Crete Travel Blog: Crete’s Raki or Tsikoudia
A glass of Cretan culture, hospitality in a glass
Cretan Raki or Tsikoudia, is a synonym of Crete, of its people and the culture of the island. It would be reductive to describe raki as just a drink. There is a ritual involving the moment of drinking a shot of raki. Sharing a little bottle of this spirit represents friendship, hospitality, and communication. Raki is the essence of Crete and its culture.
Every time that Cretans welcomes a guest, there is always a glass of raki. It’s a must on the table when locals have long conversations in traditional tavernas.
Its local name is, in fact, Tsikoudia, it got the name of Raki during the Turkish occupation. In Crete, they use both names, but the raki served in Turkey (very popular among the Turkish) has a different taste. As a matter of fact, it resembles more the Greek ouzo than the Cretan spirit.
In the rest of Greece, tsikoudia is known as Tsipouro, but the flavor is a bit different as well as the alcohol percentage, with tsipouro falling between the 36 and 37%. The aroma is also more intense in the Cretan raki.
Many visitors like to compare tsikoudia to the Italian grappa, however, even if the production process remains similar and they’re both grape distillates, the taste varies. When you visit the island, try the homemade raki. If you like it, go ahead and taste the raki being produced by some of the top local wineries. Moni Toplou’s raki is one of my favorites.
Raki, a transparent liquor, is similar to gin in gradation and color but different in taste. Both the ingredients and the process that combine during the distillation confer its characteristic flavor. In autumn, after the grape harvest, the season of wine celebration begins. Then, it’s time to start distilling.
Between October and November, raki distillation is a cultural moment of family celebration, as a Cretan friend once told me: There is a big party the night we taste the first glass of the season. Everyone is happy, the elder and the young gather, drink, eat and dance until the next day.
Distillation follows an ancient method, a process maintained for centuries, part of the Cretan tradition. The stafylla (crushed grapes, skins, and seeds), what is left once grapes have been pressed to make wine, ferments for more than a month in barrels. After fermentation stafylla boils in special cauldrons.
The Raki Cauldron
The cauldron has 3 parts: the pot, the lid, and the pipe to transfer the steam. The producer puts the pomace in the cauldron with water and lights a fire to make it simmer. The fire isn’t too strong so as not to burn the pomace. Yet a fire that’s too low wouldn’t be enough.
There must be a balance in the intensity of flames. After a while, one drop after another, it begins to flow. At first, it is very strong, pure alcohol. But balance, again, is the key. Pure raki must have a proper balance to reach a characteristic taste, gradation, and intensity.
Greece’s first prime minister, the Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos first instituted the custom of distilleries back in the 1920s. Farmers received special permits or licenses to distill raki and get an extra income. There is at least one inhabitant in every village with a license to produce the drink.
Did you know…?
The other protected spirits in the list are Brandy (de Jerez), Grappa (de Barolo), Berliner Kümmel, Genièvre Flandres Artois, Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Cognac.
Cretan Raki / Tsikoudia: More than a drink
Tsikoudia is more than a drink. For Cretans, it is the king of drinks. Tsikoudia has a delicious flavor of sweet raisins and a unique level of pureness, containing no dyes or industrial alcohols. This fragrant grape-based spirit has about 50-65 % alcohol by volume, mostly when it’s produced at home. Mixed with honey (and sometimes a bit of cinnamon) Crete’s tsikoudia turns into Rakomelo. Iced Tsikoudia is a common refreshing drink after or before a meal.
A drink that is the metaphor of hospitality. Whenever you visit a local restaurant, the owner of the taverna will bring a small bottle of homemade raki to your table. He will serve it chilled in shot glasses and leave the bottle for you to have some more.
Don’t be surprised if he joins you for a toast at the joyful shout of Gia Mas (Γεια μας!), “to your health”, the Greek “cheers”. This is how they express their gratitude for your visit, offering it as a complimentary aperitif with fruits and sweets after the meal.
If you want to taste Crete’s raki/tsikoudia the way locals do, join my “A Taste of Crete” Tour, in which tsikoudia and traditional local bites (mezedes) are leading characters!
This goes without saying, raki is my favorite spirit (and the only strong liquor I drink). Γεια μας!