Mass job losses and a government attempt to secure a US$24.9 billion IMF loan were signs that Turkey’s economy was wilting in the global recession. Now the traditional meyhane — tavern — is providing proof that hard times have indeed arrived.
Raki, the aniseed-flavored aperitif central to Turkish culture and a favorite tipple of the modern state’s founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, has been displaced by beer as the favorite drink.
Bar owners in Istanbul’s fashionable Nevizade market, a warren of taverns and restaurants that once finished off 100 crates of raki a day, have seen sales plummet by 30 percent in a year as customers order cheaper alternatives.
Tough economic conditions have combined with a private consumption tax to price raki increasingly out of the market, traders say.
Even Beyoglu district’s more bohemian establishments, which have tried to uphold Turkish drinking traditions, have recorded a 20 percent drop.
At the same time there has been a 40 percent jump in beer sales, mostly benefiting the popular local brewer Efes.
Half a liter of Efes sells for US$1.17 in some supermarkets, while the same amount of raki costs 10 times as much.
“People have turned to lower-priced alcoholic beverages,” Tulay Ece Guneysu, president of the Nevizade artisans’ association, told Hurriyet Daily News and the Economic Review.
“Today the consumption of raki has dropped to 80 crates per day. The consumption of beer is at about 10 50-liter barrels a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,” Guneysu said.
Some traders believe raki and other drinks such as wine have been victims of high taxes imposed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s socially conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) government in an attempt to curb alcohol consumption and promote Islamic values in the overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular country.
The government has denied such accusations.
Many also fear the decline of raki could signal the death knell for Turkey’s tavern culture.
The drink, which can be distilled from grapes or other fruits, dates back at least 300 years.
It became popular in the 19th century when taverns spread by permission of the Ottoman authorities.
It is usually mixed with water to produce a milky white concoction.
Turks say it is best consumed along with a mixture of meze dishes — generally white cheese, cucumber, chickpeas and various seafoods.
But Ataturk, whose premature death, at 58, is generally believed to have been caused at least partly by drinking too much raki, recommended a different ingredient.
“The best accompaniment to raki,” he said, “is good conversation.”