The quintessential drink of the Turks is served in a tall glass, and with the addition of water it turns into a milky white beauty. Rakı is never drank on its own; it is served alongside a table adorned with a wide array of meze or fish. The occasions and traditions to drink Rakı are many. The Greek claim have invented the drink and call it Ouzo. Let’s have a look at where it comes from.
What is Raki?
Rakı is an alcoholic drink made of twice-distilled grapes and aniseed, often sweetened. It is served with equal parts water and has 40-50 percent alcohol by volume.
Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol in the Ottoman Empire was quite prevalent. While it may not be synonymous with the empire due to its Islamic nature, one should not forget that many cultures lived together under the sultanate. To be perfectly honest: they were only humans. There were prohibitions (but not the American kind!) aimed at preventing Muslims from drinking, especially during the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. However, there was almost no regulation regarding the outright prohibition of alcohol; most restrictions instead focused on limiting drinking in public. (1)
The earliest mention of rakı comes from the second Ottoman sultan, Orhan Bey, in 1326, when he gifted wine and rakı to those who had helped him conquer what is today the western province of Bursa. This means that the lion’s milk must have been around even before that time. (2)
The earliest recorded production of rakı and its sale is from the 15th century, in the northeastern province of Trabzon. (3) A law from 1520 refers to this production on the shore of the Black Sea. (4)
About a century later, the word rakı was mentioned in the works of the poet Fuzuli, especially in his work “Beng ü Bade.” A few decades later, a Spaniard was captured by the Ottomans and had his first taste of rakı, calling it “raqui” in his writing “Viaje de Turquia” (Turkey Trip). (2)
Around that time, the first semblance of prohibition came into place, when Bayezid II decreed to the judge of Bursa that Muslims should not drink openly at weddings or other celebrations. Additionally, Christians were banned from opening taverns in Muslim neighborhoods or selling their drinking wares to Muslims. (1)
In Evliya Çelebi’s 17th century “Seyahatname”, an expansive travelogue, he wrote to a great extent about rakı during his time in Istanbul. Thanks to his detailed account, we know today that there had been 100 rakı distilleries and 300 taverns where rakı was sold.
Each Ottoman sultan took a different approach to the consumption of alcohol over the ages. Some did not touch one drop, while others were notorious drinkers. One banquet held by Selim Paşa in 1856 was especially noteworthy in that regard. According to one of the guests, Alexis Soyer, rakı and wine were served before the meal and during the meal wine was also served. (1)
In the 1880s the Ottoman empire allowed the industrial production of rakı, paving the way for the Umurca Rakısı to open in the western province of Tekirdağ, the first registered brand of rakı.
During the economic struggles of World War II, the Turkish Republic took the rights to distill rakı from the private sector as a means of increasing the income of the treasury. In the same year this policy was put into action, 1944, as the symbol of the monopoly era, Yeni Rakı was released to the market. In 2004, the monopoly of distilling rakı finally ended, allowing the private sector to once again produce the drink. The government’s alcoholic beverage department was purchased by the company Mey.
The word rakı is said to come from the Arabic word “arak,” meaning distilled, with variations including araka, araki and ariki. Some other theories have been thrown around, one being that rakı was made by the “razaki” grapes, which is likely a misguided theory, as rakı can be made from any kind of grape. (5)
In Greece, rakı shared the same name, but the origins of Ouzo have been the cause of increasing discussion in recent years. When the drink was exported from Greece during the 19th century to other countries, it was stamped with its destination, for example “uso Massalia” meaning “for use in Marseille.” Workers on the docks, one theory states, started to call the drink “uso,” a name which eventually stuck and ultimately made its way back to Greece. (5)
Bibliography(1) Priscilla Mary Işın, “Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine”, 2018
(2) Ayşegül Özbek, “Anadolu’nun 500 Yıllık Geleneği: Rakı” citing
"Rakı Kitabı" - Erdir Zat, 2013
"Rakı Ansiklopedisi" - Kolektif, 2011
(3) A.M. Zehiroğlu, “Trabzon İmparatorluğu”, 2018
(4) Trabzon Livası Kanunnamesi (H.926) m.16
(5) Deniz Gürsoy, “Tarihin süzgecinde mutfak kültürümüz”, 2013