Arak is a clear, distilled, high proof and anise-flavoured spirit that has its origins from Levantine countries. Here’s what you need to know about the spirit, how it’s made and how to drink it.
What is Arak
Arak (also Araq) is a distilled, colourless and unsweetened anise-flavoured spirit that originates from the Levant. The high proof spirit is considered to be Lebanon’s national drink, served at occasions and as an accompaniment to food and mezze.
Arak from Lebanon and Syria gets it flavour from the addition of aniseed (yansoun in Arabic) and has no sugar or other additives. The spirit louches, that is, it turns milky white when water is added.
Not to be confused with Arrack from Southeast Asia (also spelled Arak), which is a distilled spirit made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain or fruit. Variants of Arak can be found around the Mediterranean such as Raki in Turkey, Pastis in France, Ouzo in Greece and Cyprus.
How is Arak Made
The name Arak translates to “sweat” in Arabic and refers to the sweating and the condensation of the liquid during the distillation process. As well as commercial production, it is commonly produced as a homemade spirit with knowledge passed down to generations.
Arak is regulated in Lebanon and must come from white grapes (Obeidi & Merweh), be triple-distilled in a pot still before it’s diluted to around 53% ABV then left to age for a minimum of one year in clay. The first step involves fermentation where crushed, fresh grapes and the must (grape skins, seeds and juice) are left to ferment with wild yeast. After fermentation has completed, the wine is poured into the alembic (called karkeh) for the first distillation to extract the alcohol resulting in a raw spirit referred to as spirto.
Fresh, green aniseed is added to the mixture of spirto and water, in either the second or third distillation. As with other spirits, a cut is taken and the heads and tails are discarded. The final spirit usually has an alcohol by volume of 53% but can range anywhere from 50% to 60% ABV. It can be left to rest in clay jars for approximately one year for the flavours to mellow. Unlike the photo above of Arak Azoury in a clay pot, it is usually bottled and sold in glass bottles.
How to Drink Arak
As a potent alcoholic beverage, it is rarely enjoyed neat. The spirit is mixed in small glasses with cold water and ice. The ratio varies according to taste and a good starting point is one-third arak to two-thirds water. There’s often a debate as to when ice cubes should be added. Some add ice before the spirit is poured; others follow tradition of adding ice last. The traditional toast in Lebanon is Kaasak when addressing a male and Kaasek for a woman.
The spirit has a strong aniseed flavour that is related to licorice but without the inherent sweetness. Those not accustomed to anise flavours of the Mediterranean may find the flavour to be divisive yet it is a delicious drink to enjoy with food or as an aperitif.
With its dominant aniseed flavour, it is rarely used in cocktails. In the next article in the series, we’ll be featuring our very own Arak cocktail, the Byblos Blush followed by Araknophobia Cocktail, with flavours of aniseed, coffee and cardamom.