What is Arak?
We learned a little about liqueurs with an anise base when we touched on the French Pastis, well as it turns out the reach of anise liqueurs goes much further than that. The middle east is actually more infamous for these types of beverages and in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Bali, and many other Middle Eastern countries rep Arak. A very strong drink most tourists are warned against.
Arak is a clear liqueur that looks like a hazy vodka, it’s 40–63% alc/vol or ~80–126 proof, made from distilling coconut palm sap, sugarcane, coconut, or less frequently, red rice. Each country has their own separate methods and traditions for creating arak.
The word itself comes from the Arabic ʿaraq ﻋﺮﻕ, which translates to 'perspiration'. The traditional drink is white unsweetened anise-flavored drink, the original recipe only calls for two ingredients, grapes, and aniseed. Aniseeds are, of course, the seeds of the anise plant, when you crush them- the oil that comes out gives Arak the licorice taste. The aniseed is added to the distilled alcohol during the second of three distillation processes.
The quality of the grapes also determines the quality of the Arak, the Obeidi grapes and white grapes which are grown in Syrian and Lebanon, are considered to be the best. The grapes are harvested and then pressed and put in barrels to be soaked in their own juice and left to be fermented for three weeks. Then comes the distillation process, first is the ordinary distillation without any additional ingredients, the result of grapes is put in a container with water and some coal to absorb undesired odors.
For Arak, the product of the first distillation process is called “soma” in the local language. The Soma is moved into another container to begin the second distillation. That’s when anise is added and voila.
Due to how many regions actually produce their own Arak, some variations contain dates, sugar, plums, figs, and molasses for a different kind of sweetness. In contrast, the Gantous & Abou Road Arak of Lebanon is described as a herbal and grassy flavor with only the scent of anise and hints of pepper in the body. The Kazan Arak is a softer and fruitier Arak with anise scent and reminiscent to some of the Spanish- Grappa.
Indonesians consider Arak their moonshine, and much like American hooch, Arak can vary widely in levels of strength but also in the number and level of toxic ingredients. It’s their moonshine due to a ban on production that started in 2013. So the only way to test a new batch for safety is to drink it, but due to the ban poor production techniques and not so accidental mixes Arak can sometimes yield methanol in the finished product. In case you didn’t know why, drinking methanol is bad, B-A-D, very bad for you! Just 10 mL of methanol can make you blind.
In Indonesia, most of the tourist deaths can be traced back to methanol consumption, especially in hotspots like Bali and Gili Trawangan. One famous cocktail known as the "Arak Attack" is very cheap and easily found in those two islands.
Of course, these ancient liqueurs have ancient traditions, so the way Arak is served has a lot of meaning. Water and ice are normally added to dilute the drink, however, the ice cannot be added to the alcohol, it’s the opposite, the alcohol is added to the ice. According to our research, this is because if ice is added after, it forms a sort of film divided from the liquid like oil in water. It's caused by the oils in the anise solidifying from the temperature of the ice and creating a film.
When you add the water, it gives it that milky color and has its own effect than ice alone. You might also see a lot of different glasses at a table serving Arak. This is due to the pouring and serving of water and ice. As for Arak in cocktails or mixed drinks-flavors of citrus such as lemon or orange go well together with the anise flavor of the spirit. If you add other fruits or specific sugar cane it becomes known as, “Arrack” which is darker in color and more closely related to rum.
A Brief History:
As for who thought to make this drink, it’s a very unclear origin tale. One source claims it was thanks to Muslim alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. However, distilling grapes and adding anise is nothing new. For this brief history, we took a look at the trials and tribulations of distilling in the early world and found the actual etymology of distilling is proof of Arabic cultures and their involvement in alcohol origins. That word itself, “alcohol” derives from the Arabic al-kohl, which back in the day was used by Arab alchemists to describe any “purified” substance (thus distinguishing “pure” spirits from khamr, the common word for fermented drinks that comes from khamira, the Arabic for yeast).
Any kind of alcohol is made in a still or alembic, another Arabic alchemical term, appropriated from the Greek ambix, which translates to, “a sort of crook-necked vessel.” A gadget that is more commonly associated with the making eau de vie or aquavit, names that are very similar to the maal-hayat or water of life celebrated in drinking scenes from that medieval Arabic classic “The Thousand and One Nights”.
Historians believe all we know about distilling alcohol and liquors was of course robbed by the European conquerors of the middle east. The first evidence of distilling in Europe comes from Sicily in the 11th century, when the island was a possession of the Fatimid caliph of Cairo.
All we know is that today, Arak is considered the drink of Lebanon and Syria, and if you find a legit restaurant and safe place to drink it, it’s a tradition not to be missed out on.
In Lebanon, it is more commonly known as the “Milk of Lions.”
If that doesn’t make it even more intriguing, we don’t know what will.
This is just the tip of the ice berg with middle eatsern cultures and their strange milks. We do hope we have shed some light on the subject and that you continue to learn (along with us) about the spirits of the world.
Thanks for reading, and as always…