Arak is a colorless, anise-flavored alcoholic aperitif. It’s the national drink of Lebanon, literally meaning, “sweat” in Arabic because the still sweats and drips the liquid. It is typically made from grapes grown in Mediterranean climates, though dates, plums, figs, may also be used. An authentic copper still with a Moorish shape, called Karake, is believed to give the alcohol its best flavor. Typical arak usually ranges from between 30% to 60% alcohol by volume.
It is colorless but magically turns milky-white when mixed with water due to the presence of anise. The distillation of Arak is performed in two stages, or sometimes three (Mtallat). The harvested grapes, usually in late September or October, are squeezed and left fermenting in barrels for 3 weeks. The grapes and their juices along with a small quantity of pine coal at the bottom of the Karkeh (to act as a filter and absorb any undesirable smell caused by the release of CO2 during the fermentation process) undergo the first distillation process. The alcohol is drawn and rests in new barrels waiting for the second and crucial distillation process. This 2nd stage is when anise is mixed with the drawn alcohol. The quality and quantity of anise are as important as a good vineyard. The Karkeh is placed over a very feeble fire, just enough to cause the alcohol to evaporate (80°C) without the water then condensate at the end of the long neck into a steady, yet very weak crystal clear stream. This process is aided by a steady flow of cold water on the upper part of the still. The first gallon or so of the batch is thrown away since it contains ethylene and might be dangerous. The last couple of liters of the batch are also useless since the alcohol is almost all but gone and murky water starts coming out. Although it is not crucial to repeat the process a third time, it is done only to raise the alcohol by volume level to its maximum value.
Traditionally, arak is mixed with a ratio of 1/3 arak to 2/3 water in a vessel called a brik then poured into small cups. The ritual calls for a small glass to be used only once. Each successive drink is poured in a new glass, Arak first, followed by cold water then finally ice is added as per preference. Syrian and Lebanese arak is unique to the rest, as it contains no added sugar at all. Emulsification of the anise oils turns the spirit a milky-white color when mixed with water, earning arak the nickname Halib l’Sbe3 “the milk of lions.”
Arak is an integral part of Lebanon’s culinary heritage, which has the highest number of commercial producers and where villagers take pride in producing their own homemade, Arak baladeh. Producing the drink at home is a standing tradition among villagers, possibly due to the relative ease of making it. All that is needed is grapes, anise, a still and the know-how. Most of those who produce it, do so for their own consumption and as gifts for friends.
Arak is drunk not before or after meals, but with them. The uninitiated may flinch at the notion of washing down food with a pungent spirit. But its dilution renders arak only slightly more intoxicating than a strong wine. And because arak clears the palate more efficiently than wine, it’s the perfect accompaniment to mezze with its small array of small, tasty morsels that typically includes such contrasting flavors as bitter olives, labneh, spring onions, goat’s cheese, raw minced lamb, and chicken livers stewed in pomegranate juice.
Arak, colorless and undifferentiated to the rest, yet full of flavor, magically turning into a white spirit when mixed with water made to enjoy with food and friends is typical of us. Understated, humble, yet lively and poetically integrates with our lives and our friends. I love Arak, every time I sip it, it takes me back to the days when I was much younger and used to hover around the family table watching all the adults sipping Arak and eating kibbe nayeh (raw meat) in a moment of happiness that defines the Lebanese’s joie de vivre.