Faced with the government’s anti-alcohol policies, Turks start making moonshine

A Turkish man takes a selfie while making raki, a kind of brandy made from grapes and anise.
A Turkish man takes a selfie while making raki, a kind of brandy made from grapes and anise.

Since the conservative Islamists came to power in 2002, the price of strong alcohol in Turkey has multiplied tenfold and restrictions on the sale of alcoholic drinks have been reinforced. Frustrated, thousands of Turkish people have started making their own beer and liquor at home, thumbing their noses at the orders of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The average Turkish person only drinks about 2.4 litres of pure alcohol each year (compared to 12.2 litres in France or 14.1 litres in the Czech Republic), according to numbers published in 2015 by the World Health Organization (WHO). Though Turkey is 99% Muslim, alcohol is legal and remains an integral part of Turkish culture and cuisine. However, the current government wants to reduce alcohol consumption, as part of its plan to shape a more pious society.

In 2013, a law banned the sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and in shops located within 100 metres of a school or mosque. All adverts for alcohol are banned in the media, and alcoholic drinks that in films or on TV are blurred.

In response to these increasing restrictions, fans of alcohol have been finding each other online and launching a whole host of new Facebook groups. In these alcohol-friendly groups, people swap recipes for making homemade beer and various liquors, including raki, a brandy flavoured with anise that is often considered Turkey’s national drink. These groups have a triple goal — to make the cheapest drink possible, to get the best result, and also to give the government the finger.

"It’s like a family"

In the most popular of these Facebook groups, 35,000 members share tips, photos, videos, and demonstrations of their home distillers. Our Observer Altıok D., who wanted to remain anonymous, is one of the founders of the group. He’s been making his own raki for the past six months.

I like to drink two or three glasses of raki per day, but this habit is expensive, costing about 50 Turkish lira daily (equivalent to roughly 12 euros). A lot of the cost comes from the taxes that the government imposes on alcohol. These taxes have been progressively increasing since 2002 [Editor’s note: Taxes account for a little more than 65% of the price of a bottle]. So, I make my own raki now and the ingredients just cost me about 10 Turkish lira per litre [equivalent to roughly 2.60 euros]. And it tastes better, is organic, and doesn’t give me a headache!

In this video, a member of the group explains the first step to making raki: crush the grapes and mix them with water and a fermenting agent, then leave the mixture for about ten days. (Screengrab)

Once the ten days have passed, the mixture is distilled for the first time in a distiller to separate the alcohol from the pulp. The alcohol is then mixed with anise for flavour, then distilled a second time. These photos of different home distillers were posted on the Facebook group. Members often sell distillers.

Learning how to protect yourself from poisoning

Within the group, several different “masters" — that’s the term used — offer up their alcohol-making wisdom to other members. Sometimes they respond directly to questions posted by members while, other times, they make and post explanatory videos.

The aim is to teach members to make nice-tasting raki, without taking unnecessary health risks. You have to be careful: close to half to the contents of the distiller needs to be thrown away to prevent poisoning. Several members even programmed an Android application to calculate the correct proportions for each ingredient.


Screengrabs from the application (provided by our Observer).

All of this is legal. Turkish law allows a person to make up to 350 litres of alcohol at home per year, though he or she isn’t allowed to sell it. That’s why we don’t allow people to buy and sell raki within our group, though we do allow people to advertise and sell distillers to other members.

"Little by little, Turkey is becoming like Iran"

We are still very careful. Little by little, Turkey is becoming like Iran. The government doesn’t like alcohol and, if the authorities declare that home distilling is illegal one evening, I know that the police will come arrest me the next morning. So we monitor our members closely and don’t accept people into our group who, for example, publically show their support for the government.

READ ON THE OBSERVERS >> Young Iranians explain just how easy it is to get banned alcohol

Screengrab of a video posted on the group showing several members toasting with a homemade glass of raki.  

Our group is like a family; it’s a safe space for people who believe in a separation of state and religion. A lot of us are friends and, sometimes, we meet up to taste each other’s creations. In the evenings, there are thousands of guys who, more or less drunk, get online to chat with each other, share Facebook Lives of their evenings, or argue. It’s actually the same vibe as in a real bar. It’s really funny and, often, no one remembers any of it the next morning.

"My mother thinks I'm an alcoholic"

Our Observer Anıl Seçkin, age 27, is an artist who lives in Istanbul. For the past two years, he’s been making beer in his apartment.

I make about 150 litres of alcohol per year, mostly beer and cider. I started using kits that you can buy in special shops but I quickly started to do it all myself. I buy the malt seeds, then I crush them and cook them in water. Then I filter the mixture to get the beer.

Our Observer sent us several different photos showing the different steps in alcohol production. The upper right hand photo shows a homemade cooling system.

Obviously, I can’t drink it all myself so I give a lot to my friends. They love it and say that my beer is really good. More and more young people in Istanbul have started to make their own alcohol, like me. Some people are really serious about it and even make their own labels. It’s kind of hipster, but it is also quite political.

The labels on these homemade beers reference the opposition. The beer on the left, for example, is an homage to well-known opposition member Yasar Kemal, a champion of Kurdish rights. The beer bottles in the upper right hand photo spell out the Turkish word "hayir" ("no" in English), which refers to the last constitutional referendum. In the bottom right photo, the beer labels feature Sero, a grumpy alcoholic cat. The name of the beer is "Çapulcu", a nickname given by Erdogan to people who participated in the 2013 Gezi opposition movement. (Photos posted in various Facebook groups.)

With the government’s hike in taxes, we feel like alcohol and the important role it plays in our culture are being taken away from us. These days, it has become almost a taboo topic. I keep what I do quiet and don’t tell many people. My mother thinks I’m an alcoholic, for example.

The Turkish press recently reported shortages of pure alcohol during Bayram, a holiday that many Turks celebrate with their families. In Turkey, ethanol is readily available in most supermarkets. Many people buy it then dilute it with anise to make a “fake raki.” Our Observers say this is less tasty than the homemade kind. However, if the dosages are properly respected, then this mixture doesn’t pose any health risks.

On the other hand, there are frequent reports in the Turkish press about deaths from drinking moonshine. The most common cause for bad alcohol is problems during the distillation phase.

Since 2011, the consumption of all different alcohols has decreased in Turkey, according to Turkey’s Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK).