THE RED SULTAN
It’s half past ten on a sunny Sunday morning in Istanbul and I wake up to the sounds of a street vendor hawking outside my window, he’s selling fresh sesame coated baked goods stacked seven layers high on his head.
For me it can’t be a Sunday without a great Bloody Mary and I’m on the trail of my own creation today - The Red Sultan. I get dressed; pack my bag, and head out on my usual weekend ritual, exploring Istanbul’s unique neighborhoods by eating, drinking, and gathering ingredients for a Sunday cocktail at home between Europe and Asia.
I walk down the hills from my apartment leading to the Bosphorus, where I’ll walk along the coast to Balat , a historically diverse area known for its Greek, Armenian, and Jewish residents. Balat is great on the weekends as the streets fill with families gathering groceries for the week, kids running around playing soccer, and antique shops filled with people vying for auctioned treasures. Some Sunday’s I’ll head to the antique market on the other side of the city to buy crystal glasses to add to my growing collection I started a few years ago when preparing for Diageo World Class. I used a lot of items and cultural influences from Istanbul while competing in Cape Town, such as my drinks for the challenge ‘Night & Day’ which told the story of a Turkish wedding using gold and local flavors.
After a quick espresso at our friend’s coffee roaster, I keep walking towards the old city of Istanbul, the coast line is filled with picnickers and boats selling grilled fish sandwiches. I’m on my way to the Spice Bazaar, located at the foot of the Galata Bridge, and home to dozens of stalls selling soaps, teas and nuts: the bazaar is an amazing place. The access to spices for infusions, teas for syrups, dried fruits for garnishes and essential oils for fragrances are a great way to find cocktail inspiration. Since alcohol is not easily accessible in Turkey, bartenders are often challenged to create their own versions of common vermouths or liquors using the bounty of flavors available at the markets. It’s very common in Istanbul for the older generation to make homemade versions of sour cherry and seasonal wisteria liquors to offer home guests throughout the winter months, known as Vişne likoru or mor salkim serbeti respectively.
At the spice bazaar I head to my favorite stall number 51, to buy some dried wasabi and black cardamom that I’ll use for the Red Sultan. With spices in hand, I walk by foot back across the bridge and on to Karakoy , the nightlife hub of Istanbul which has exploded with bars, trendy restaurants, and coffee shops over the past few years. Bars such as Finn allow customers to step behind the bar and make their own concoctions, while both Unter and Mitte nearby offer outdoor seating plus cocktails of the sweet and sour variety that the local crowd sip till the early hours of the day. Third wave coffee culture has boomed in Istanbul since my arrival, and slowly bartenders are starting to work with small roasters to collaborate on coffee cocktails and the perfect beans for stellar espresso martinis.
I get a call from a friend to meet across the Bosphorus , the body of water that slices Istanbul in two, in the laid back and hipster friendly area of Kadikoy, so I hop on a ferry and grab a seat outside. Bits of bread rain down from the sky as people from the upper deck attempt to feed the flocks of seagulls that follow the massive wooden boat as it begins to cross continents.
Kadikoy is located on the Asian side of the city, known for pubs that play vinyl and a younger crowd who prefer to drink beer in the small parks and steps of old buildings that litter the neighborhood. I walk through a farmer’s market selling buffalo milk yogurt and mountain honey, where a stand filled with a bounty of Aegean herbs and greens catches my eye. The produce of the Turkish coast is rich with unique flavors, some plants such as sea asparagus, are traditionally pickled or cooked with olive oil for Turkish small dishes, but I love muddling them fresh to extract the salty juices for Aegean inspired Tanqueray gin martinis.
I am on my way to have an afternoon favorite, raki balik, referring tothe favorite drink of Turkish people, a potent anise spirit, and a table loaded with mezes (small plates) and fish. This culture is best witnessed amongst the fish mongers who sell directly to buyers who have their fish cooked to perfection at the restaurant of their choosing. The Kadikoy fish market is quite busy today, and as we wait for a table, I pop into my favorite pickle shop to stock up on caper berries and treat myself to a glass of spicy pickled peppers, another local delicacy.
Most pickle shops offer pickle juice, plain or spicy, on tap and by the bottle, great while cold and especially with a cheeky shot of Bulleit bourbon. With my mouth on fire from one too many jalapeños, and a couple of garnishes to go, we sit at the table and start our lunch. The locals are very particular how they drink raki , by the bottle, poured into miniature collins style glasses, either straight or with water and ice. This particular culture has infiltrated the bar scene, where customers will specify how many ice cubes to be served in their whiskey, or for their cocktail to be served without ice, perhaps due to a sore throat or other superstition.
After a glass (or two) of lion’s milk, the Turkish nickname for raki, the sun begins to set and I grab another ferry back to the European side of the city. My backpack is now full and I’m heading to my house to host friends and make the Red Sultan that I have been craving all day. Istanbul is known for its proximity to water, sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Marmara, and its hilly landscape. Certainly not a cycling city, I hike back up the hills of Galata, passing the famous tower by the same name, and down Istiklal Street towards my home. Istiklal, the major pedestrian street is the heart of Istanbul, where men sell ice cream and clothing stores, art galleries, restaurants and cocktail bars all seem to blend together. The iconic red tramway cuts through the millions of people who walk up and down it day and night, splitting crowds like the Bosphorus does the city.
While raki remains the king, and local pilsners a close second, cocktail culture in the city of seven hills is certainly on the rise. Local bartending talent is unbelievable and the access to ingredients for making homemade elixirs couldn’t be easier. Bartenders such as Turkish World Class Finalist World Class Engin Yildiz and his team at Frankie are taking fine dining and cocktails to another level, and other talents such as Gokhan Kusoglu are helping launch bars in new territory such as the beautiful Perro, situated on the shore of the Bosphorus's North shore.
Istanbul is a strange place, not East meets West as guides books like to simplify, but the city’s soul can be characterized as old versus new. Neighborhoods such as Bebek and Arnavutkoy cater to the beautiful people of the city where nightclubs and fancy cocktail bars seem to open every other week, while just fifteen percent of the population consumes alcohol. I like the small corner bar Lucca to go dancing on a night out, and their seasonal cocktails have always been some of the best in town. Their satsuma and vodka cocktail is hands down the most famous in the city, and utilizes this local citrus fruit just perfectly. Small kebab places act as intermediary stops between rooftop drinks and late night dancing. Horse drawn carts selling melons and garlic pass though the winding streets near my home, sometimes offering lemons that I’ll use to make drinks for guests coming over. The ability to trapeze throughout the city, literally traveling by foot, boat and train, make it easy to fall in love with this place over and over again.
Once I get back to my house I prepare everything for the Red Sultan. I use my favorite local tomato juice, Atatürk Orman Çiftliği, as the body for the drink, it has such a rich and fresh tomato flavor and its natural thickness helps to retain a heavier mouthfeel after mixing. The lemons I picked up get squeezed into the juice and I use a mortar to crush the black cardamom and wasabi from the Bazaar to spice up the mix. Some black pepper and nutmeg, a touch of spicy pickle juice from the fish market and a sprinkle of salt is all I need to complete the base. My Istanbul inspired cocktail cannot be complete without of touch of raki, the sweet anise flavor cuts through the umami rich tomato juice perfectly. As my friends arrive and we enjoy the final minutes of sunlight, it’s hard to deny that the Bloody Mary perfectly represents this city. A classic drink with tons of cultural influences, sometimes polarizing, best enjoyed under the sun, and most of all, timeless.
The Red Sultan
50 ml Ketel One Vodka
90 ml (Atatürk Orman Çiftliği ) Tomato Juice
15 ml Fresh squeezed lemon juice
10 ml Yeni Raki
10 ml Spicy pickle juice
Two pinches of wasabi
One pinch each: ground black cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper