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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Turkey

The Raki:  Yeni RakiÂLÂ

The Book: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Raki is synonymous with Turkey. Add a little water and the liquor turns a snowy white. An appropriate companion then to Orhan Pamuk’s novel, in which copious amounts of snow fall, copious amounts of raki are consumed, while the many faces of politics erupt.


It stands clear in the traditional tall, narrow raki glass, but with the addition of water (or an ice cube) it clouds to look like thin milk. To be more precise, lion’s milk or “aslan sütü”, as the Turks are inclined to call it. Not that you have to be particularly lion-hearted to drink it. After all, 70 million litres of raki are consumed in Turkey each year. Our Yeni Raki ÂLÂ (47% abv) is triple-distilled and goes down rather more smoothly than expected. If you are a drinker of aged whisky and rum it’s more one-note than you are used to. And you must have a liking for aniseed, with which it is flavoured. Raki is best drunk with family and friends, around a table crowded with mezze – colourful, multi-textured small plates of feta, melon, meat kebabs, seafood, and much more – so glasses can be raised and their bottoms (never their tops) clinked.

Until 2004 raki was produced exclusively by the state-owned monopoly Tekel. With privatization came new production methods and new brands. Traditionally, raki was made from distillation of grape pomace, the solids left over from wine-making (skin, pulp, seeds and stems). Today pomace is likely replaced by raisins, figs, plums, or even mulberries.

The grapes used in the production of ÂLÂ are carefully selected, and the aniseed is of the highest quality, from the Cesme-Izmir region of Turkey. The grapes are sun-dried, then ground and mashed together with water. Initial column distillation results in an alcohol level of about 93%. At this stage the aniseed is added, before a second and third distillation in copper alembics. ÂLÂ is then aged in oak barrels, before being filtered to remove any hint of colour.

Raki drinkers generally like the ritual of their crystal clear liquid turning white. The addition of an equal (or slightly more) measure of water dilutes it to an alcohol content near to that of wine. At which point the clinking of glasses (“Serefinize!”) and the parade of mezze can begin.


Orhan Pamuk‘s “Snow” followed on the heels of his highly successful “My Name is Red.” The two books could hardly be more different. This is a contemporary, politically-charged story set in the remote Turkish city of Kars, near the border with Armenia. It is a dismal place, made more introspective by three days of constant snow. The weather has cut it off from the outside world, turning it to a contained microcosm of Turkish society.

The fractious elements are all here: the Westernized and godless liberal, the Islamic radical fundamentalist, the corrupt military, the confused moderate. All are given a voice and Pamuk allows the jumble of viewpoints to twist and turn the reader in several directions at once. The narrative thankfully thrives on irony and dark humour, charged with a certain circus quality. It makes for an extraordinary novel.

At its centre is an ex-pat Turkish poet who has lived in Germany for a dozen years. He returns to Istanbul and soon finds himself on a bus to Kars, in the role of journalist. He’s there to investigate a rash of suicides by young women being pressured to discard their head scarves in order to comply with the ban on them by colleges. The poet’s name is Ka and just as he arrives the snow begins to fall.

The story is filled with a succession of memorable characters, most notable for Ka, a beautiful young woman named Ipek he knew from his student days, someone he is desperate to see fall in love with him. But there is also her sister Kadife, leader of the girls who champion the wearing of head scarves, and Blue, a handsome terrorist with a distinctly soft side, the newspaperman Serdar who forecasts events and prints them as news before they actually take place, and the husband and wife acting duo of Sunay and Funda who mount bizarre and provocative stage plays.

It is during one of these that violence erupts and several people are killed. Meanwhile, Ka pursues Ipek and follows his muse, dashing off poems at an alarming rate. As it turns out, the story is narrated by someone who discovered Ka’s notes several years after his return to his Frankfurt apartment. Someone named Orhan Pamuk.

What he didn’t find were Ka’s poems. Which to this reader was a disappointment. I was still waiting for some, even just one, when the last of the raki was poured, and the snow finally ended.


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