Understanding Arak, an Ancient Spirit with Modern Appeal

Taking samples from clay amphorae at Muaddi Craft Distillery / Photo by Gabriel Helou

The fragrant scent of arak always transports May Matta-Aliah, a wine and spirits educator, and founder of consulting firm In The Grape, to her native Lebanon. She and her family enjoyed Sunday lunches at outdoor mezze restaurants in the mountains. Meals would stretch for hours, with conversation fueled by endless small plates and cloudy glasses of arak.

“You grow up around the smell of arak because it’s pretty much everywhere,” says Matta-Aliah. “It is the national drink.”

Steeped in history, arak evolved from the Arab invention of alembic distillation in the 12th century. Many centuries after its introduction, arak continues to be the distilled drink of people all over the Middle East and for those who embrace its heritage.

Distiller Nader Muaddi smelling Palestinian anise seeds / Photo by Gabriel Helou
Distiller Nader Muaddi smelling Palestinian anise seeds / Photo by Gabriel Helou

What is arak?

Arak is made by extracting anise seeds in grape brandy and is considered by many to be one of the first flavored spirits ever made. You may be familiar with anise spirits from other parts of the Mediterranean and Levant, like French pastis and Turkish raki, but arak precedes them all. It’s also the simplest in composition, flavored with only anise seed and no other additives.

While popular in many parts of the world, arak hasn’t taken off in America, perhaps due in part to the divisive flavor that many associate with licorice.

Though they may taste similar, licorice root and anise seed are botanically distinct. Licorice’s flavor comes from a compound called glycyrrhizin, which is up to 100 times sweeter than sugar. Anise seeds, on the other hand, are more closely related to fennel and derive their flavor from the compound anethole.

Anethole is the compound that creates arak’s louche, an effect that turns the spirit cloudy when consumed in the traditional fashion, mixed with ice and water. An oil, anethole dissolves into the high-proof distillate. However, as soon it’s cut with water, the compound creates a hazy emulsion.

Muaddi's arak aging in clay amphorae / Photo by Gabriel Helou
Muaddi’s arak aging in clay amphorae / Photo by Gabriel Helou

The culture and spirit of arak

Arak is most regulated in Lebanon, where it’s protected under an appellation system not unlike the wines of France and Italy.

Nader Muaddi, a distiller, grew up drinking Lebanese arak with his family in Philadelphia, where he was born and raised in a Palestinian family. Arak was a part of every gathering on weekends and holidays. Muaddi grew to love it, despite not having a taste for other alcoholic drinks.

Now, Muaddi distills arak in Palestine in accordance with Lebanese standards. He considers Lebanon’s regulations the proper way to make arak, noting the pride with which the spirit is crafted there.

“Even before Lebanon became an independent state, they had a law that dictated what can constitute arak,” says Muaddi. “It’s the only country in the Levant that has regulations in place that govern what can be qualified as arak.”

According to Lebanese rules, arak must come from white grapes, typically using lesser-known native varieties Obeidy or Merwah. It must be triple-distilled in a pot still before it’s diluted to 53% alcohol by volume (abv). It must then be aged at least one year in clay.

Muaddi moved to Palestine 12 years ago to work as a humanitarian. However, despite being geographically closer to the world’s best arak, an Israeli embargo on Lebanese products prevented the import of bottlings to Palestine.

The ban created a market for cheap arak imitations, most created from watered-down, industrial-strength alcohol with added flavoring. As a result, arak began to develop a bad reputation.

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Reviving a storied spirit

For a while, Muaddi sourced overpriced arak from the black market and smuggled surplus bottles back from trips to neighboring Jordan. But his interest became too much of a passion to remain clandestine.

Since 2018, Muaddi has made the wine he distills for his arak label, Muaddi Craft Distillery. Batches are miniscule in comparison to larger spirits producers. His last vintage yielded less than 500 bottles, but response to his product has been overwhelming. Bottles sell out quickly at local shops where it’s available.

Today, many of Lebanon’s top wineries produce the spirit using indigenous grapes, like Domaine des Tourelles’s Arak Brun. Sometimes, the spirit is labeled with the winery name, as with Massaya’s arak. Chateau Musar, arguably Lebanon’s best-known wine producer, makes a special arak, L’Arack de Musar, in which owner Marc Hochar utilizes a fourth distillation for extra smoothness.

Arak displaying its signature hazy louche, with Middle Eastern cuisine / Photo by Gabriel Helou
Arak displaying its signature hazy louche, with Middle Eastern cuisine / Photo by Gabriel Helou

How to drink arak

Though arak has a rich flavor, it’s by no means a dessert drink. Contrary to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (TTB) definition of it as a liqueur/cordial, it contains no sugar or sweetener beyond the natural spice of anise. Once you dilute it (or “break” the arak, as it is called), it creates a pleasantly refreshing drink quite different from the overwhelming reputation that poor quality bottles have acquired.

Like many who enjoy arak, Matta-Aliah doesn’t think of it as alcohol in the same sense as other spirits. Meals in Lebanon are accompanied by glasses of the spirit, but it’s more of a cultural custom. It’s not something consumed in excess.

Matta-Aliah says the traditional pour is one-third arak to two-thirds water. However, since you dilute it yourself, you can tailor the ratio to your own taste.

Always pour the arak first, and always into a clean glass, so that the full effect of the louche can be appreciated.

Arak is the rare drink that’s welcome before, during and after a meal, as its strong flavor is compatible with all the major ingredients found in the most popular Middle Eastern dishes. The spirit’s flavors stand up to the powerful heat of raw garlic and acidic bite of fresh lemon, but it also refreshes the palate between bites of richer fare like grilled meat or nutty tahini sauce. It also acts as an excellent digestive.

In the U.S., you’re likely to find at least one of the major Lebanese bottlings, like Razzouk or Gantous & Abou Raad, at any well-stocked retailer.

For most people outside of Middle Eastern culture, arak is scarcely given its due. But for many, it’s a part of life. Few things persist so close to their original form over so many centuries. Arak’s importance among spirits and the history of the people who created it is undeniable.

Whether you find your way to arak as an exploration or as a ritual, it’s a drink that deserves your attention.

Published on March 9, 2020
Topics: Regional Spirits