Rakı is a traditional spirit which is unique to Turkey and this region. It has not been precisely documented where and by whom rakı was first produced. Yet, it is widely accepted that rakı was first produced in Ottoman lands. The existence of a spirit similar to rakı was discovered in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Turks learned to make rakı in the 11th century and it was brought to Anatolia and Rumelia mostly by the people of Bektashi origin.
The story of rakı in Anatolia dates back to 300 years ago. The term rakı was used by the Greeks under the Ottoman rule and the word comes from Turkish, so much so that, in a Greek encyclopedia, the inventor of ouzo, the traditional Greek spirit, was mentioned as an Ottoman doctor named Kirios Stavrakis. The most common and perhaps the main alcoholic beverage in the Byzantine period was various types of wines. It is mentioned in Byzantine sources that bread and wine are the two main elements of nutrition. It is known that in some monasteries wine is included with breakfast, monks have daily wine rations and lack of wine is considered a kind of punishment or part of fasting on certain days.
Although viticulture and winemaking were common in Constantinople, especially around the monasteries, most of the wine supply for urban consumption was brought in large quantities from Thasos, Crete and Chios. Some monasteries, such as those located on Büyükada and Heybeliada, were famous for their special wines. In the shops of Kapelos, there were special sections named “Orgasterion”, in which wine was sold by retail in the city and food service was also provided with wine. Apart from these, the caravanserais called “Leskhe” also had taverns and they even had sections operated as taverns with music halls.
It is known that the main type of drink in the Byzantine palace was wine, some of which was prepared with aromatic herbs similar to the present-day vermouth. On the other hand, fruit wines were made by fermenting fruits such as apricots, plums, dates and figs, in addition to grapes. In the days when the Ottoman armies besieged Istanbul, shabby taverns were established at the bottom of the city walls in order to keep the Byzantine soldiers fit and increase their courage. In addition, during the siege, Genoese boats carried wine from the Greek islands to Istanbul. In short, during the Byzantine period Istanbul was famous for its taverns, especially in the Galata region.
Various sources state that there had been taverns in Istanbul since the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror and that they remained from the Byzantine period. Some of these sources write that at that time, Istanbul taverns were world-famous. During the Ottoman period, the first drink that comes to mind when it comes to alcohol was wine, but rakı started to dominate with each passing day.
According to the Travel Book of Evliya Çelebi, rakı producers were called “Arakçıyan Tradesmen” and they produced products such as banana rakı, hardaliye (a local soft drink around Kırklareli, made from ripe grapes), rakı and pomegranate rakı. The word araki means sweating, and the word rakı is derived from the word araki according to one view. Some sources also claimed that the aniseed spirit made from razaki – a coarse, oval-shaped, thick-skinned grape – therefore might be associated with the origin of the word rakı.
Although it was banned from time to time during the history of the Ottoman Empire, with the start of the Reformation period in 1826-1839, then the declaration of the Constitutional Monarchy in 1839, gradually relaxing prohibitions and an increased atmosphere of tolerance, led to an increase in the production and consumption of rakı and other alcoholic beverages.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, more precisely with the Tanzimat period, great changes began to occur in the social aspects of life. Saricazade Ragıp Pasha, Chief Secretary and Finance Minister of Sultan Abdülhamid, established Umurca Farm on the road to Tekirdağ in the 1880s and then established Umurca Rakı Factory on this farm in the days when westernization was felt intensely and vivid transformation was taking place. Rakı was a spirit enjoyed by the non-Muslim community and, as it was forbidden for Muslims to own businesses such as taverns, rakı was consumed in taverns run by non-Muslim people.
Details about the production techniques of rakı using aniseed in the ancient times are difficult to find. In addition, there is little information available about producers and production facilities.
The purchase and sale of all alcoholic beverages was prohibited by the government for six years between 1920-1926.
During the course of industrialization and modern economic regulations, the production of rakı, which had been produced in the past with lack of adequate know-how, hence posing a potential threat to one’s health, was monopolized by the state with the law article number 790, effective as of 01.06.1926. Thanks to the state monopoly’s investment and industrial facilities, rakı production was standardized and as a result rakı gained its current day qualities. In 1930 Gaziantep Rakı Distillery, then a year later İnhisarlar, namely Tekel, and following them, other rakı distilleries in Diyarbakır, Tekirdağ and Nevşehir were established.
For the production of rakı under more favorable conditions, Müskirat İnhisars established a rakı production facility, first in Mersin and then in Adana. Sales stopped when people consumed more Inhisars’ rakı. Because of this, the other small businesses were closed in 1935. Starting in 1944, rakı production was completely under the state monopoly. The private sector started producing rakı again in 2004.
Today, rakı is exported to dozens of countries, especially to Germany, the United States and China. The high level of consumption of rakı in Turkish territory for centuries, has of course led rakı in Turkey to become identical with the cultural geography.
Rakı is mentioned in almost all reference publications as a Turkish spirit. Rakı achieved its flavor, characteristics and standardized production techniques during the Ottoman period and of course over time, with the help of the passion/enthusiasm of the people living in the territory of Turkey. The features of today’s rakı are not found in other spirits in the world. The Greek spirit “ouzo”, the Middle Eastern spirit arak and the Balkans spirit rakija (rakı) are quite different spirits than rakı. There is no requirement or restriction about using grape alcohol in ouzo production. The anise of ouzo can be obtained from Pimpinella Anisum or Star Anise and the aromatic properties of both types of anise are very different from each other. There is no limitation or restriction in terms of botanical plants or seeds that can be used in ouzo for its flavour.
It is estimated that arak spirit was developed by Jewish and Christian minorities in the Middle East. Although there is a resemblance in terms of the raw materials used for arak and its distillation techniques, there is no exact similarity with rakı. On the other hand, the Balkan spirit rakija is a low-purity distilled spirit with a heavy odor which does not contain anise. Due to its name, it has a phonetic similarity but it is definitely not related to rakı. Moreover, it is not well-known in other markets of the world. Although the Greek spirit “tsipouro (çipuro)” is similar to rakı because of the grapes used for its production, it does not taste like rakı because it does not contain anise.