Turkey is a land of contrasts. On one side, it is part of Europe, on the other side just across the sea of the Bosphorus begins the entrance to the Middle East.
In my life Turkey is a land that I have always desired to visit. For once I have completed an important journey that I have wished since I was a teenager.
However, as I have grown older... wiser... traveled and lived and breathed the cultures of many places, my desires and goals of just being somewhere have taken over from desires to enjoy the simple passions of food, wine... and... DRINK!!
Are there things worth drinking in Turkey? Well the answer is Yes... and the answer is .. uh No. More importantly I had to drop my preconceived notions about a predominantly Muslim country when it comes to imbibing.
Turkey is a "secular" nation although predominantly Muslim, and my thoughts came to several things when it came to alcohol. One, that there wasn't any to be had in the country. Two transporting it across the border (from Bulgaria) would be a problem. Three that they didn't make such things and were forbidden.
Assumptions are bad things, ignorance... far worse. More important is the joy of imbibing in Turkey.. and many times... alcohol ... is not even needed. Praise be... that all my assumptions.. were DEAD wrong.
Let's talk about the two simple photos I have presented thus far. In the first photo is a drink of HaRe liquor. HaRe is a brand of digestif liquor that is made in Turkey. They have several flavors, mint, orange... many others. The one pictured here that I tried grabbed my attention because it was almond. My first thought immediately went to Amaretto, the common liqueur associated with Italy. I know someone who is fond of Amaretto and this is the only thing that they drink. I make sure to have a bottle around when they drop by...
I was very curious to try this version, that was not of the Italian variety. So... what was this to be? A really bad copy? a sugary mess??? Far from it. HaRe almond is much lighter in body than Disaronno, but I thought it had a NUTTIER taste. It was easy drinking, thoughts of easy mixing, nutty goodness, without the big syrup bomb taste that some Amarettos have. I still think of it now...
As for the beer... Well.. they need to still work on it. Efes Pillsner is nothing to write home about. I've had considerably better... but more importantly... I have had WORSE...
The reality is the things that made imbibing enjoyable the most did not always contain alcohol. There were plenty of Turkish wines to explore, some were actually kind of interesting. Unfortunately there was not much time to research it, and some were just rather ordinary.
Living in America means no products from Cuba, and I saw Havana Club rum everywhere on my journeys (Hungary and Romania included). I made sure to try the light rum out neat, comparing it to my first big light rum tasting. In the end it's a very solid rum, seems perfect for mixing, but it so far has had the weakest easiest profile of any light rum I've had. Everything was soft and simple from texture, to light cane taste, a perfect go to rum.
However one of the things that people do associate with Turkey, is turkish coffee. I ordered some at a well known restaurant and got a good imbibing lesson. When you order Turkish coffee your host should ask whether you want it with or without sugar (orta), and it will be added in the preparation. You don't add it yourself when it is served.
The waiter kindly placed the cup on my table of which you see here where I already had some tastes. It had a much lighter nuttier taste than most espressos I've had, very enjoyable. Surprisingly though, it wasn't very sweet at all, which made me think that if I didn't have any sugar in this how incredibly bitter the coffee may have been.
I was also told by the waiter that if I ever order Turkish coffee I have to make sure there are bubbles on top. No bubbles on the top of your coffee when served, means it wasn't prepared right and will not be good.
I did make one mistake... The dregs of the coffee (unknown to me at the time) are left at the bottom of the cup, and as I was enjoying my coffee getting closer to the end I noticed grit. I wasn't sure if I was suppose to drink this, my first instinct was no. However, when it comes to imbibing I like to try anything once... just once, but I somehow thought maybe I'd culturally offend someone leaving hardly half a cup of coffee just lying on the table unfinished.
I kind of gleefully decided to take some more. My mouth was filled with an icky paste that went everywhere, which went in to every crevice of my teeth and mouth it could find, echoing the words.... you stupid ass foreigner.
Luckily I still had water in my glass and a quick rinse and a few gulps washed away everything. Had it not been there it probably would have been a nasty sight, particularly if I smiled at a cute waitress across the hall. The waiter came by and I asked if you were to leave the cup like that and he said yes yes absolutely! apologizing for not telling me earlier. He also said that the way you are to drink it is to take very slow sips off the surface of the drink, slowly... until you hit the grinds, thus as taking the coffee in layers, not by tilting you cup so much and gulping.
That was a very fun time let me tell you for imbibing, and a great lesson! But one thing sets apart all drink in Turkey, more than wine and spirits, more than coffee even. It is the life of the country... and a day should never go by as far as I am concerned in Turkey without drinking it. That drink is simply... tea, or as they call it çay (chai).
Chai is not like the chai you may have at an Indian restaurant. The chai served in Turkey is very similar to a basic English Orange Pekoe and it is everywhere. Chai jockeys as I started calling them go through the neighborhoods and businesses selling tea to shop owners, and anyone who passes by. Or you can just sit at a place and have it. Tea is even served on the ferries that go along the Bosphorus, and it's also dirt cheap.
The cost of a cup of tea can vary, but a standard one goes for about the equivalent of 50 cents to 1 US dollar. However, if you are in a touristy area they will charge you five times that amount. Unfortunately on one ferry trip when I asked for chai I was ignored and wasn't served, but that was just a weird exception.
Traveling through Turkey, watching people carry ornate glass trays like little pyramids, sitting with chai in hand, cupping hot glass and watching the lives of its citizens go by was probably one of my favorite memories on this entire trip.
I am pictured here just enjoying the time to sit at a small drink stop outside Istanbul university. One of the great things about imbibing is it gives you the opportunity to just sit, relax, and stop and smell the roses. That's why I like drinking.. That's why I imbibe.
PS - Turkish chai is a black tea. My guess of Orange Pekoe was a good one (not sure if it was 100% spot on still). Orange Pekoe is considered a medium grade black tea.