The story of arak, a Lebanese drink infused with tradition

Around 2 billion bottles a year are produced in Lebanon, with nearly one-quarter of arak exported.
Thursday 04/10/2018
Lebanese raise their glasses of arak in a toast during a festival in the town of Taanayel in eastern Lebanon. (AP)
Celebrating tradition. Lebanese raise their glasses of arak in a toast during a festival in the town of Taanayel in eastern Lebanon. (AP)

TAANAYEL - Every part of Lebanon's national drink, arak, is infused with tradition -- from distilling the aniseed-tinged liquor to the ritual of mixing it at the table, when the transparent liquid suddenly turns milky white as water is added.

Arak is a staple of Sunday meals. With a sweet taste and high alcohol content -- about 40% -- it's best consumed with food -- lots of it. That makes it perfect for Lebanon's traditional meze, spreads of never-ending small dishes that family and friends linger over for hours.

Aficionados say arak is vital to digesting the home-made raw meat dishes that are central to a meze. The real effect comes at the end of the meal, when you stand up after all that eating and the alcohol from glass after glass really hits.

The tradition is facing competition in Lebanon because younger generations are opting for vodka, whisky or other liquors that are easier to mix and drink -- without a meal.

Arak is comparable to Greece's ouzo or Turkey's raki, which are also grape-based drinks with the liquorice-like flavour of anise. The Lebanese say arak is smoother. Many families make it at home, each boasting their particular flavour and kick. Restaurants often serve both commercially produced versions and home-made varieties, known as arak baladeh. Regulars usually opt for the home-made.

With so much home production, it is hard to tell how much arak is made. Lebanon's Blom Bank estimated in 2016 that around 2 billion bottles a year are produced in the country, with nearly one-quarter of it exported, mostly for Lebanese expats yearning for their local drink.

At a recent festival in Taanayel, a town east of Beirut, several commercial companies and smaller boutique houses showcased their araks in a celebration aimed at promoting the drink to the young.

Christiane Issa, whose family owns one of Lebanon's largest arak producers, Domaine des Tourelles, said the drink was a natural digestif. It was a nod to Lebanon's growing market for holistic and natural products.

"The most important thing about arak is that our grandfathers used herbs to treat illness, not medicine. They believed in herbs, so they chose to make arak with green anise because it has anethole, a compound that aids digestion," said Issa, the company's administrative manager.

Some Beirut bars have introduced an infused version of arak, adding a twig of basil or rosemary, to attract young drinkers. Issa suggests watermelon.

Passions run strong over every detail of arak tradition.

It is to be drunk from small glasses -- bigger than a shot glass but smaller than an Old Fashioned glass -- arranged on a tray at the top of a table laden with meze. A new glass is used with each new serving. Some prefer to drink it in a tall glass.

It is often mixed in a traditional glass pitcher, round with a short beak-like spout. That makes it easy to drink straight from the pitcher when the party really gets going.

Drinkers staunchly debate the best way to mix.

Some prefer half water, half arak -- a strong, sweet mix, usually not for the newbies. More common is one-third arak to two-thirds water to prolong the drinking and the gathering.

Ice is another discussion. For some, the glass is filled with ice cubes before pouring the drink. Those truly religious about the drink insist that ice must come last.

No one can clearly explain the difference but theories abound. Some say arak is further weakened if the ice is already sitting in the glass. Others say, don't question tradition.

The making of arak is a family affair, with secrets passed from one generation to another.

Central to the process is a triple distillation using a still called a "karakeh" in Arabic.

The harvest is in September and October. The grapes are crushed and left to ferment for three weeks. The mix is put in the lower part of the karakeh, where it is heated until it evaporates and cooled in the top part by a stream of cold water. At this stage, it is pure alcohol. Anise and water may be added in the second or third distillation. The mix is what makes each house's taste unique.

Home-made arak usually goes straight into large containers after distillation, ready for drinking. In commercial production, the arak sits in clay jugs for a year, making it smoother, Issa said. "Wine ages but arak rests," she said.

Issa's father introduced a new technique, letting the arak sit in clay jugs for five years before going to market. Her family bought Domaine des Tourelles 18 years ago and it produces 350,000 bottles a year of Arak Brun, named after the Frenchman who founded it in 1868.

At the Taanayel festival, visitors sipped on the sweet drink with their meals.

Michel Sabat was marketing his new Arak al-Naim or "Arak of Paradise."

He said with so many producers, arak could only get better.

"There is a lot of competition here in Lebanon, so those who produce arak have to make sure it is very good quality," Sabat said.

(Associated Press)