A toast to arak

Mak­ing this sweet (and strong) drink is a fam­ily af­fair in Le­banon

Calgary Herald - - WEEKEND LIFE - FADI TAWIL

TAANAYEL, LE­BANON Ev­ery part of Le­banon’s na­tional drink, arak, is infused with tra­di­tion.

Arak is a sta­ple of big Sun­day meals. With a sweet taste and high al­co­hol con­tent, about 40 per cent, 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 home­made raw meat dishes that are cen­tral to a meze. The real im­pact comes at the end of the meal, when you stand up af­ter all that eat­ing and the al­co­hol from glass af­ter glass re­ally hits.

But the tra­di­tion is fac­ing com­pe­ti­tion in Le­banon as young gen­er­a­tions opt for liquors like vodka or whiskey 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 licorice­like­flavouro­fanise.Le­bane­sepeo­ple 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 home­made va­ri­eties, known as “Arak Baladeh.” Reg­u­lars usu­ally opt for the home­made.

With so much home pro­duc­tion, it ishard­totell­how­mucharak­ismade. Le­banon’s Blom Bank es­ti­mated in 2016 that about two bil­lion bot­tles a year are pro­duced in the coun­try, with nearly a 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, Doumaine de Tourelles, said the drink is a nat­u­ral di­ges­tive.

“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.

And 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 cubes make for an­other dis­cus­sion. For some, the glass is filled with ice cubes first be­fore pour­ing the drink. Those truly re­li­gious about the drink in­sist that ice must come last. No one can clearly ex­plain the dif­fer­ence.

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 then 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 dis­til­la­tions.

The mix is what makes each house’s taste unique.

They be­lieved in herbs, so they chose to make arak with green anise be­cause it has anet­hole, a com­pound that aids di­ges­tion.

Home­made arak usu­ally goes straight into gal­lon (4.5-L) 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,” Issa said.

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

At the Taanayel arak 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 can 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.”

HUS­SEIN MALLA/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Le­banese arak turns milky white when mixed and is of­ten served in a pitcher for easy pour­ing.

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