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Gazoz, Turkey's eclectic national drink, recaptures its old fizz

Gazoz, a light, fizzy and delicious drink that symbolized the recklessness of Turkish youth in the post-World War II era, is making a comeback.

Sweet and refreshing, Turkish gazoz — a light, carbonated soft drink in a variety of colors and flavors — became a symbol of reckless, Westernized youth in the mid-1940s. This fizzy concoction, first produced during Ottoman times, had fallen out of favor in the late 20th century, but it is unexpectedly back. Reflecting Turkey's regional complexities through its variations, gazoz is stiff competition for anise-flavored raki and ayran (yoghurt mixed with water) in laying claim to being Turkey's true and timeless “national beverage.”

Gazoz, from the French “eau gazeuse” for sparkling water, became so popular in the 1960s and 1970s that it continues to creep into novels and films set in those bygone decades. The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk conveyed the nation’s affection for these fruit-infused sodas in “Museum of Innocence,” a nostalgic novel on love, and exhibits replicas of the iconic Meltem bottles in the actual Museum of Innocence, “in memory of our optimism and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the day.” The filmmaker and actor Cem Yilmaz uses it as a symbol of tolerance and adolescent idealism in his 2016 movie “Gazoz for Iftar.”

Traditionally, gazoz has been produced and consumed locally, creating and evoking strong connections to its place of origin. In the drink's heyday, every town of Anatolia had a brand or two of its own, made distinctively unique by an original mix of mineral water from its soil and flavors and smells from lemon, ginger, raspberry, gum mastic, and bitter almond, and other edibles. Locally made gazoz eventually came face-to-face with national and international competition.

A handful of national producers, among them Uludag Icecek, Nigde, and Camlica, emerged, selling the drink everywhere, including abroad, while popular foreign brands also found their way onto supermarkets shelves and into corner grocers. The competition was ultimately a losing one for everyone, as gazoz fell victim to carbonated drinks sold around the world.

Uludag Icecek was one of the first companies to recognize the nostalgic value of gazoz. In 2003, it brought back its old, stylish bottle, with a campaign recalling the first mass-produced gazoz from 1932 and its special formula. According to Uludag, gazoz consumption in Turkey totals 483.4 million liters a year, excluding orange gazoz (an Orangina equivalent), which stands at 792.6 million liters. Combined total consumption thus exceeds a remarkable 1 billion liters. Meanwhile Uludag Icecek exports around 33 million liters of gazoz a year.

The wave of nostalgia hit Istanbul around the early 2000s, when a few boutique cafes — Avam in central Beyoglu and Hurma and Kibrit Kutusu on the Asian side of the Bosphorus — began offering a small assortment of obscure artisanal product brands from the Aegean region and southeastern Anatolia. Since 2015, that first drop of local gazoz has become a deluge of more than 100 incarnations in new, hip spots around the city.

Two friends, Anil Karacaer and Mahmut Sakli, jumped on the trend, opening Sevda Gazozcusu, first in Vefa and then in Balat. “We chose these historical neighborhoods because they are in line with our concept based on reviving traditions and on our past,” Karacaer told Al-Monitor.

Ecstatic fanatics and curious passersby at Sevda Gazozcusu request drinks with savors associated with particular localities. For those with a sense of adventure, Anil and Mahmut are happy to oblige, leading them on a journey of discovery that starts in their fridge. Always drink cold! Their mini-shops are stocked with more than 130 varieties of gazoz from every corner of Turkey, half of them personally selected. Among some of the more unusual flavors are coconut, chocolate and dates. 

Unlike Sevda Gazozcusu, where there is no place to sit and sip, Gazoz Kapaa, in downtown Capa, offers a more relaxed tasting session. Owner Tansel Cuneyt Guler is enthusiastic about some of the new brands his shop offers.

“The ingredients they use are natural and of better quality than in the past, such as beetroot sugar,” he told Al-Monitor, explaining that he travels around Anatolia in pursuit of deserving novelties.

Kapaa offers an extensive selection and proposes pairings with food, catering mostly to students. “They are not well informed about gazoz,” he remarked. “They usually drink those of their hometown. They identify with it.”

Meanwhile, Ahmet Sav of Gazozname, told Al-Monitor, “Gazoz is in my family and in my veins.” Sav became a distributor in 2014, initially by bringing local drinks to a few, select cafes in Istanbul. There are now more than 100 cafes on his client list, a few in other cities as well.

The grandson of a gazoz maker, Sav was convinced that demand would take off. “I knew that the craving for gazoz was already there, in the subconscious of many people,” he said. He was proved right.

In 2015, Sav opened his own unassuming cafe to sell gazoz in Uskudar and observe the reactions and preferences of his customers. He also now sells to businesses and individuals online.

The main problem with gazoz is that distribution of local production is a complicated and expensive business. Big names dominate the market, leaving only 7-8% to all the others, Sav said.

His personal objectives are to push artisans to experiment and refine their gazoz — the healthier the better — and to provide a connection between them, their signature flavors and supermarkets. He offered his prize product to savor — a homemade gazoz with black mulberry juice that was not too sweet and immensely refreshing. 

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