In a waterfront İstanbul neighborhood that once buzzed with cafe and pub life, there are now only empty tables after a nearly 50 percent tax hike on alcohol.
The tax is one of the biggest blows to alcohol consumption by a government often accused by its opponents of eroding the pillars of modern Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation but an officially secular state.
The blow was felt particularly hard in the Beşiktaş neighborhood on the European side of the Bosporus.
Süleyman Güneş expressed frustration as he searched for customers during an evening rush hour this week outside the pub where he works.
“It’s not like it used to be. At this time of day, we were full, like 80 to 90 percent and now it’s around 30 to 40 percent,” the 32-year-old told AFP.
“Customers stand up and leave soon after they see the prices on the menu,” Güneş said.
Beşiktaş is one of the most popular and vibrant İstanbul quarters, with its universities, well-known football club and young population as well as many cafes and bars.
“How can you expect a man to give half of his daily money to a pint of beer?”
In January, the Turkish government announced a 47.4 increase in the special consumption tax on alcoholic drinks and tobacco products.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist politician, has repeatedly taken a stand against alcohol and tobacco consumption.
In 2013, his government passed a law restricting the hours for alcohol sales and during the COVID-19 lockdown last year, it introduced further curbs on sales.
He himself has often advised Turks to drink “ayran” made from yogurt instead of rakı, the national alcoholic drink flavored with aniseed.
The latest taxes increase prices for individuals, bars and restaurants that have been struggling with inflation and high rents as well as restrictions during the pandemic — though less than in many other countries.
Some bartenders told AFP they witnessed customers sharing one bottle of beer, and others staying in the bar for hours after ordering only one glass of wine.
When Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, a 70cl bottle of rakı cost 8 Turkish lira.
Today, it costs 249 lira (16 euros), up 42 percent from the 175 lira it cost before the January increase.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent inflation and soaring food and energy prices have eroded Turks’ purchasing power despite a wage rise of 30 to 50 percent for many public and private sector employees.
With the latest measures on alcohol, many liquor stores are at risk of closing, while some people have started producing bootleg alcohol.
“Alcohol was already expensive. The latest hikes have poured fuel on the fire,” Cihan İnce, an İstanbul tekel (or liquor) shop owner, told AFP.
Özgür Aybaş, head and founder of Turkey’s Tekel Stores Platform, said the price hikes on alcoholic beverages amounted to a “fine slapped by a tiny minority on a happy majority, the catering culture, the private and secular lives.”
“This is an ideological approach, a punishment with tax and a sanction saying ‘live like us’,” he said.
Drinkers ‘becoming chemists’
Şeref Binay, who runs a tekel on the Asian side of İstanbul, said half of his clients were producing alcohol at home.
Drinkers “are becoming chemists,” he quipped.
In İstanbul’s buzzing Beyoğlu district, tekel store owner Serdar Bayar, whose clients are pubs rather than individual consumers, warned that price hikes would trigger bootleg alcohol production.
He said YouTube videos already show how to make alcohol at home but warned, “The moment you put methyl instead of ethyl, you go blind.”
İstanbul police on Monday confiscated thousands of bootleg bottles and detained four suspects during one raid.
Turkish media reported 84 people died of bootleg alcohol in December alone, before the prices shot up.
On his YouTube channel sitting at a table in front of a big bowl of green grapes, a Turkish man using the alias of Vedat3858 Bilgin tells his more than 1,300 subscribers how to make rakı.
“It is much cheaper. I have my own measures and recipes. A five liter rakı costs 100 lira (12 euros),” Bilgin, who refused to share his real name, told AFP in a phone interview.
Some stores are resorting to creative ways to promote sales with lively Instagram accounts and live bands inside small shops.
Batu, a shopper in his 20s, said: “Drinking in a bar is becoming a dream for us. Freedoms are being curbed and we stay quiet. What else can I say?”
Back in Beşiktaş, Güneş warned the high prices will doom the alcohol business.
“As far as I can see, businesses will shut down one by one.”