Raki, an anise-flavored liquor made out of grapes, is the alcoholic drink of choice in Turkey. Look around any meyhane during its busiest hour and, in addition to small plates of meze and fish being consumed by a rambunctious crowd, you'll see the distinctive cylindrical glasses filled with a white, chalky liquid. Sometimes referred to as "lion's milk" due to this distinctive hue, raki has a long and storied tradition in Turkey.
Although the flavor of raki might remind a visitor of various other liquors from around the world—Greek ouzo, French absinthe, and Italian grappa, to name a few—the drink is distinctly Turkish. While the origins of raki are unclear, its place in Turkish culture spans hundreds of years. And, fittingly for its important role in Turkish cuisine, there are certain customs observed when drinking raki.
Here are the bare bones of what you need to know: raki is drunk to accompany a meal with friends, never alone. It's a clear liquid, but obtains its distinctive milky color when mixed with water, which will always be the case: raki is not meant to be drunk on its own. And, as you'll see, the drink should be sipped slowly and enjoyed with good food and plentiful conversation—never hastily chugged.
If you find yourself at a traditional Turkish dinner, here are five pointers to keep in mind:
1. Order for the whole table. Unlike wine or beer, it is customary to order a bottle for the entire table rather than a single glass for yourself. When the bottle arrives, try at least a glass before switching to beer or wine if you must. It's an essential part of the Turkish meal, and—because most locals understand it's an acquired taste—your partaking of this tradition will be much appreciated among your fellow diners.
2. Drink your raki with cold water and a few ice cubes. The bottle of raki will always be brought to the table with a bucket of ice. Raki will be poured about halfway into each glass, and then topped off with cold mineral water and (sometimes) a cube or two of ice. You may adjust the strength of your drink by increasing or decreasing the amount of water poured into the glass. Some raki aficionados will advise against adding ice cubes, but for first time drinkers, the ice takes the edge off and makes a refreshing addition, particularly in hotter weather.
3. When toasting, clink the bottoms of the glasses together rather than the top. And the word for "cheers?" Şerefe, pronounced SHAIR-uh-fay. After toasting, make sure you take a sip from your glass before setting it back down on the table.
4. Sip slowly. Because it's meant to be drunk in the company of others over a long meal, raki can be particularly devious in that its effects may sneak up on you—often only when you stand up, as many people will tell you. The added water and ice cubes may coax your palate into forgetting that raki actually packs a mighty punch: at 40-50% alcohol, it's best to savor a small glass over a long while. After all, you should be busy talking and eating in addition to drinking!
5. Chase your raki. You'll notice that raki is never meant to be drunk by itself; you won't, for example, sit down with a glass of raki as you might with a solo glass of wine in the evening. First and foremost, raki is paired with cold meze, a spread of assorted appetizers to begin a meal; more specifically, however, you'll often drink the stuff while eating a few slices of sweet melon and a wedge of salty beyaz peynir (white cheese). Second, many people will keep a glass of water next to their raki glass. Feel free to sip the water in conjunction with your raki—your head will thank you the next morning! And last, should you ever encounter a glass filled with a startlingly bright red liquid, it's pickled carrot juice called şalgam: it's never mixed with raki, but meant as a chaser.
The various rules of etiquette may seem overwhelming at first, but keep in mind that—at the end of the day—raki is a drink meant for celebrations, greetings, gatherings and partings. Relax, enjoy, and have fun. Şerefe!