For the last year Bikem, a 33-year-old Istanbul-based editor, has been making the traditional – and very potent – aniseed-flavoured spirit raki at home.
She adds water and flavouring to pure alcohol, and there is no lengthy distillation necessary.
“It’s a short and easy process,” Bikem explained. “I do it in ten minutes and I get an instant, drinkable raki.”
It’s also cheap, she continued, taking into consideration the astronomical duties imposed on alcohol in Turkey.
“I can get more than two litres of home-made raki for the price I would pay in a store for a half litre,” she said.
Next up, Bikem plans to embark on the slightly more complex process of making beer.
“I don’t know any other country in the world in which people have to pay such high taxes on alcoholic beverages as we do,” she said. “That will not prevent people from drinking them, though, as more and more will learn how to make them at home.”
Growing numbers of people in Turkey are turning to home-brewing in response to the high prices of alcoholic drinks and continuous government efforts to reduce alcohol consumption.
This seems motivated by a drift towards conservative Islamic mores rather than concerns about public health. Excessive drinking does not appear to be a serious problem in Turkey. According to a 2017 World Health Organization report, Turks consume only about 1.49 litres per person per year, putting Turkey in 137th place among the 185 countries surveyed.
Nonetheless, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative government is progressively targeting alcohol consumption. As well as high taxes, drinking alcohol in public places is increasingly frowned upon. On television, scenes in which people are shown drinking alcohol are routinely censored.
In 2013, all advertisement of alcohol and tobacco products was banned. The Turkish authorities also imposed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and liquor stores after 10pm, although this does not apply to bars and restaurants.
The Special Consumption Tax (SCT) on alcoholic drinks is 80 per cent, leading to a popular saying often shared on social media that “when you buy yourself a beer, you buy one for the government”.
A beer or a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant in Istanbul costs between 15 and 20 Turkish Lira (two to three Euro). While foreign tourists find these prices very reasonable, given the average Turkish monthly salary is between 2,000 and 2,500 Turkish Lira (300-350 euro) this makes alcohol a barely affordable luxury.
Many people, especially youngsters, prefer to buy alcohol from shops and drink on the streets of more liberal neighbourhoods of Istanbul, such as Kadıköy Kadife Street, Taksim Asmalımescit, Beşiktaş and Maçka Park.
And then there is the option of producing your own alcohol and enjoying it at home with friends.
“Two years ago, when I was visiting Iran, the friends I was staying with were making their own beer in their basement, and this was when I decided to brew my own beer,” said Can, a 46-year old accountant who lives in Istanbul. He has since added raki and liquor to his repertoire.
Although homebrewing could be complicated, he said it was generally successful, “as long as you don’t make big mistakes”.
“Of course, it is not possible to match the quality of beer brands that have 100 or 150-year-old tradition,” Can continued. “However, drinking your own beer has its charms and can be pleasant. Sometimes we do beer-tasting nights at home and I can say that friends who drink my home-made beer enjoy it as much as I do. Unless they’re trying to be polite to their host”.
Home-made beer costs around three Turkish Lira for a 50cc bottle, five times cheaper than a similar product bought in a bar. A litre of home-made raki costs around 20 TL to produce, while the equivalent from a shop costs between 100-130 TL.
However, producing home-made raki is not without its risks. If the ethyl alcohol – the key ingredient – is not of high quality, it can transform into methyl alcohol, which is poisonous.
After a spate of deaths linked to home-made raki, in December 2017 the authorities ordered that a substance called denatonium benzoate be added to all ethyl alcohol sold in shops.
Denatonium benzoate is one of the bitterest substances known to mankind and is often used in highly toxic products such as antifreeze and detergent to deter children and pets from swallowing them.
Some shopkeepers have defied the government decree and continue to sell old supplies of ethyl alcohol. One shop owner in Kurtuluş, a neighbourhood of Istanbul inhabited mostly by Armenians and young, educated, middle-income people, said he tried to be discreet and would just sell his old stock before stopping altogether.
However, he said that he doubted that the government’s tactics of adding denatonium benzoate would stop people from making their own alcoholic beverages.
“People will figure out how to remove the bitter substance from the ethyl alcohol,” he said.
Home-brewing is legal in Turkey, as long as limited amounts are produced – up to 350 litres of beer per year, for example – solely for personal consumption.
In recent years many online shops in Turkey – such as Butik Bira, Bira House, Bang Good and others – began selling brewing and distilling supplies.
Atilla Sezer, the director of Pamukkale Winery Chain Stores, said that high taxes on alcohol were the main reason for more and more people in Turkey producing beverages themselves.
“If they need our help or advice about the production techniques, we are willing to give it to them,” he said. “We believe in a world in which the individuals are free to act as they choose.”