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Raki: The lion's share
Published:  06 February, 2019

Like all Mediterranean countries, Turkey boasts its own anise-flavoured spirit. But raki is about more than just the drink, finds Clinton Cawood

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IT MIGHT HAVE MORE history than a lot of other spirits, but raki has been under some pressure to adapt in recent times.

For better or worse, and in spite of a loyal local following, various factors are causing Turkey’s national spirit to evolve, and increasingly eye up other markets. Yet to many outside its home country, raki still requires an introduction. There’s some variation when it comes to production methods, but essentially this historic spirit is distilled from grapes, and redistilled with aniseed. Like other anise spirits, the addition of water turns it cloudy, in part inspiring its local name, ‘lion’s milk’.

Raki’s origins date back well before the Ottoman empire, but it’s had a few formative experiences in the past couple decades – a tale of government monopolies, international investment, and some challenging conditions in its local market.

When the government monopoly on spirits production that defined raki for so many decades came to an end in the early 2000s, the category’s contemporary players began to emerge. Both Efe Raki and Mey Içki were established around this time, with Efe successfully introducing its products into Germany in 2004 before its subsequent launch in Turkey, tripling production in 2005 to meet demand. Mey, with brands such as Yeni Raki and Tekirdag Raki, was acquired by Diageo in 2011 for £1.3bn. With the weight of that multinational behind it, it’s not only a major player in Turkey today, but a significant exporter of raki too.

While exports are certainly a consideration for this quintessentially Turkish spirit, the domestic market remains undeniably important. “Raki is still the king, both in terms of consumption and as an iconic cultural beverage deeply rooted in Turkish culinary heritage,” says Istanbul-based bar consultant Kevin Patnode. “Since raki is heavily consumed by a relatively small drinking population, drinking raki is sort of a symbol of how many identify themselves – it’s a lot more than just a beverage.”

According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis 2018, total raki volumes in 2017 were just over 4m 9-litre cases, of which the Turkish market accounted for 3.5m. Volumes have been on the decline, however.

HIGH PRICES

“Since 2013 there has been a narrowing in the market,” says Begüm Aygün, who is responsible for exports for Efe Raki. “The main reason for this narrowing is the high prices due to the high special consumption tax placed by the government on raki.”

In addition to these taxes, promoting the spirit presents its own challenges. “Marketing is limited for spirits in Turkey,” says Aygün. “Promotion and encouragement are not allowed and there are serious penalties.”

Patnode adds: “Advertising domestically has been banned for quite some time, but most brands are quick to find ways to promote drinking raki without being so deliberate. In the end, advertising isn’t necessary, and drinking raki is very much a part of being Turkish – that is if you’re in the minority who consume alcohol.”