Purists might disagree with mixing anything with raki (or tsikoudia), the grappa-like Cretan pomace brandy made from distilling the grape skins, stems and seeds left over from the winemaking process. But while rakomelo, a tsikoudia that has been flavoured with honey and spiced with cinnamon or cardamon or herbs, is not something you’d want to pair with octopus or marinated anchovies, it definitely merits drinking on its own. This is not a liqueur and there’s nothing cloyingly sweet about the drink. In fact, the honey is or should be used more as an aromatic than a sweetener. If spices are used, they are (or again, should be) added with restraint.
Since raki was almost always traditionally distilled in the village when not at home, rakomelo has long been a part of traditions of hospitality on Crete and in the Aegean. Although consumed during the winter as a warm digestif, I prefer mine chilled (in which case it can also be served as an aperitif). Rakomelo has become increasingly popular as a year-round 20s-something drink and a summer evening hot-toddy in the village squares of the Cyclades (Amorgos and Folegandros are well-known for their rakomelo). It’s even been used to flavor ice cream (Kayak developed a rakomelo cream for its 2011 spring collection).
You can make rakomelo at home fairly easily, though care must be taken not to let the mixture reach a boil. However, the simplicity of preparation is too often taken as a license to skimp on the quality of ingredients and overdo the honey or cinnamon. Kretarakimeli’s excellent rakomelo, on the other hand, is almost austere in comparison to what I’ve often been served elsewhere: it contains tsikoudia and honey but no cinnamon or other spices. It is produced by DS Distillery, a company founded in 2000 by two Cretan families (Diamantakis and Stamatakis) with a long tradition in the distillery business. The thyme honey used is Cretan, of course, as is the tsikoudia, produced by the distillery with grapes from its own 120-hectar vineyards.
In Serreal’s award-winning packaging design, the product is bottled in a medicinal-like amber flask, a clever play on the therapeutic value traditionally associated with the drink: rakomelo is often served warm as a palliative for sore throats and head colds!