Higher prices spur homemade booze craze in Turkey

As new taxes and inflation have made alcohol unaffordable for many Turks, drinkers of Turkey’s iconic anise-flavored drink, raki, are increasingly making it at home.

The cost of raki is up more than 600 percent since the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept into power in 2002, sparking a boom in homemade raki and a major sales decline for the country's raki producers.

As of October 2017, the price of raki has jumped 665 percent, with beer prices up 580 percent, according to data from the Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIK). More people are brewing their own beer at home, Deutsche Welle reported earlier this year, while Istanbul's bars are seeing less business. 

Raki sales have dropped by nearly a third in the last five years: Turkey’s raki producers sold 44,600 liters in 2012, but just 30,000 in 2017, according to government figures.

This is because Turks are increasingly making the drink at home. Most are not making raki the traditional way, which involves twice distilling the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of grapes, or grape pomace. They are instead mixing together a few ingredients to produce a beverage similar to raki.

Raki recipes and formulas are spreading among Turkish citizens, leading to inventive new forms of the drink favored by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Yaşar Akalp gets his ingredients through the internet and local markets. He needs alcohol, anise aroma, glycerol.

“We buy the needed ingredients legally,” he said, “then mix them with the right measurements, and in at most 15 minutes, the raki is ready.”

In the store, a liter of raki costs around 170 Turkish lira, Akalp says, while it costs him 25-30 liras to make a liter himself. He learned how to produce his own raki online, where videos abound on how to make different flavors of raki. The YouTube channel of raki-making Turkish chemist Cengiz Dev has accumulated more than 1.3 million views, offering tips and tricks for brewing and distilling at home.

Buying ethyl alcohol at 45 liras, Akalp says he can make 2.25 liters of raki for 65 liras. That might cost up to 400 liras in store.

This reality has altered the raki market.

“If they fix these exaggerated prices on raki tomorrow morning, I’ll go back to buying Tekel products,” Akalp said, referring to the once-national monopoly on alcohol and tobacco products. Tekel still sets the taxes and distribution of alcohol and tobacco products.

Ahval caught up with Akalp when he was meeting with friends to enjoy raki over a picnic. The group of at least ten friends drink over two liters of raki, which would cost about 300 liras. Most of that price tag comes from taxes, Akalp says.

Even a bottle of beer, which has grown in popularity in Turkey over the past decade, is at least 10 liras, Akalp says. He reminisces times when he could afford to eat out with friends. “Right now, it takes courage to drink raki at restaurants with alcohol,” he says. “With that being the case, we decided to make our own raki.”

Akalp’s friend, Mehmet Aktay, also makes his own raki because it costs too much to buy it on his retirement wage.

“With everything receiving price hikes, [and] our retirement wages staying the same, we found our solution in this,” Aktay says.

A former restaurateur, Aktay says he used to retain some spare change after drinking raki, paying his rent, and making other expenses. Now, in order to continue his tradition of drinking with friends, he has turned to learning how to make raki.

“Now, we meet together and make our raki, we make our grill, and have our conversation,” he says.