Aug 25, 2013

No good rakı night should end without singing...

Even when I was a kid I was a romantic I guess... I loved watching my favorite actors on the black and white TV screen, sometimes drowning their sorrows in a glass, sometimes celebrating an occasion, but every time sitting around a small table with their best friends, listening to music and always with a bottle of rakı. As they were getting drunk I watched them forgetting their problems for a night only, getting merrier, filling each other’s glasses with an instinctual choreography learned and perfected in years, and singing together.

Ilyas Salman and Şener Şen in a scene from "Çiçek Abbas" (1982)
All the people I admired drank rakı. Not only my favorite actors, musicians I adored, my favorite poets, our Armenian grocer on the street Elvan, my buddy’s big brother and his friends, the founder of our country Atatürk, my father and of course my grandfather. I simply couldn’t wait to get older and go out with my friends, sit down in a meyhane (restaurant which serves rakı), order a bottle of rakı with beautiful mezes (special tapas to accompany rakı) on the table and spend the entire night singing our favorite tunes together. I believed that no good rakı night should end without singing…

crew party after the last show of the Istanbul Theatre Festival
at Ataturk Cultural Center (mid 90's)

Then it all started to be real during my high school years. My school was in Beyoğlu, an old multi-cultural neighborhood famous for its meyhanes, bars and nightclubs and most importantly for its diverse population. And I started to fool around at night with my friends, discovering our own Istanbul. We were not in a romantic movie anymore—it was the real deal. Throughout the years I shared my table with directors, drug dealers, street musicians, workers, soldiers, fishermen and prostitutes. Every night I witnessed the wonder of this milky, heavenly smelling spirit bringing people together sometimes to laugh, sometimes to cry, most of the time to argue about politics and soccer and of course always to sing-along.

Aliye Meyhane, Cihangir - Istanbul
Almost every nation on the coast of the Mediterranean has their own anise-flavored spirit: pastis, absinthe, chinchon, sambuca, ouzo, arak and many more. But the word rakı is derived from Arabic arak, which actually means “sweat”, referring to the condensation process of the distillation. Basically, rakı is a distilled grape spirit flavored with anise seeds. There are many different styles of rakı, depending on mash bill, flavoring ingredients and the geography they are produced in, but Turkish rakı has some distinct characteristics and is also nowadays protected by law to keep its consistency and quality. Traditional Turkish rakı starts with making the mayşe (mash). Mayşe is made from either raisins or fresh grapes harvested pretty late to have a higher sugar ratio. If fresh grapes are used they are pressed, if raisins are used they are chopped to break their skin, mixed with water and left to ferment.

After the fermentation mayşe which contains 8-9% alcohol is fed to the first distillation column to produce suma which contains no more than 95.5% abv. If the rakı being produced is not a single varietal rakı, at this level raisin suma and fresh grape suma can be mixed in any proportion. Also agricultural ethyl alcohol can be added at this step, but not exceeding 35% of the suma by law. Adding ethyl alcohol was a practice brought into the process during WWII years purely to bring the cost down but has remained in the recipe since then.

lunch stop on our way to Balıklı, Çamlıhemşin - Rize
To the mixture suma and ethyl alcohol anise is added, diluted with water not lower than 45% abv., fed into 5,000 liter or smaller copper stills and distilled for a second time. After the master distiller takes the hearts he wants from the distilled spirit, it is diluted with water and sent to rest in stainless steel tanks, or for some rare expressions in giant oak barrels, for three to four months before it gets bottled. Then you add some water, its color turns milky white and then top it with ice.

And the table…

Ortan Village, Çamlıhemşin - Rize
In spite of rakı usually having an abv. of 43% - 50%, it is consumed when dining. The dinners are long in Turkey. Usually your first glass of rakı is accompanied by feta cheese and a few slices of melon like an aperitif. That’s when you sip and wait for the rest of your gang to arrive at the meyhane. When everybody is present and has their first glass in front of them, the first “Serefe!” (pronounced “sherefay” “cheers” in Turkish, which means, literally, “To Honor!”) brings the glasses clinking together. You have to remember that it is the custom that a rakı glass never stays empty, somebody at the table will be filling your glass without even asking you. Adjusting your pace without getting drunk in the middle of the night is a practice learned in years. Don’t get discouraged if you fail for the first few nights since you will.

Ada Keyf Meyhanesi, Burgazada - Istanbul
Around when you start with your second glass cold mezes start to arrive showing all the varieties from former Ottoman Empire territories: various fish dried and brined, tarama (fish roe salad), fava bean puree, Circassian chicken (shredded chicken breast with garlic and walnuts), hummus, pilaki (white beans cooked in olive oil), haydari (yogurt with garlic, mint, dill, parsley, etc.), topic (Armenian chickpea mash), stuffed grape leaves, fried eggplant and zucchini slices with garlic tomato sauce and more. After spending a good amount of time with these, it’s time to have your warm mezes such as fried calamari, fried liver cubes, grilled octopus, pastries stuffed with cheese and meat, meatballs, stuffed mussels, etc.

If you still have space in your stomach after the warm mezes, it will be a good time to order your fish, simply char-grilled to perfection and served with a half of a lemon and rocket leaves. The night ends with fresh fruit and Turkish coffee. I have to admit I think this scene by itself can be easily the sole reason for me to fly all the way back to Istanbul every year…

lunch stop on our way to Balıklı, Çamlıhemşin - Rize
After I moved to the States I never had difficulty finding rakı. It is sold almost in every big liquor store and, especially after the biggest producer in Turkey Mey was bought by Diageo, I can even find not-so-common expressions around. What I cannot find is the table covered with a starched tablecloth countless mezes on top and surrounded with friends. I miss people stopping by to say hi, sitting at your table randomly to sip a little rakı from your glass, other customers from the table next to yours offering to swap some mezes, street musicians playing your favorite tunes next to your table so you can sing your lungs out totally out of tune with your glass in your hand. This summer even when we hiked to a crater lake in Çamlıhemşin, close to the Georgian border of Turkey, we ended up carrying three bottles of rakı with a pretty good selection of mezes all the way to 6000 ft. just to have a decent meal. Where else can you share your brilliant plans to save the economy or to improve the foreign affairs of the country and convince your buddies how you could manage your favorite soccer team a hundred times better than the current coach? Everything is appropriate around that table: no judgments, no shame, no down looks by anybody…


[edited by Teresa Hartmann]

*Originally written for and posted at The Alcohol Professor on August 18th, 2013.