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'The Spirit of Istanbul' goes nicely with friends and meze

Interview - November 19, 2013
In 2011, Diageo acquired Mey Içki, Turkey's top producer of the country's most famous beverage: rakı. Galip Yorgancıoğlu, CEO of Mey Içki, discusses with World Report the meaning behind the drink, the traditional way to enjoy it, and the company's growing presence around the world
Turkey is going through an exciting phase at the moment. In a period of global economic recession, Turkey has been the fastest growing economy in Europe, for two out of the last three years, and is even projected to post a respectable GDP growth figure of 4% for 2013. What effect has the country’s economic prosperity had on its food and beverages industry?
When the economy grows, disposable income and consumer spending grows. Likewise, when the economy declines and disposable income is lower, consumer spending is less. Players in the Turkish F&B industry, including Mey Içki, have obviously benefited from the growth in GNP per capita and the introduction of global brands. Turkey, as you know, is one of the few economies that have not been greatly affected by the 2009/10 global financial crisis. It even grew by 9% that year.  
This has a lot to do with the consumer confidence index crucial to consumer products. The growth is a good thing for everyone.    
Yeni Rakı is one of the popular Turkish drinks under Mey’s portfolio. Can you tell us more about the brand?
The history of rakı spans six centuries. It is more than a drink – it is a dining ritual. It is mostly consumed with a good meal of fish and/or kebabs. It is part of our culture. It is something that has been passed on from generation to generation—from our grandparents to our parents, to us, our children and their children. 
Rakı is one of those beverages that are so ingrained in our culture that they can exist for many more years to come. It is not like ouzo from Greece or pastis from France, whose consumption declined. 
We inherited the business from the state monopoly. At the time, sentiments about the drink were different. The younger generation thought that it was boring, and that it was drunk by older people. So we repositioned it, thanks to the efforts of our marketing and sales team. We revived the Rakı brand. It became popular once again. We also further reinforced its importance in our dining culture. It will not disappear like the other national drinks. 
Where did the “Spirit of Istanbul” slogan come from?
The slogan came from the need to strengthen our brand for export. As you know, Istanbul has been a popular destination for several years. It represents a very metropolitan culture. It is like a mosaic—it is a melting pot. It is a very beautiful, vibrant and attractive city. It is the only city in the world that has the Bosphorus, exposing the city to Asia and Europe. This creates an interesting proposition for the consumers. It is for this reason that we came up with the “Spirit of Istanbul”. We want to share the Istanbul experience to all export markets. It is like a snapshot of the city. It makes it more appealing and relevant for those who are living outside of the country, who are interested in the Turkish culture.  
We understand that Mey Içki is now targeting overseas markets. Can you tell us about the company’s international aspirations?
We have been working on this strategy since the state monopoly acquisition. So far, we have quintupled our sales in the last ten years 
When the acquisition took place, our export numbers were around 800,000 litres. Now, we are close to 5 million litres. We hope to double this figure to 10 million litres in four years’ time. It is a very ambitious export objective. Of course, it is completely attainable, as long as we follow our set strategies.  
Can you tell us more about your target markets?
Primary target markets include countries that have anise-based product experience (e.g., Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Germany). Secondary target markets include the US, particularly its Turkish diaspora (and people with linkages to the Ottoman empire—Greeks, Armenians and people from the Middle East)—those who have acquired the taste for such beverages. They are our natural consumers. 
How important is the British market?
The UK is also a very important market for us—not only because of the Turkish diaspora there, but also because Turkey has been an important travel destination for British people. When these British tourists come to the country, they taste our national drink. Most of them bring some of these drinks back to the UK with them, or they acquire a liking for the drink, which makes it important for us to have distribution outlets there. This makes the UK an interesting source of business for us. That is why we are also targeting the British market. 
How would you describe the rakı experience to someone who has never been to Turkey?
First of all, you have to consider rakı as a presence in your table—one that you need to respect. You need to respect the drink and the rituals of the drink. 
Unlike wine, the rakı bottle never stays at the centre of the table. It has to be at the end of the table. You have to treat the rakı bottle like a person sitting at the table. 
When you drink rakı, you do not do it in haste. You consume it sip by sip. Appetisers (meze) are important. You do not drink rakı without meze. 
Rakı is a social drink. You do not drink rakı alone. It has to be done with good company (e.g., friends, colleagues, family members, etc.). It does not have to be a big gathering, but you need to be with at least one person to drink rakı. 
It is important to note that when drinking rakı, you should not be loud. Enjoy the drink and the meal that goes with it. Not only do you drink the rakı slowly, you eat the meals that go with it slowly. 
A good rakı table should go for at least three hours or more. 
To be clear, rakı is not just about happy occasions. Rakı encompasses a range of events. You can drink it during weddings, birthdays and the like. You can also consume it during moments of sorrow, when you are confiding in a friend. 
Rakı can be drunk as an aperitif (like what you can see in Bodrum). Rakı used to be consumed with a meal, but a beautiful bar in Bodrum started serving it as an aperitif taken with small nuts and so on. This has caught on. 
Music is important, but it is not required. However, if you do decide to play music on the background, it should not be loud. 
Finally, you should never get drunk on rakı. It should be drunk in moderation. When you feel yourself starting to get tipsy, you should stop. Getting drunk on rakı is unacceptable. Those who get inebriated on rakı do not know how to enjoy the drink, and are most likely not to get invited to a rakı table the next time. 
What kind of meze goes with rakı?
Good mezes to go with rakı include white cheese, melon, tomatoes, aubergine pâté, smoked fish, all Mediterranean herb dishes, seafood, and vegetables—nothing heavy. No dish should overpower the taste of rakı. The taste of rakı should fill your palette. This means that you should not have it with something too oily or fried.   
What makes a good rakı drinker?
A good rakı drinker never gets drunk. He or she knows how to drink the beverage. 
Every good rakı drinker has a limit. It could be a single or a double, but there is a limit. Good drinkers respect that. Discussions and talks (as we say muhabbet in Turkish) are very important.
How do you make rakı? 
Rakı is made out of grapes. You make the first distillation with grapes to obtain the alcohol. The second distillation includes the aniseed plant itself. 
The major difference between rakı and ouzo is the production. Other anise-based drinks do not necessarily use grapes during the first distillation, nor do they use the aniseed plant (they just use the essence). For rakı, you need Turkish grapes and Turkish-grown anise seed plants. We cannot just use the essence. We have to use the whole pant. 
Turkey, as you know, is the fifth largest grower of grapes. Within the grape-growing zone, Thrace in the Greek-Bulgarian border, is an important grape grower (specifically, when you talk about places like Şarköy and Tekirdağ). That area along the Aegean is a very important region. Other crucial locations include Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, Tarsus in South-Central Turkey, Tokat in Northern Turkey, Elazığ in Eastern Anatolia, and Diyarbakır in the southeastern part of the country.  
Everything is ideal in the middle part of the barrel (the belly). This is true for all spirits. The bottom part and the top part of the rakı are re-distilled. The craftsmanship lies in separating these parts.    
What makes Mey Içki so attractive to Diageo Plc?
First of all, Mey Içki is good business. The domestic business is good. Mey has good brands, not just in rakı, but also in vodka, gin, wine and liquor. Moreover, Mey has a strong consumer base, which presents a tremendous expansion potential for Diageo. 
Turkey is one of the world’s important emerging markets. It continues to post positive growth despite the general decline in Europe and the US. Its young, adaptable and growing population makes for an appealing demographic. Population is high (growing at an annual rate of 1%). They are open to Western cultures. Unlike other countries that experience a population decline, Turkey will continue to grow. These are probably some of the things that drew Diageo to Mey. 
Yeni Rakı is a brand synonymous to quality and excellence. How are you working to strengthen this brand even further?
When we inherited the brand from the state monopoly, we made radical changes in the packaging. It was a revolutionary move to rebranding the product. It was a risky move, but it worked out it in the end. 
Yekta Rakı and Izmir Rakı target the price-conscious consumers who purchase the products frequently and want value for money. Yeni Rakı targets everyone, and is considered “the Rakı brand to buy”. 
Tekirdağ, Yeni Rakı and Yeni Seri target women, and is positioned as beverages with the “legendary smooth taste”. Kulüp, Tekirdağ Altin Seri, Altinbaş and are premium labels for the wealthy consumers who want “heritage brands that offer the best rakı drinking pleasure”. 
A few years ago, we launched Âlâ Rakı, our topmost premium brand. Âlâ is Turkish for “perfect”. We use collectible bottles for it from time to time, including that which celebrates Istanbul as one of the world’s cultural capital city (from three years ago). We also have one in gold that celebrates the craftsmanship that Turkey is known for. We have also done export packaging (e.g., what we have done for Germany, to remind them about the holidays and the key Turkish destinations—sun, sea and sand). 
Branding is a continuous innovation for Yeni. We will never stop making the brand vibrant.   
What advice would you give other Turkish businesses that aspire to have the same level of brand recognition that Yeni Rakı has?
You need to have a vision. When we acquired that business, we said that we wanted to make Yeni Rakı a global brand. It is a very easy thing to say, and a hard thing to accomplish. 
The first pillar is the quality. You have to make sure that the content of the product itself is world-class. 
The second pillar is distribution or availability—it has to be present in the markets you want to target. That is not an easy job. You have to convince people like the distributors to make your brand available in their shelves. That has to do with the customers and how receptive they are to your product. 
The third pillar is consumer demand—you have to make people want to buy your products. This is the most difficult part. This involves a medley of things, from marketing to promotions, to PR. In Germany, we have achieved a 70% market penetration rate. In the Netherlands, we have a 48% market penetration rate. Thanks to Diageo, our US market is growing. 
As the CEO of one of the most widely recognised Turkish brands linked to the country’s culture and history, do you feel a sense of responsibility to the Turkish people?
Yes, I do feel a sense of responsibility towards the Turkish people. First of all, we are creating jobs here. A huge community of people makes a living out of this industry. Within Mey alone, we have about 1,000 people on our payroll. The industry as a whole, however, (including farmers, distributors, grocers, bottle producers, cap producers, label makers, grape growers, anise growers, grain growers, and so on) employs 1.5 million people and generates 6.7% of the overall excise tax. 
Mey contributes greatly to the Turkish economy and generates 2% of the overall excise tax. The company produces 5 million litres for export (worth almost US$40 million). Every year, we angle for the gold medal—no. 1 for exports. 
Apart from our financial contributions, there is also the social and cultural element. We are ambassadors. We help pass tradition on to the coming generations.  We help investors open drinking houses (meyhaneler). The meyhane is part of the ritual, which should carry on for many years to come (if not, forever), and help the future generations have decent rakı consumption.  
What message would you like to leave to our readers?
Come to Turkey. Visit our beautiful country. Try our Yeni Rakı. For those who cannot come to Turkey, go find Yeni Rakı in your homeland. Have a little sip of Turkey wherever you are.