Despite alcohol being strictly forbidden in the Muslim world, the production of Arak in the Middle East has continued due to the large populations of Christians living there. Although the other aniseed spirits like Ouzo and Sambuca are more popular, Arak is the much purer expression of the Mediterranean and these flavours.
Arak: What’s It All About?
Roughly translated Arak means “sweat” in English. I’ve heard some different theories, but this may either refer to the condensation or sweat during distillation, the work involved in producing it, or the need for a strong drink after a long day working outside.
Base ingredients will vary throughout the Mediterranean, but for Lebanese Arak (arguably the most common, if not the best) a base of grapes/wine is used. For others, dates, raisins, grains, plums, or figs are used in other countries or areas.
But, isn’t Arak just a brandy then?
No! Brandy is aged in wood, just like whisky. Also, brandy is never flavoured with anything, let alone aniseed.
Yes, the infamous black licorice. If you are like me, you avoided the black candies in mixed bags, and forget about giving me any black licorice. To this day, I still can’t eat that stuff. But, when it comes to anise flavoured drinks, I’m on board.
Just like with wine, where the source and quality of grapes is extremely important in the finished wine, Arak producers are fanatical about their ingredients. The most important of these seem to be the quality of anise, and where they get it from.
As this part of the Mediterranean has one of the oldest wine histories of the world, in addition to being the source of the anise plant, it was only natural for the two to come together.
Anise has a wide variety of uses, being used as a medicine to flavouring in dishes in many different Mediterranean and Asian cuisines.
Although it is extremely potent and pungent, don’t worry if you are not a fan of black licorice – the stuff used in Arak is the real deal, and it is worth a try.
Like brandy, the base of Arak is a good clean wine, which is then distilled. Depending on the producer, different stills like pot stills or continuous stills may be used. Pot stills will produce a more concentrated flavour, showing off the flavours of the base materials more. Continuous stills on the other hand, will be purer and cleaner, with little in the way of flavour.
After the first distillation, aniseeds are mixed in with the alcohol and re-distilled, making a much better integrated flavour of the aniseed.
This is very similar to quality Gin production, which place the herbs and spices in little baskets in the still to infuse the distillate with the flavourings themselves.
This is very different from cheap Gin or other liqueurs, which add a concentrate of the desired flavour to the finished spirit.
But, besides this, there is still one more factor that separates Arak from the rest – the sugar. Whereas even better quality Ouzo, Sambuca, and Pastis will have sugar added, Arak has zero, zilch, zip.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, I suggest you have dessert before. This is the real deal, and why Arak is loved so much, and so great with food.
The Arak “Louche” Effect
Ah, yes. If you’ve ever had one of these types of spirits before, you’ll know that something kind of funny happens when chilled down in the freezer.
Anise contains essential oils, which is what flavour that nice glass of Arak you’ve got in your hand. When a bottle of Arak (or any other anise drink, like Absinthe) is cooled down, the oil droplets fall out of solution, and it looks like the bottle is full of little crystals.
When cold water is added, the effect is intensified, and all the oil falls out of solution, creating a milky white haze.
According to Wikipedia, this is called a micro emulsion. If you are science inclined, and I sound like an idiot explaining that, I’m sorry. If you want to read a bit more about this cool boozy (and very party friendly trick) check out said Wikipedia page.
How to Drink Arak
Finally, the fun part.
Usually, here is where I’d recommend some cool cocktails or old classics to give you some ideas trying out a new drink. But, the fact is that there is only ONE way you should be drinking that Arak.
Ask any local, or anyone who knows, and they will tell you this too. The only civilized way to sip this, to get that nice louche effect is with water and ice. That’s it. Everyone will have their own ratio, but generally 1/3 Arak 2/3 water is nice. I like mine a bit stronger, especially because you’ll be adding ice, so play with a bit to get a good mix.
- 2oz Arak
- 4oz water
- Add Arak to glass
- Add water to desired level
- Add ice
Whatever you do, don’t add the ice first. It creates a film over the drink, and even after you add water, it still doesn’t create the right colour. I think anyway, I’ve only done it wrong once and that was a long time ago. Either way, it will look clumpy and weird and you shouldn’t serve it to a friend, or even drink it yourself if it looks goofy like that.
Arak and Food
Straight spirits are a bit harder to pair with food, due to their real lack of structure, but Arak is a bit different.
In Lebanon and the Middle East, Arak is traditionally served with mezze – basically the Arabic tapas. Little bites of food, snacks, veggies, and meats are the norm.
Because of the intense flavour of Arak, it matches well with the equally potent garlic, olive oil, and resinous herbs of the Mediterranean.
Falafel, hummus, tabouleh, and all that stuff is perfect with this. Get some takeout, some Arak, put on some music and enjoy the nice weather.