If you’ve ever been to the Greek island of Crete, or if you have any ancestors that are from the island, chances are pretty good that you’ve had a spirit called Raki.
Local Raki or Tsikoudia is a strong and clear distilled spirit produced out of the rich vineyards of Eastern Crete. It contains about 37 per cent alcohol per volume and is produced from what is left behind once grapes have been pressed to make wine. The must residu than is slowly boiled in special cauldrons. Drop by drop, the Raki begins to flow, very strong at first, almost pure alcohol, and then properly balanced. The still most usually consists of a copper pot over a fire with a large domed copper lid. Attached to the lid is a copper funnel leading to a water cooled tank or jar.
The licensed distillation process can take up more than three hours and has become a celebration (Kazani party) in which family and friends bring food and sample the drink as it is being made. In the East of Crete most of the Raki is homemade by individual families and some of these Raki makers will add wild herbs such as Thyme or Rosemary, while others will sweeten the clear liquid with honey making it a rich golden colour. This sweetened, very palatable blend of Raki and honey is known as Rakomelo and is a very good ‘medicine’ when you have caught a cold.
Raki is considered as the ‘national’ spirit of Crete, it has a clear and fragrant colour which is offered to vistors in shot glasses as a welcoming gesture or at the end of a meal. It is also offered upon arrival to a house, a hotel and even in a shop, as East Cretan hospitality suggests that every visitor or tourist should be offered with this heart warming and fine spirit. The strong and clear alcoholic beverage dates all the way back to Ancient times and evidence of it has been found in ancient pottery from the Minoan civilisations in the East of Crete. It seems that they enjoyed a beverage similar to Raki with their meals, also made from grapes.
During the Turkish occupation of Crete, the Turks began calling the local spirit Raki because it was similar to their own version of this beverage. However, Turkish Raki is flavoured with anise and Cretan Raki has a clear and clean taste. Traditionally the Cretans also use the strong spirit to treat wounds on people and animals and highly recommend it as after insect sting remedy, particularly if you've been bitten by a mosquito.
The Cretan raki is not just a local product. It is an intrinsic part of the identity of the local culture, it represents and expresses the Cretan hospitality and all Cretans are proud of it. Claimed by the various locals to promote a long and healthy life and to aid digestion, it is a ‘must try’ drink when visiting the East of Crete which promises you a taste of freedom and escapement. Yammas!!