Distilled from the must, skins and stems left over after wine-making, raki (tsikoudia) is by far the most popular spirit in Crete. It is a strong, clear, assertive brandy containing 35-40% alcohol and flavored with herbs close at hand such as thyme or citrus rinds. It is served as both an aperitif and digestif. It is similar to the Italian grappa, the marc in France, the Spanich orujo, arak in the Middle East, zivania in Cyprus or the Turkish raki. Raki/Tsikoudia is protected by the EU as a unique spirit that can only be considered original when it comes from Crete.
Agood tsikoudia should be smooth with no burning aftertaste. Up until now it has not been widely available commercially since most people produce it for their own consumption, but these days, more and more branded versions of raki can be found on the shelves. It is traditionally served to guests at the end of their meal in a small, well-chilled carafe as a “treat on-the-house”, often accompanied by fresh fruit, house desserts or spoon sweets (those delectable preserved fruits and vegetables).
Variations of tsikoudia can be found in different parts of Crete. For example, if it is distilled from mulberries it is known as Mournoraki, or Rakomelo is produced from the hot mix of tsikoudia with honey and cinnamon, cardamom and other local herbs. Nowadays, liqueurs are being produced with raki as the base and a host of flavors (herbs, flowers and fruits) added.
Some safety tips for first-time imbibers:
- Never drink it on an empty stomach. Have it after your meal or be sure to accompany it with snacks or mezedes (Greek appetizers).
- Never mix it with another drink. Once you start drinking it, don’t change to wine or beer or you will likely regret it.
- Drink lots of water if you are on an all-night raki binge.