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It’s nearing the end of 2021 and Turkey is bracing stormy weather. The economy is struggling, the Turkish lira has lost a quarter of its value this year, rental prices are soaring nationwide and purchasing power has been compromised. On top of it all, already sky-high taxes on alcohol were hiked again earlier this month, making it increasingly more difficult for people to drown their problems in a drink or four. The country’s liquor sector has been hampered by a full-blown advertising ban since 2013 that even prevents companies from opening an Instagram account. All things considered, one might think it a bad time to produce what is essentially Turkey’s first boutique rakı.

Mehmet Gürs and Cemre Torun didn’t think so. Mainstays in Turkey’s culinary scene, Gürs is best known as the founder of Mikla, the country’s premiere fine dining restaurant, while Torun is the food editor of the Turkish editions of Vogue and GQ. The pair is not afraid to take on daunting projects, and they have spent the past year creating what seeks to shake the foundations of a rather stuffy and masculine culture that surrounds Turkey’s anise-laced spirit of choice.

“During the pandemic, like everybody else, we were at home cooking, eating and drinking a lot of meze and rakı. And in one of those moments, after we had a bottle probably, we said ‘Hey, why don’t we make a rakı’,” Gürs says with a chuckle, adding that he has long thought about producing a spirit. They let the idea simmer for a day or two and then made moves. Gürs phoned his friend Levent Kömür, the CEO of Mey Diageo, Turkey’s largest rakı producer. Having Kömür on board was mandatory.

“In Turkey, to be able to start a rakı distillery, you need to start with a capacity of 1 million liters per year, and that is like a petrochemical plant,” Gürs explains. “Not only that, let’s say we were crazy enough to invest and build a distillery of that size, the time to order, build and license it, I don’t know how many years that would take. So, we said: ‘Why don’t we look for an alternative solution’?” Kömür accepted the offer.

Now that Gürs and Torun had circumvented the archaic legislation that would have made their pipe dream impossible, they quickly got to work. After a lengthy series of tastings, it was decided that the rakı would be made from Öküzgözü grapes sourced from the southeastern province of Elazığ. “There are so many grapes in Turkey, and many indigenous varieties, so we definitely wanted to go with one of those grapes. For us, the most important thing was to develop a rakı that is pleasant to drink but that also has a lot of character. That was the taste we were after,” Torun says.

“We wanted to make a decent rakı that is full of flavor with all of the aromatics still there. A smooth, nice finish that is not just like alcohol with some aniseed flavor, but where you can actually feel the grape,” Gürs adds. The final result, Prototip (meaning prototype in Turkish) is a delightful, exciting spirit where the distinct flavor of the grape is evident from the first sip. The fruity quality recalls comparisons to the potent rakija fruit brandies of the Balkans, but it maintains its rakı character. Like the grapes, the aniseed was also carefully selected, harvested from the village of Karaçay in the province of Denizli. Gürs recommends starting by sipping the chilled rakı straight to enjoy it at its purest, then adding water and ice as to your preferences.

Initially, Gürs and Torun just wanted to make one rakı, but the project has since taken on a more ambitious and long-term character. The Prototip moniker implies a constant work in progress, and the two make it clear that they are not claiming they have created the best rakı on the market – though we would wager that most certainly have. The initial batch of Prototip, limited to just 7,000 bottles of 700ml, has recently hit shelves, and the demand has been overwhelming despite the fact that Prototip has not been advertised, lacks a website and any sort of social media presence. The largely-deserved hype is in part due to Gürs and Torun’s reputation, but it also attests to the high quality of Prototip.

“It’s never a finished product. We can never say: ‘We’re done, this is it’,” Torun said, explaining how they came up with the name. While their debut lot is expected to sell out by the end of the year, they plan on following it up in the spring of 2022 with the second incarnation of Prototip, which will be produced with a blend of three different distillates in a run of 50,000 bottles. “It would be much easier to develop one popular recipe that we like and that everyone likes and go with that forever. But this is definitely more fun, more challenging and it pushes the potential of rakı in all directions,” she says.

Rakı is immersed in culture and tradition, embedded in the meyhane table and associated with long conversations, plates of meze, wedges of sharp white cheese and slices of honey-like green melon. Unlike a nice glass of red wine or Scotch whisky, it is not something to enjoy alone after a long and stressful day. We’ve concluded over the years that rakı’s buzz can only be activated when in the company of friends and good food, preferably in a cozy meyhane where you are on first-name basis with your server. As such, the drink often gets overshadowed by context. Gürs and Torun are explicit about their aim to create a rakı that can be enjoyed completely on its own.

“Many friends visiting Turkey over the years, who are serious eaters and drinkers and in the business, would of course try rakı, but would they carry a bottle with them to take home and pair it with their favorite food? Probably not,” Torun said, adding that their friends would often try one glass of rakı and then switch to beer or wine. Most leave unaware of what it takes to make Turkey’s flagship spirit.

“When you look at the process of rakı, it is very complex compared to a lot of other distilled spirits. It has the potential to be very sophisticated, so why not treat it as such? You start with a grape and there are hundreds of grapes in Turkey, so think of the varietals. You juice it and ferment it, you can go with raisins or grapes, maybe other fruits, and then you take that fermented grape juice and distill it. Then you infuse it with aniseed and distill it again,” Gürs explains, adding that aniseed is the only ingredient you can add for the final result to be legally considered rakı.

While most of the distillate was produced in large modern distillation columns, 7% of it went through old, vast copper pot stills that look straight out of a long past era, a twist which Gürs said made a huge difference in shaping the flavor.

Prototip (meaning prototype in Turkish) is a delightful, exciting spirit where the distinct flavor of the grape is evident from the first sip of this boutique rakı.

Legislation in Turkey has not made the journey easy, as it covers everything down to what can be written on the bottle’s label. Gürs ending a small note to drinkers with the word sağlığınıza (to your health) was not allowed. He characterized the minimum 1 million-liter production quota as “idiotic,” and said that the country is shooting itself in the foot with such restrictions, which are political in nature. The most difficult of these for Gürs is that he is technically prohibited from publicly declaring his involvement.

“I’m not even allowed to go out and say – none of us are – ‘We are making a rakı. We’re so happy.’ I cannot put that on my Instagram account. A Turkish newspaper or a food magazine cannot write about it. It’s insane, when you think about it. You are making something and you cannot even talk about the brand or the product. It’s very frustrating, it doesn’t make sense and it turns into auto-censorship, like a lot of other things here,” Gürs laments.

Nevertheless, the pair remain resolved and vow to keep moving forward. “Some of the best movements come out of situations like this,” Torun said, adding that many people have told them that they are brave (or crazy) for launching a brand-new spirit during these difficult days, weeks and months.

Prototip arrived during a period when the big producers such as Yeni Rakı, Tekirdağ and Beylerbeyi have also rolled out limited edition bottles or special versions made from a single grape. Recently, our favorite neighborhood liquor store managed to get half a dozen bottles of Prototip, and we posted about it on Twitter and Instagram, not shying away from describing it as the best rakı in the country.

The bottles sold instantly and the phones rang nonstop at Gözde Tekel, with curious customers begging to be notified when they got new stock. We have a bottle of our own, elegantly cased in a rectangular box emblazoned with the brand’s simple, elegant logo. We eye it nightly with temptation, but vow to save it for a special occasion.

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