Rakı, or arrack, is an alcoholic beverage drunk south of the Alps, in countries of the Middle East and North Africa – that is to say, in those countries on the periphery of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the latest addition to the mutual components of wine, bread, and olive in the Mediterranean culture.
Arrack and its etymological variants, araki, ariki, and raki, which clearly derive from the same root – may be defined as an alcoholic beverage that has been distilled and flavored with anise or mastic. One possibility is that this drink may have taken this name by virtue of the fact that it had been produced in Iraq and spread from there. However, this possibility seems quite unlikely as Iraq did not exist as a country in the 16th century when the Ottomans named this drink arak. Another supposition is that this drink received its name from the fact that it was produced from a variety of white grape called razaki. This, however is unfounded because raki may be made from any kind of grape, for example, muscat grapes. Another hypothesis is that it derives from the Arabic word araq, whose meaning is ‘perspiration.’ This seems likely due to its method of manufacture and the production of the drink drop by drop by the still. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that the different liquors produced from various plants that is distilled in Eastern India, Malaysia, Ceylan, and Iran are also called arrack.
When the Arabs conquered Sicily in the ninth century A.D., they had pressed grapes and distilled the must to produce alcohol to light their lamps and to disinfect wounds received in battle. Sicilians made a liquor produced by adding anise to alcohol which they called tutone, which is the predecessor of the modern raki. When the Moors landed in Sicily in the year 1000, they encountered the existence of a non-alcoholic beverage called zammu, but was called zambur when alcohol was added to it. In Italy today this distilled anise-flavored drink is called sambuca.
The exact date when the Ottomans made their acquaintance with raki is unknown. A decree issued by Selim II through the kadı of İstanbul in 1573, however makes it clear that this liquor was being consumed at that time in the capital, thus:
It is my command that on the proclamation of this decree, the Jewish and Christian communities and the gatekeepers of the city of Istanbul shall thereby be admonished and once again cautioned not to allow entrance to open casks and barrels and skins of wine and raki and not to sell to the Muslims what is brought in secretly at night for consumption by the Jews and Christians.
Aşık Kerem, a 16th-century folk poet also mentions raki in one of his poem:
Drink raki to be happy
Speak with the donkey to befriend
One who utters couple of words becomes a master He dislikes the poems in front of the absolute
Evliya Çelebi, mentioned a “wine” in İzmir that was known by the name “lion’s milk.” He describes a wine that was primarily available at a monastery on the island of Chios and although it is said to be non-intoxicating, he fails to indicate its actual name. He provides a somewhat exaggerated figure for the number of raki distilleries in operation in İstanbul. Based on his findings, the raki varieties at the time were more than the liquor varieties. Banana raki, grape&mustard raki, pomegranate raki, hay raki, cinnamon raki, clove raki, linden raki, and finally anise raki.
In 1655, on his return from his tour of the Ottoman territories by way of İzmir and Chios
Jean de Thévenot reports that on the island the trunks of the mastic trees were pierced in the months of August and September and that the mastic flowed over the ground and that when this raw mastic became a solid slab it was collected and dried in the sun. He notes that a portion of this was used for pharmaceutical preparations, a little was chewed and that it was used in cooking; but what is important from our perspective is his mention that mastic was “employed locally in the manufacture of a kind of liquor.” In all likelihood this kind of liquor” was raki.
According to the findings of Robert Mantran, raki made with the mastic from Chios was sold in the 17th century and that this drink resembled anisette and that when it was highly diluted it was refreshing. Mantran goes on to say that the manufacture of raki was prohibited in İstanbul, and that for this reason the Armenians who had taken over its manufacture operated in Çorlu, a town outside of İstanbul on the route to Edirne and that the consumption of raki was common and that it was sold in great volume in the taverns of Galata and Kasımpaşa.
Today raki is Turkey’s national alcoholic beverage.
Deniz Gürsoy’un Gastronomi Tarihi, Oğlak Yayınları 2014 İstabul, p. 127-128