Raki comes to the table

09 December, 2014

Hamish Smith investigastes the resurgence of an old spirit

Unrush Your World and Slow is Our Luxury could only be the campaign slogans of a raki brand. The laid-back anise category doesn’t hurry – it is 500 years old and only recently became restless. Geographically, it’s not easy. West of Turkey raki finds anise spirits ouzo, sambucca and pastis. East is vodka and arak country, and a whole body of nations that don’t drink much. If ever there was to be a home-bird spirit, it would probably be raki. But now – with Diageo shaking the tree – there could be flight.

But first things first – raki has been quiet for too long to not set the scene. From 1944-2004, when other categories were looking to stake a claim in a new global marketplace, raki was produced under state monopoly. Without market pressure to raise quality, innovate or diversify, the industry was defined by two major brands, Yeni Raki and Tekirdag – plus two smaller players, Kulüp and Altınbas. 

Back then these brands were hardly brands. They were produced by the same distiller to largely the same recipe – dried grapes, fermented and distilled. They came in bottles that would make designers surrender their pencils in despair. They were basic by every measure and there was little to choose between them.

Raki may be a 500-year-old spirit but it is a 10-year-old product. When the market liberalised in 2004, the previously state-owned Mey Içki, emerged dominant (to this day it produces more than 80% of all raki.) But still there was much work to be done. 

“In 2004 it was very challenging,” says Galip Yorgancioglu, now CEO of Mey Içki and Diageo Turkey, its owner since 2011. “The packaging was a challenge – the bottle was very ugly. The state monopoly had no marketing department. Raki was seen as a very boring fathers’ drink. It was dying.” 

Yorgancioglu’s first job was to refresh and premiumise. “We were able to make it relevant to young people,” he says. To cut a 10-year story short, it worked. “Raki is considered the national drink [whereas] in Greece young adults have rejected the culture of drinking ouzo,” says Yorgancioglu.

Meanwhile Efe raki entered the market and started to build share (12% of the market today) with a strategy of innovation. “We have recreated raki,” says Egemen Demirtas, Efe’s CEO. “Our company came up with the idea of using fresh grapes [for distillation] and innovating with oak barrels, triple distillation and using organic aniseed to create premium products. We had to come up with something for the consumer that was different.”

Mey Içki, too, diversified and a number of smaller players emerged to eventually take about 5% share of the market. In 2011 Diageo bought Mey Içki. People said the move was about distribution not raki – but, lest we forget, Mey’s major brand is the biggest in the anise category. It makes up 3.7m cases of a 4.7m 9-litre case category. 

Turkey today

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