(Reuters.com) - Bridging Europe and Asia, Istanbul has become Turkey's financial, cultural and historic centre. In addition to quality local wines and beers, the city's tipplers consume their fair share of distilled spirits - particularly vodka, tequila and whiskey - with a cocktail culture on the ascent.
"The most popular drink in Istanbul is raki," says Cevat Yildrim, bartender at local restaurant Lucca (<www.luccastyle.com/>).
This clear, anise-flavoured spirit, widely considered the national alcoholic drink of Turkey, is made from grapes and distilled to an alcohol level comparable to vodka (40 percent alcohol by volume or higher).
Most consume the spirit straight up as a shot, or diluted with water, which changes the colour of the spirit to a milky white (leading to its nickname "Lion's Milk" - also a reference to the courage of those who dare to drink raki).
According to Istanbul-based tour guide Burak Sansal, drinking raki has its own set of rituals. "Most important is what it is to be partaken with," he writes.
"White cheese is the main and unchangeable ‘meze' of raki," though cold vegetable and seafood dishes also are favoured pairings.
The Bosphorus divides Istanbul in two, and most of the best places to eat and drink come with vast water views. Although many bars and clubs close their open-air terraces during the winter months, Istanbul is noted for its lively approach to nightlife and drinks flow freely.
In addition to his own establishment, Yildrim also recommends venues such as Sunset Grill & Bar (<www.sunsetgrillbar.com/>), noted for its stunning views of the Bosphorus, strong wine list and affluent clientele.
Other picks include Turkish-Italian restaurant Paper Moon (<www.papermoonmilano.com/>) and Ulus 29 (<www.group-29.com/>), a bar and club located on the hilltop of Ulus.
In addition, he recommends the bars of five-star hotels such as the Four Seasons Istanbul (<www.fourseasons.com/istanbul/>) which boasts two properties: Sultanahmet, closer to the tourist attractions of the Old City, and higher-end Bosphorus, where nightlife flourishes.
At these upscale bars and restaurants, raki will be available for the asking, but wine and fruity cocktails (such as the one below) fill out the menu listings. Be sure to raise your glass and roar: "Serefe!"
RECIPE: Chilli Passion Margarita
Courtesy of Cevat Yildrim, Lucca
2 ounces Patron Silver Tequila
1 ounce orange liqueur
1 ounce passion fruit
1 ounce lime concentrate
3/4 tablespoon chilli pepper juice
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a Margarita glass. (Kara Newman is the author of "The Secret Financial Life of Food", Columbia University Press; publication date autumn 2012. Any opinions expressed are her own.) (Editing by Peter Myers)