”

“Most interesting, “ Dilara flashed me a wide beaming smile. “At so young an age you were already an expert on our wines.”

I gently patted her on the arm, “Frankly, I was introduced to your wines at that time.” I paused to momentarily smile. “However, my primary interest was in Raki.”

Dilara stared across the table in disbelief. “Seriously? You like drinking Raki?”

As I nodded, Dilara motioned for our server and quickly ordered mezze, Turkish hors d’ oeuvres,  and a bottle of Raki. “I selected my favorite brand of Raki. It is called Yeni.”

I gave her my nod of approval. “I enjoy Yeni very much,” my expression changed to one of reflection.

Our server quickly set our table with a myriad of cold dishes. Local fish, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, and feta cheese.

“Gregory, where are your thoughts?,” Dilara queried.

“I also had an interest in Raki because of James Bond,” I flashed a boyish grin.

“Bond, James Bond … how so?” Dilara awaited my answer with anticipation.

“In the novel, ‘From Russia With Love,’ after the battle between the gypsies and the Bulgars, Bond refers to Raki as ‘filthy stuff,’ then goes on to quaff the remainder of the bottle, and seemingly enjoys every last drop.”

We both erupted euphorically.

What exactly is Raki? Throughout the Mediterranean world, anise based spirits such as Ouzo, Sambuca, Pastis, Arak, and Absinthe are quite popular. Turkish Raki is distilled from the leftovers of vinification. Everything from grape seeds, stems, skins, and the like go into the making of this spirit that is considered by many, to be the national drink of Turkey.

“Another factor in the popularity of Raki is it’s alcohol content. The range is typically from 45-50% alcohol,” Dilara smiled as she poured us each a glass of Yeni.

“Serefe,” we toasted each other.

On the nose, our Yeni is strongly scented with anise. Its pungent aroma is much more powerful than that of Ouzo, yet nowhere as refined as the Greek liqueur. For the novice, Raki can take you by surprise, and is definitely an acquired taste.

“We Turks believe that once you’ve acquired the taste for Raki, there’s no going back,” Dilara said with pride. “We typically take a break at sunset to enjoy the view and our national drink,” she paused to collect her thoughts. “My parents are fond of serving Raki at the beginning of their dinner parties.”

I smiled as I emptied my glass. “I should think that Yeni would pair nicely with charcoal barbecued lamb.”

“Now you sound like my brother. He loves to barbecue on the weekends,“ Dilara paused for effect. “Gregory, do you typically take your Raki, sek?”

Sek is a Turkish word and is taken from the French, ‘sec,’ meaning neat. “Sometimes I will mix a bit of water because Raki can be on the harsh side.”

“In Turkey it is quite popular to mix either water or ice cubes with our Raki,” she said flatly as she mixed our drinks. “First the Raki, then the water, and lastly, our ice. Any other order would simply ruin the drink.”

I flashed Dilara an amused smile. “I see that the coloring is much different than say, Ouzo,” I paused lightly. “By adding water, the color is a milky-white and very similar to the louche of absinthe.”

“Yes, we call this change ‘aslan tutu’ which translates as ‘lion’s milk.’ Our colloquial expression is ‘milk of the strong,’ her tone was matter of fact.

As the sky purpled above us, Dilara and I continued to share stories and enjoy our bottle of Yeni. We also made a list of other well known brands and styles of Raki that can be easily found in the States.

1.  Suma Raki, distilled from raisins.

2.  Incir Bogmasi, produced from figs and quite popular in the south of Turkey.

3.  Tekirdag Rakisi, produced from grapes.

4.  Terkidag Altin Seri (The Golden Series) which is produced only from fresh grapes.

5.  Efe Raki, only produces Raki from fresh grapes.

6.  Yeni, with its distinct flavor due to the use of the artesian waters from the Greek island of Corfu.

“We should also share with our readers, ‘Dip Rakisi.’ (Bottom Raki).”

This is the Raki that remains at the bottom of the tanks during production. Bottom Raki is thought to best capture the dense aroma and flavor of the spirit.

“Yes, we call this Ozel Raki. It translates as Special Raki and is considered so special,  that it is not available commercially,” Dilara openly displayed her pride.

“What do they do with it?”

“Raki distillers reserve it as a prestigious gift for select clients,” Dilara’s voice trailed off as her mood changed to subtle coquetry. “Gregory, the moonlight over the Bosporus is simply irresistible.”

“But that my friends, is another story …

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