There’s aragh, the sound you make when you skin your knee, and there’s ouzo, which is what drips from your infected skinned knee when you fail to treat it. Both are also the names of some distant cousins of arak—a clear, colorless, licorice liquor from the Middle East. Aragh is from Armenia; ouzo from Greece, where it’s sometimes used, ironically, for treating infected skinned knees.
Arak has been around for as long as skinned knees, too. You’ll find that a lot of liquor claims a pedigree going back farther than writing, society or organized religion— a quick lesson in the priorities of humanity—but arak is the real deal. It stands to reason that the Cradle of Civilization would also be the bassinet of booze, the hamper of hooch, so it’s no wonder that the word ‘alcohol’ derives from the Arabic al kohl—a distillation process invented by Muslim chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan to produce women’s cosmetics.
Of course, ibn Hayyan cared for women’s cosmetics about as much as the next guy, unless you’re standing beside Marilyn Manson, and the alembic still he built had a much more universal application: Happy Hour. But since Muslims are not supposed to be nipping hard stuff, a more benign use for his brainchild had to be found; hence he used it to make kohl, a sort of prehistoric mascara.
Irony here, too, since most guys agree that on the Hot Girl Bell Curve, the more alcohol we consume, the less kohl they need.
But I digress. Arak, like brandy, is made from wine; in this case, the fermented juice of indigenous Middle Eastern grapes. In Lebanon, this is usually the white-skinned obeidi, which has a tendril somewhere on chardonnay’s family vine. In Turkey and Iran, sultana is generally used—the same grape that makes Sunkist white raisins, but you’ll find that up to twenty varietals, including muscat and marwayh, may find their way into the primary fermentation process.
A rule of thumb for all distilled drinks is that the better the base, the better the booze.
Once fermented, it’s into the still, often Moorish and always copper, where it’s heated slowly and gently. Ethanol’s magic is that it evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so if you can keep your heat source at the constant and correct temperature, the steam that rises can be condensed into pretty potent stuff, albeit; in the first go-round, filled with impurities. A second distillation removes the bad crap and leaves what’s called, in French-friendly Lebanon, the coeur de chauffe; the heart of the matter.
If you’ve ever heard terms like ‘three times distilled’ or even ‘four times distilled’ applied to any liquor’s quality and wondered what it meant, wonder no more. It gets cleaner and more pure with every round.
It’s somewhere between the first and the umpteenth distillation that the anise gets added—each maker has his own timetable for this, his own maceration methodology, his own favorite brand of anise seed. Lebanon produces lot of arak, in part because it’s got a large Christian population that’s allowed to drink it. Especially favored by Lebanese arak makers are seeds from the Syrian-controlled Mt. Hermon, mentioned several times in the Bible and part of the weirdly named Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Lebanese anise growers speak of Mt. Hermon terroir with the same reverence that winemakers use with Bekaa vineyards.
Anise, by the way, is related to the carrot, which makes no sense at all, and also to caraway and fennel, which does. It too gets a Biblical shout out—Matthew reports that the seeds were used to pay tithes.
The next step in arak’s lifeline is the mellowing process, and that’s where it makes a rakehell turn from everybody else. Connoisseurs claim that there’s a heavenly affinity between arak and clay, and when arak is sufficiently purified to the standards of the maker—whether a Bekaa Valley pro or your uncle Hassam in the garden shed—arak is transferred to clay pots where it becomes arak of ages. But not just any clay pots. Since antiquity, the best clay is reputed to come from near the mountain village of Beit-Chabab and the best pots from Beit-Chabab craftsmen. Thus interred, the liquor goes through a slow growth and intermingling period wherein up to 15% evaporates, much of it brutal ethanol proofage, the loss of which is said to be ‘the price you pay’.
Even slightly de-alcoholized, arak still rocks and is generally cut with water and ice (in that order strictly), whereupon it metamorphosizes from a crystal clear liquid into a sort of a cloudy, semen-colored concoction more in the realm of Mr. Science than Mr. Bartender.
But really good arak? From a top distillery like El Massaya, Chateau Khoury, Ksara or El Rami?
Quite remarkably refreshing; an aperitif perfectly suited to the blistering heat of the Levant. There’s a subtle but unmistakable fusion between grape scents and licorice; neither overpower the other nor scamper off to hide in the bomb shelter.
I could continue to wax metaphorically, but why? Fellow Detroiter Bob Seger said it better than me a generation ago:
“I was strong as I could be, nothing ever got to me, like arak…”
Now do a shot and go buy that Chevy.