The Secrets of Cretan Raki
Various wine festivities begin throughout Crete every autumn after the grape harvest.
Apart from wine festivals there is also the celebration of Tsikoudia.
Raki or Tsikoudia is a strong distilled spirit containing approximately 37% alcohol per volume and is produced from the must-residue of the wine-press. Outside of Crete it is called tsipouro.
The oriental name raki is also used.
Turkish raki is not the same drink as the Cretan one.
In Turkey raki was first produced from the residue of grapes left over from wine making only.
When a shortage of residue started, spirits from abroad were imported and processed with aniseed.
During the Turkish occupation of Crete the name raki was given to the local tsikoudia, since there were some similarities.
Now both names are used in Crete equally. The Turkish raki has a history going back 300 years.
But it all started long before that: famous coppersmiths from Armenia and the Pont, who made nice decorated distilling vessels, confirmed the deep knowledge of distillation in all the Byzantine Empire.
History even goes further back.
The dietary habits of the ancient Minoans and the Myceneans were apparently in conflict with the contemporary Mediterranean diet, according to research conducted by scientists from Greece, Britain, Italy and the United States.
Examination of organic residue on ancient pottery shows that the Minoan and Mycenean diet was mainly based on meats and greens, while fish was on the bottom of their culinary preferences.
In addition, tsikoudia was a favourite drink with their meals.
Just a few years ago ouzo, tsipouro, tsikoudia and the distillation of Corinthian currant were fortified as exclusive Greek products. The European Union protects the following unique spirits as being only original when coming from its original place: Cognac, Brandy de Jerez, Grappa di Barolo, Berliner Kummel, Genievre Flandres Artois, Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, Tsikoudia from Crete.
The names of tsipouro, tsikoudia and ouzo are and have been mixed up often. Ouzo is being produced traditionally and exclusively in Greece.
It belongs to the "anise" category and has an aniseed flavour (aniseed is what gives ouzo its trademark milky countenance when water is added).
The indigenous mastic (masticha) of Chios Island, ginger, cinnamon and other aromatic seeds, plants and fruits are all part of the distillation process, and give ouzo its distinctive taste.
Its main distinction from other similar drinks lies with the traditional method of its flavouring.
As with many gastronomic delicacies, most alcoholic beverages have their roots in poverty.
Tsipouro and tsikoudia are produced in poor viniculture soil. Therefore, every year after the vines are pruned, the vineyard provides wood for the fireplace, grape leaves for cooking (the famous Greek "dolmades"), grapes as a fruit or as a pastry and, of course, wine.
Some of the grape must is used to make molasses, which when combined with flour become must-jelly, must-rolls as well as other well-known Greek pastries.
When must is made from grapes, the seeds, stems and grape-peels aren't thrown away, rather they are distilled to produce tsipouro and tsikoudia, spirits consumed for centuries in this part of the Mediterranean.
Grape-gathering, wine-making and tsikoudia-making are activities enjoyed in the autumn every year.
Wine-making involves crushing the grapes in special stone constructions called "patitiria", or wine presses.
This can be done by feet or with small machinery.
The remains in the patitiria, after most of the grape juice has been removed, is allowed to ferment and is then distilled.
Traditional distilleries consist of large copper boilers and include long copper funnels on top so that the steam can escape.
The funnels, which pass through barrels placed on the sides of the distillation flask and are filled with cold water, end up on the outside of the barrels, on top of empty glass containers.
Herbage is first placed on the bottom of the boilers which are then filled with stemfila and a little water or wine, hermetically sealed and finally placed onto the bonfires.
The hot steam passes into the funnel and as it then travels through the barrel of cold water, it condenses and liquidates.
In approximately half an hour, the warm tsipouro begins to fall drop by drop, on the other side of the funnel, into the glass containers.
The liquid that first comes out of the funnel cannot be consumed but is used for pharmaceutical purposes.
The final amount of distilled liquid contains the least amount of alcohol, whereas the actual tsikoudia is produced during the middle of the entire process.
This lasts for about three hours, during which the owners of the boilers must test for alcohol content, increase or decrease the heat and finally stop distillation when the tsikoudia has acquired the desired taste.
It takes two to three distillation processes in copper caldrons for the production of the tsikoudia.
The entire process becomes a celebration in which friends and relatives take part by bringing food and sampling the drink as it is being made.
Each step in the distillation process has a particular ritual and the presence of friends is a must.
In some places of Crete people make a variety of tsikoudia, called mournoraki.
This is coloured red and is distilled from mulberries. It is quite rare and even stronger then tsikoudia.
To conclude, raki is claimed to be a medicine for many ordinary diseases, like a cold, a toothache, a headache or diarrea.It is even used for massages.
Some tips about drinking tsikoudia:
As a tourist coming to Crete there is a 100% chance that sooner rather then later you will be offered at least 1 glass of tsikoudia.
- Like with most spirits, never drink it on an empty stomach.
- Have it after your meal or have it accompanied by small snacks.
- If you are not used to spirits or have a weak stomach: drink water after each sip.
- Never mix raki with another drink. Once you start to drink raki, leave it with raki and do not change to wine or beer after unless you want to get very drunk and experience a severe hangover.
- If you do not like to drink an offered raki: do not drink it and leave the glass full. An empty glass is a sign to your hosts that you liked it and they will happily give you a refill.
If you buy raki for home, make sure to keep it in your checked in luggage if you travel by plane! (see new rules for hand luggage at all EU airports)