In an effort to avoid bloated drink prices one night at a club in Istanbul, I had a memorable early encounter with rakı, Turkey’s beloved anise spirit. I mixed the undiluted liquor into a plastic bottle partway filled with water, the contents instantly turning milky white. The cap managed to slip from my hand, landing on the piss-soaked floor, and I made the executive decision to chug the whole thing right then and there. It went down in a few gulps, and I was quickly hit with a glassy, unsettling buzz.
My friends were horrified when I emerged and told them what I‘d been up to. “You can’t drink rakı like that, you will be sick for sure,” they protested. Yet my 21 year-old iron stomach took it in stride, even as I continued into the night with several pints of Efes draft beer. And while they were concerned, it wasn’t so much for my health but for the sacrilegious way in which I’d slammed back this elegant, honorable beverage.
Rakı is meant to be sipped carefully from a slender, cylindrical glass, topped off with water and ice. Its heady buzz has to be granted ample time to set in, and it is anathema to drink it without friends or at least a few plates of food. A few months after that evening in the club, a friend introduced me to classic Turkish singers like Müzeyyen Senar and Zeki Müren, sublimely melancholy companions to glasses of rakı with a plate of sweet green melon and salty white sheep’s cheese. I was enthralled and demanded he burn me a CD of everything we had listened to that evening. Weeks later I returned to the U.S., a fresh college graduate searching for a job in the thick of an economic crisis. I drank the bottle of rakı I’d brought back with some friends on a cool New Mexico summer evening.
Two years later I was back in Istanbul, where I’ve lived ever since. It didn’t take long for me to become a devotee of the meyhane, which translates to wine house but has come to be centered around rakı. Meyhane culture runs deep in this land and dates back centuries. The bulk of these establishments were once run by non-Muslims, Greeks in particular, few of whom remain in Istanbul today. Their cultural impact, however, is still present in Istanbul drinking culture. On the corner of a street in a run-down area of what once was a thriving Greek neighborhood lies Asır, a wicker-lined basement meyhane run by the adopted son of Niko Taş, an old-school Istanbul Greek meyhaneci who opened up shop in 1948. The customs, traditions, habits and culinary inclinations of Istanbul’s meyhanes have changed and evolved countless times over the years along with the city. But stepping into Asır feels like going back decades in a time machine.
Some meyhanes feature rollicking live bands that play tableside and take requests, but the kind I prefer keep the music low or don’t play any at all. Wine, beer and a selection of spirits are usually available, but I always opt for rakı.
The most exciting aspect of a meyhane is the selection of meze. There are usually dozens available, and the selection can change from day to day. Favorites include atom (fiery peppers bathed in cool yogurt), deniz börülcesi (fresh glasswort with garlic and squeezed lemon), hardallı levrek (morsels of sea bass slathered in mustard sauce) and Girit ezmesi, a rich, creamy paste of white cheeses, crushed nuts and spices. A solid waiter is everything. He or she understands the table, is warm and attentive but never overeager, and is someone you’re on a first name basis with, a friend pouring your drinks and ensuring your night goes well.
In 2016, Istanbul lived through several terror attacks and a dramatically failed military coup. The year was so bad that its impact only settled in two years later, when normalcy to an extent meant a lack of explosions. A popular Turkish toast goes “may our worst days be like this,” a rather tongue-in-cheek gesture that suddenly became wildly appropriate. Being around the rakı table softened the blow of reality. The meyhane is a place of refuge, to unwind and talk things through and remind ourselves of what matters. Political discussions inevitably arise, particularly after a few doubles. The chaos waned after 2016, but the underlying tensions and toxic political atmosphere showed no signs of diminishing. The lira gradually and then rapidly grew weaker and taxes on booze kept increasing. Istanbul’s best meyhanes still remained packed on the weekends.
A rakı table should be no more than six people, otherwise it becomes impossible to communicate without shouting or switching places. And you don’t drink rakı with just anyone. Elderly friends get together at the rakı table, and always remember to toast to beloved members of the group who have passed on. Glasses are clinked while looking one another in the eye, and the glass is then tapped lightly on the table, which depending on who you ask, is to ensure to that the conversation stays at the table, or as a shoutout to dear friends who aren’t there that night.
Many swear by the country’s flagship brand, Yeni Rakı, which is made with raisins. It’s fine, but I really like varieties distilled from fresh green grapes like Tekirdağ or Yeşil Efe, which taste smoother and more alive. There’s also the legendary Kulüp, one of the more expensive bottles, which belies its graceful flavor by packing a punch at a heady 50% ABV and was famously (though mistakenly) thought to have featured the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the country’s second president İsmet İnönü, on the label.
I’ve found it difficult to write about a drink that I’ve developed an intimate connection with over the years. It’s not even my favorite. If pressed I would admit I enjoy Scotch whisky, Fernet, a cold lager, or a decent rosé wine more. Those drinks are certainly less place-specific and not nearly as ritual-oriented. But rakı for me represents growth and change and the glorious, tragic, difficult, infuriating, never-boring eight years I’ve spent in my dear adopted country. At the meyhane, time stands still and for a few hours, everything is fine. May my worst day be like this.