Over the weekend of July 19-21, the 12th death this month in Adana from methanol poisoning was reported by news outlets. Over the past 30 days there have been 23 deaths throughout the nation related to methanol consumption.
Under the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a pious Muslim, alcohol taxes have risen steadily with increases occurring twice a year. The latest 8% tax increase on alcohol is a cause and effect for the recent spate of methanol poisoning around the Country. The tax on a one-liter bottle of Raki, Turkey’s historic national aniseed-flavored alcoholic beverage now stands at $15 USD. This brings the total price of a liter of Raki to TL200 or $35.14 USD. The average minimum wage worker in Turkey would have to work 3 days to purchase a legal bottle of Raki.
Authentic Turkish Raki being made 1 part Raki 2 parts water
This has led to a flourishing underground market in liquor, especially Raki, which many Turkish people see as not just an alcoholic beverage but as a part of their culture. Although the precise history of Raki relies on a combination of recorded and oral records it is widely accepted that this unique alcoholic beverage, that is distilled from grapes and flavored with aniseed, dates back at least 300 years.
Even the origins of the name are clouded in history as variations of the drink with various names are enjoyed throughout Albania, Turkey, Iran, Iraqi, the Greek Islands and Balkan countries. The traditional recipe for distilling Raki, calls for its distillation from raisins or dried grapes. The first distillation produces a spirit that is not highly rectified with up to a 94% abv. The resulting liquid is called suma. The suma is then mixed with water or a highly rectified spirit then re-distilled with aniseed to a 79-80% abv. The flavored distillate is then diluted, sweetened and set to rest for 30 days.
As this month’s death is not a novelty in Turkey since the high alcohol taxes of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it can be posited that the underground liquor manufacturers are using methanol, a readily available non-taxed industrial alcohol when re-distilling Raki in its second phase.
Police in Istanbul announced the raid of an alcohol operation that netted the seizure of 1 ton of alcohol along with 880 bottles of bootlegged spirits at three different locations.
A similar police operation in March of 2018 in the Southern province of Adana led to the seizure of 5 tons of alcohol along with distillation equipment used for aniseed flavoring. In the same month police in Istanbul had a haul of bootleg alcohol with an estimated value of 1 million liras the equivalent at that time of $256,000 USD.
The March raids were preceded by a January 2018 raid in which 21 tons of bootleg alcohol was seized in Adana.
As the Turkish government continues to make the national drink of Turkey unaffordable for the average person, the bootleggers who substitute methanol for ethanol in the second step of Raki production will continue to flourish and supply the thirsty markets.
The 23 deaths this month are not the first from methanol alcohol in Turkey and they won’t be the last until the alcohol policies are changed. In 2015 there was a mass death incident from methanol poisoning that took the lives of 32 in Istanbul and 3 in Izmir.
Legal, regulated alcohol may not conform to the beliefs of the pious Muslims; however, it is preferable to having people die for a drink on a regular basis. The current policy of taxing alcohol out of reach, which includes beer that now has a flourishing home brewing industry, will leave a wide-open market for counterfeit alcohol gangs to prey on a willing market.
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