The Story of Arak in Lebanon

Arak is a distilled alcoholic drink favored in the Middle East. Commonly used in social settings, the drink is famous for its strength, the aniseed flavor and the milky-white color it turns when water is added to it. Arak has a freshness that cleans the palate and aids digestion. It is often served as an aperitif and then as the perfect accompaniment to classic selections of mezze. Arak works particularly well with the mezze melange that will include olives, spices, meat and cheese – flavors that are sometimes harder to match with wine.

What Does Arak Taste Like?

Arak is typically made from grapes, Obeidy or Merwah, an indigenous variety to Lebanon. Though Arak in its pure form is colorless, the clear liquid is aniseed-flavored. Aniseed is added to the distilled alcohol during the second of three distillation processes. The ratio of aniseed to alcohol can vary which results in different qualities, but the strength of the drink usually falls between 50%-60%.

Obeidi Grapes

Obeidi Grapes

Merwah Grapes

Merwah Grapes

Aniseed

Aniseed

Tabouleh

Tabouleh

How is it made? – Homemade Style

Usually the preparation of Arak is kind of celebrated with a party, lots of amazing Lebanese food, lots of drinking and socializing. Below is a bit technical summary of the long making process, the fun part for later!

The start is by harvesting the vine grapes, squeezing the juice out and putting the whole in barrels for two or three weeks to make sure the fermentation process is completed. The mixture is usually stirred every other day to make sure that the vapors do not get stuck in the lower parts.

Karkeh

Karkeh

Distillation – Three stages or “Mtallat”

Before going into the distillation process we need to speak about the “Karkeh” (picture on the left) - This is the main tool used to distill the alcohol out of the mix. This is a copper contraption and is usually made by copper smiths in the bazaars of Tripoli, very much medieval style. It is made of two main parts, the lower part where the alcohol mix goes in and the top part which is filled with cold water to cool the vapor and transform it into liquid.

After the fermentation is complete, the grapes and their juices are put in the lower part of the karkeh with a small quantity of coal at the bottom to start the first distillation process. Once the first distillation is done, the product is alcohol, it is just raw alcohol that cannot be drank.

The alcohol than 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 than placed over a very feeble fire, just enough to cause the alcohol to evaporate into a steady very weak crystal clear stream. This process is aided by a steady flow of cold water on the upper part of the still.  The third distillation process is a repeat of the second process and is done to raise the alcohol by volume level to its maximum value around 70%. The final liquid is than collected in a glass jars.

Aniseed in Karkeh

Aniseed in Karkeh

Karkeh - Disassembling

Karkeh - Disassembling

Karkeh-Cooling

Karkeh-Cooling

Karkeh - Alcohol

Karkeh - Alcohol

When is it Served and Served With?

Mezze

Mezze

Arak is the perfect companion for Mezza, the array of small, tasty morsels that typically includes such contrasting flavors as bitter olives, fresh almonds, spring onions, goat's cheese, raw minced lamb, and chicken livers stewed in pomegranate juice, and 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 at a ratio ranging from ¼ to ½.

It is most commonly served in social settings or gatherings, such as dinner parties, restaurants and night clubs. Traditionally, the drink is served with mezze, which the guests consume to help hinder the potency of the alcohol. It goes hand in hand with these mini-meals so that in the case of a dinner party or restaurant, the main dish is hardly touched.

It is not only what the drink is served with so much as it is how it is served. While water and ice are normally added, ice should never be added first. Ice causes a film to produce on the top of the liquid that is seen as unpleasing, so adding water first turns the drink a milky color and inhibits the effects of ice alone. Using multiple glasses when drinking arak is also common, due to the effects of mixing with water and ice. Middle Eastern restaurants will usually provide several glasses for their customers when serving arak.

What makes Lebanese Arak special?

Massaya Clay Jars

Massaya Clay Jars

A proper arak, has only two ingredients, grapes and the native aniseed of the Mediterranean. It is drunk not before or after meals, but with them. Because it clears the palate more efficiently than wine, it makes the perfect accompaniment to a Middle Eastern mezze.

Arak is not just Lebanon's national drink, for many it is a passion, to the point that the most consumed in the country is not factory-produced, but home-distilled where it’s typical to distill a third and even a fourth, topping it up with water each time before bringing it down to 53 degrees of alcohol. The crystal clear liquid is then matured in clay jars for at least a year. The large jars, which look just like Roman amphora, are slightly absorbent.

Understandably, those not familiar with arak tend to assume it is much like Pastis, Ouzo or Raki. But connoisseurs find little resemblance, beyond the fact that both are strong, taste of anise and cloud mysteriously when water is added. Pastis is sugared, and flavored with a range of herbs. Its base alcohol is of the cheap variety, typically distilled from sugar beet. It is drunk, copiously, as an afternoon aperitif. Greek ouzo, and its stronger cousins tsikoudia and tsipouro, sometimes elaborated with mastic and other herbs. Raki is traditionally produced by twice distilling grape pomace - the solid remains of grapes, olives, or other fruit after pressing for juice mixed with ethanol.

New generation

Lebanon's better commercial araks are as expensive as imported spirits. Competition, along with changes in the Lebanese way of life, has certainly cut into sales. (In Greece, similarly, whisky now outsells ouzo.) Yet recent years have seen a return of interest to the national drink. Whereas long-established brands, such as Touma, Ksara and Kefraya, now tout their adherence to traditional making methods, newcomers have added a touch of glamour to the high end of the business such as Massaya and Tourelles.

Fun with it– Cocktails!

Recently the Lebanese nightclubs started ‘having fun’  and mixing it with cocktails! If you are interested, some of the recipes below! We would also love to hear if you have a special recipe, we can add it in here.

With Grapefruit With Tomato Juice With Aloe Vera With Litchi Juice
- 3 cl Arak
- Add a few drops of lavender syrup
- Fill the glass with grapefruit
- Ice
- 4 cl Arak
- Fill the glass with Tomato Juice
- Ice
- 3 cl Arak
- Fill the glass with aloe vera juice
- Add few drops of lime & fresh mint
- Ice
- 3 cl Arak
- Fill the glass with litchi juice
- Ice
Arak Cocktail - Grapejuice

Arak Cocktail - Grapejuice

Arak Cocktail - Tomato Juice

Arak Cocktail - Tomato Juice

Arak Cocktail - aloe vera juice

Arak Cocktail - aloe vera juice

Arak Cocktail - Litchi Juice

Arak Cocktail - Litchi Juice

Attributes.

- http://www.winemosaic.org/en/the-grape-variety-of-the-day-obeidy-from-lebanon/
- Cocktails pictures and Recipes by Emile Majdalani from Chateau Kefraya
- Glass picture by comradavid - originally posted to Flickr as Arak
- Karkeh pictures by toula-lebanon.blogspot
- El Massaya clay jars by www.souar.com
- Mezze Picture - By Unai Guerra - originally posted to Flickr as Metzes, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=3986965
- Aniseed Picture - By David Monniaux (Own work) GFDL https://www.gnu.orgcopyleftfdl.html , CC-BY-SA-3.0 https://creativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0

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