Rakı and everything you need to know about the culture of rakı

Rakı is an alcoholic drink that is made from grapes, apples, plum, or fig and contains anise. It is known for having a high alcohol percentage which is 40%. It is quite bitter when consumed dry, that is why it is mostly preferred by adding water and with different beverages next to it.

Besides, rakı represents a culture. It is quite famous in Turkey and a part of Turkish culture. There are unwritten rules about rakı, and if you are drinking rakı with those who respect unwritten rakı rules, you must fit those rules as well as a sign of respect.

Etymology, origin, and history of rakı

There are different theories about rakı’s etymology. One of them is that the word rakı comes from the name of a specific kind of grape that is rakı made from. The grape’s name is “Razaki” and it is characterized by having a thick outside shell and being coarse. It has been said that rakı was a drink that contains anise and is made with razaki grape. Since the words razaki and rakı are similar, it is thought that rakı is originated from that grape type, and this theory supports that rakı is rooted in Turkey.

Another theory about rakı’s etymology and origin is that rakı was invented by Turkmen living in Iraq. It is said that from Iraq, rakı was spread all around the world and everyone was referring to this drink as “Iraki”, which means “from Iraq”. Like razaki, Iraki is pretty similar to the word rakı. But there is evidence to refute this claim.

There is one more theory about the etymology of rakı that explains the word rakı comes from the Arabic word “arak” which means sweated or sweatdrop or distilled. This is considered as a kind of metaphor about the way that rakı is exposing to distillation in the making process. This word was existing in the 16th century, which is long before Iraq was legally a governmental being.

The origins of today’s rakı may be rooted in a drink that was invented by Sicilians in B.C 9th century. This drink, called tutone, was made by adding anise to alcohol. There is evidence that this drink was produced in the old inscriptions of B.C 1000 in Sicilia. To be more specific, the drink was called “zammu” in those inscriptions, and when added alcohol, it would be called “zambur”. This explains why the drink with anise is called sambuca in Italy today.

There is no precise evidence about when and where rakı was invented exactly. Yet, it is accepted as a fact that it was first invented in the Ottoman empire, in most of the world and most of the sources confirm this information. Hence rakı is known to be belonging to Turkey all around the world. Also, the oldest rakı production records were found in Anatolia, Trabzon, in the 15th century.

In the 19th century, rakı was loved and popular among non-Muslim individuals. It was commonly consumed in taverns, which were forbidden to run by Muslims. Today, all around the world, rakı is known as Turkish rakı and Turkey is number one in rakı exportation to other countries. Some say that the reason why rakı is most popular in Turkey is due to the rakı culture that is adopted and loved. It is not easy to create this kind of culture in any place.

In history, some occasions have a place for rakı. For example, in the year 1326, the second Ottoman padishah Orhan Bey (bey refers to Mr. in Turkish) gives rakı as a gift for a soldier who helped him during conquer. According to the records, the first specially produced rakı was made by the finance minister of a sultan. The year 1880 is known as the year when industrial production of rakı was legally allowed in the Ottoman empire. The first registered brand of rakı emerged again this year, in 1880.

Rakı in Turkish cuisine

As an important part of Turkish cuisine, rakı is consumed with many appetizers, soft drinks, and dishes. But besides, the most important component of rakı is a pleasant, cozy chat environment with your family, husband or wife, friends, or other loved ones. It has been said that the one and only appetizer in rakı table that cannot be separable from it is a nice conversation. In some regions of Turkey, rakı is referred to as “lion’s milk”, due to the marketing style in which rakı was selling in a bottle that has a lion on it. 

Rakı is typically consumed in a special rakı glass, which is actually a lemonade glass. But that glass is no longer known as lemonade glass, it has been integrated with rakı. In the past, rakı was drunk straight from the glass, without any other liquids in it, and then a sip of water was drunk on it. Even though this drinking style is still present nowadays, it is also preferred to mix rakı with water in the glass, and then drink turnip within another glass. Also, mineral water is preferred to consume with rakı.

Rakı must be drunk cold, otherwise, it will not taste good. That is why it is mostly drunk with a couple of ice cubes in the glass. It is very important to put water, rakı, and ice cubes in a specific order. You need to put rakı first, and then water, lastly, ice cubes. If you choose any other way to put those ingredients, the taste of the rakı will be disturbed. Also, rakı must be drunk with various appetizers and optionally with a dish, especially with fish or kebab.

Besides food-related features, rakı also represents a culture and there are some unwritten rules to fit in a rakı table which will be explained further. As an example, rakı should not be drunk in order to get intoxicated. You should drink it to enjoy being with loved ones and drink it consciously. Additionally, you must not drink rakı because you are upset about something and want to get distracted with alcohol for the same reason. Rakı table should be a nice, familiar, and safe environment that you can enjoy without any annoyances.

In Turkish culture, rakı is typically drunk after the sun goes down. There are lots of poems about when rakı must be drunk. It has been said that rakı should be drunk after the sun goes down in order to throw off the weight of the day and relax. Drinking rakı in different seasons has its own uniqueness. In a cold winter with your boyfriend or girlfriend in a restaurant or a tavern, in the summertime by the sea or, in fall on your home as you watch the leaves fall down, in spring as you enjoy the sun that does not burn your skin down.

Rakı is also a piece of important occasions. In celebrations and weddings, you may witness some people are drinking rakı. But it is not preferred in an exaggerated environment in which you can not sit down and enjoy, such as clubs or discos. You can find and drink rakı in taverns, they can be found basically in every city of Turkey. Keep in mind that taverns are not eating, you should go there full. There will not be any food services except for appetizers, and it is not a nice behavior to feed your stomach with appetizers.

In restaurants, you can also drink rakı. Besides restaurants that serve you rakı, there are restaurants in which you can bring your own rakı and they will prepare everything for you, just to not pay more. Even though restaurants are not as popular as taverns to drink rakı, it is still an option if you want to eat dinner with rakı. Fish- rakı duo is a popular preference in Turkey. It has been said that rakı goes best with fish as a dish. Bream fish is one of the most preferred fishes to consume with rakı.

Rakı could be a part of picnics in nature. You can buy your appetizers, or you can make them on your own, and go to a green field with a nice view and that is all you will need. Be careful about not driving after you drink. There are festivals in Turkey that are dedicated to rakı. For example, in the Adana region, the rakı festival is an annual activity that contains long, crowded rakı tables in which there are lots of appetizers. It is a great festival to experience rakı culture.

Rakı measurement units

There are specific names for specific rakı portions that you need to learn before going out to drink rakı. These are mostly known by regular rakı drinkers and knowing those slang may enhance your statue on the table. Before explaining them, you should know that “tek” ( “single” in Turkish) refers to one portion of rakı, which is approximately 40 milliliters. And “duble” (“double” in Turkish) means a double of single, which is 80 milliliters.

The first of them is called “gözyaşı” (which means teardrop in Turkish). It refers to approximately 10 milliliters of rakı. You need to drink that amount if you will leave the table earlier than everyone else. The other one is known as “kapak” (which means cover in Turkish). After a long-spent time at the rakı table, everyone should drink kapak, which is equivalent to 20 milliliters. After that, everyone can leave the rakı table. 

Kaymakam tek, (means district governor single) refers to 75% of the regular tek (single). It is usually served to those who do not know the manners of drinking rakı properly. They are hearsays about why they named it after district governor, that states how district governors need to leave the table earlier so that they drink less. Denk, (means equivalent in Turkish) is a little bit more than single but less than a double, which is around 50 milliliters. If you want to drink a double but you cannot because of your surroundings, (maybe your parents or your girlfriend’s parents are there) you should prefer denk. 

Pavyon (means pavilion in Turkish) is another unit that represents a little bit more than a single but still less than a double, and it is around 60 milliliters. It is just a funny reference to pavilions in which when you ask for a double, they will never send you 80 milliliters. Kız (which means “girl” in Turkish) double refers to approximately 70 milliliters, it is about a belief that girls cannot drink as much as boys and they should have a smaller amount of double.

Komiser (police officer in Turkish) double is around 90 milliliters, which is more than a regular double. Azman (means monstrous in Turkish) refers to approximately 100 milliliters. If you are not used to drinking rakı, azman and above is not recommended for you. Tren (which means “train” in Turkish) double is equivalent to 110 milliliters. And if you are going to drink tren double or a higher amount, it is recommended to drink it at home. 

Domuz sıkısı (domuz means pig and sıkı means tight in Turkish, there is no exact translation of this, unfortunately) is 120 milliliters. Keşan (it is a region in Edirne) double is equivalent of 130 milliliters. İpsala (another region in Edirne) double is the equivalent of 140 milliliters. The reason why there are two measuring units named after a region in Edirne is that Edirne is known for its dedication to rakı and people from Edirne basically adores rakı.

The last measuring unit of rakı is called buz payı (which means ice share in Turkish). It means to a unit that you just need to leave a blank for ice, and all other regions of the glass can be filled with rakı. If you are not used to drinking rakı this unit is not recommended for you. Again, do not forget to have someone who will not be drinking with you to drive if you are drinking outside.

Appetizers that can be eaten with rakı

There are lots of options when it comes to appetizers next to rakı. But do not worry, restaurants and taverns will serve you more than you need. Also, you can easily make those appetizers by yourself, too. Appetizers are very important for rakı, as I mentioned before, there is a proper way to drink rakı, and not getting drunk is a significant rule to keep in mind. Appetizers help you to slow down as you drink rakı. Appetizers also a big piece of rakı culture, there cannot be a rakı table without any appetizers.

Vegan appetizers for rakı table

A rakı table without a haydari is unimaginable. It is made with strained yogurt, feta cheese, some greens, garlic, and butter. You can eat it with bread or plain. It is also served with walnuts on top. Additionally, hummus is typically part of a rakı table without any doubts. It is made with tahini, chickpeas, garlic, and lemon water which makes it accessible to the vegans at the table. You can also consume hummus with or without bread.

Another vegan-friendly appetizer that is an important part of the rakı table is baba ghanoush. It is prepared with eggplants, tahini, olive oil, seasoning, and lemon juice. It is not preferred to eat without bread typically, but there are individuals who also prefer eating baba ghanoush plain. It is also preferred with toasted bread.

If you enjoy spicy food, then spicy ezme (which means paste in Turkish) is the right option for you. It is made with different kinds of peppers and pepper powders, tomatoes, olive oil, and pomegranate syrup. It is mostly preferred cold, so it is recommended to put it in the refrigerator after you make or buy it from the store. Taking a piece of spicy ezme to your mouth after you have just sipped your rakı is quite a good experience.

Seafood appetizers for rakı table

Sea beans with olive oil is another delicious appetizer. It is most popular in a city in the Aegean region, İzmir. In addition to sea beans and olive oil, this appetizer consists of cloves of garlic, white grape vinegar, pomegranate syrup, and red pepper powder. Spicy tomato salads are another appetizer that is inseparable from the rakı table. It has lots of sumac, tomatoes, spicy red pepper powder, and parsley in it.

In the Black Sea region in which people can add fish to basically everything, rakı appetizers are also contained fish. Fish balls are the most popular appetizer for a rakı table in the Black Sea region. It can be made from a fish of your choice, but make sure that all of the fishbones are removed before making it and the freshness of the fish. You need to cook the fish balls that were dipped in breadcrumbs in the oven. After they cook, you can enjoy your little crispy fish bites.

Stuffed mussels are another appetizer that is most popular in the Aegean and Marmara region to consume with rakı, especially in İzmir, Bodrum, and İstanbul. It is prepared with rice filling and various spices inside of a mussel. You can find stuffed mussels in specific restaurants, on the street or you can even make it yourself at home, but it is commonly known as street food. It is not suitable for all kinds of individual tastes; it is not recommended if you do not like seafood.

Other appetizers for rakı table

Another option is, even though it is not classified as an appetizer, is the legendary trilogy of melon, feta cheese, and rakı. It is probably the most preferred trio if you are enjoying your rakı at home with some close friends, and do not have anyone to prepare you those delicious appetizers. Since melon is a summer fruit, when you mention rakı-feta cheese- melon trio to a Turkish person, they would most probably imagine it on a balcony or in a summerhouse. It is the best combination to enjoy in the summertime, at sunset by the sea.

Also, you can utilize the stale pieces of bread in your home when making appetizers for the rakı table. Tarator is an appetizer that contains stale bread pieces in it, yet you will be amazed at how tasty it is. So do not let stale bread pieces scare you. It also contains walnuts, strained yogurt, olive oil, and greens. Another appetizer to utilize stale pieces of bread is muhammara. Different from tarator, it contains different tomatoes and pepper pastes, and pepper powders, which could be possibly spicy according to your preference.

All the appetizers to enjoy with rakı are both extremely healthy and delicious. You can find those and so many other appetizers in a tavern or a restaurant. Do not get surprised by the number of appetizers they serve you. It is a part of the rakı culture, and if you want to experience rakı fully you should be having plenty of rakı appetizers at your table.

Boğma rakı

Boğma rakı is a type of rakı that is particularly popular in the south zone of Turkey. It is not legally sold, but there are no strict legal sanctions about producing and consuming boğma rakı at home. It is generally made with fig, in comparison to regular rakı which is usually made with grapes. Adding anise to boğma rakı is optional. It is known to be more bitter than regular rakı because it typically does not include anise in it. Yet it seems like boğma rakı culture is disappearing day by day since it is not selling anywhere, and it is not easy to make it at home.

Unwritten rules about rakı table

As I mentioned before, rakı culture is taken very seriously by some people. There are manners to follow while drink rakı. There are some of the rules that you should be careful about if you are attending a rakı table meeting:

  • You should not cry at the rakı table.
  • If you are a woman, you should wipe your lipstick before drinking rakı.
  • You should not be swearing.
  • Music should not be loud.
  • You should not go to the toilet too often.
  • You should not talk too loudly.
  • You should not be drinking any other alcoholic drinks than rakı.
  • Rakı table should be a maximum of 5 people.
  • You should not be drinking rakı dry.
  • You should not be taking large sips.
  • You should not be toasting your glasses frequently.
  • You should ask for permission before leaving the toilet.
  • You should not be late or go early to the rakı table.
  • You should not be staring at any other table.
  • Couples should not be kissing or cuddling at the rakı table.

Of course, those rules are unwritten, and no one will charge you or call out you for not fitting into those rules. It is just an act of respect and will help you to experience rakı culture fully.

How is rakı made?

Rakı is made from anise and some fruits (grapes, plum, apple, or fig, but the grape is the most popular one to make rakı). Anise is used to make rakı a little bit sweeter. First of all, grapes’ juices must be squeezed out to separate them from the pulp. The sugar in the pulp must be transferred to alcohol during the fermentation process. Distilled with a retort, those alcoholic liquid is turned into “suma”, which is liquor. Lastly, rakı is formed as a result of distilled with anise seeds. Before the raki is bottled, it should rest for at least a month. And the type of anise used in the making of rakı must be green anise. If you want to use agricultural rooted alcohol, the percentage of it cannot be more than 35%. The rest 65% must be suma. Since you cannot find grape in every season of the year, sometimes dried grape has used the making of the rakı.

Different rakı types around the world

Even though rakı is special to Turkey, there are alcoholic drinks all around the world that are similar to Turkish rakı. Turkish rakı is different from each of them, especially with the culture it carries within.

In Macedonia, a type of rakı is called “mastika” and it is made without anise. It has yellow and white mastikas. Yellow mastika, which gets its color from the oak barrel, is especially popular among Turkish people in Macedonia. In Albania, Macedonian mastika is also popular but mostly the white one is preferred. In Portugal, France, and Spain the rakı-like drinks are called “anis” or “pastis”. In Italy, it is called “sambuca” which is “düziko” in the Slavic language.

Rakı-like drink in Greece is called “uzo” and it is different from Turkish rakı by having less anise and more alcohol. Resin flavored uzo is named “mastika”, just like the Macedonian rakı-like drink. In Bulgaria, rakı-like drinks are known for their intoxicating features. They are sweeter than Turkish rakı. There are different fruit-flavored rakıs in Bulgaria.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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