Arak or araq (Arabic: عرق IPA [ʕaraq], is a clear, colourless, unsweetened aniseed-flavoured distilled alcoholic drink, produced in the eastern Mediterranean countries of, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq.
The word comes from Arabic araq عرق, meaning "sweat". Arak is not to be confused with the similarly named liquor, arrack.
Arak is usually not drunk straight, but is mixed in approximately 1/3 arak to 2/3 water, and ice is then added. This dilution causes the liquor to turn an opaque milky-white colour.
Arak is also commonly mixed with teas and juices. Drinkers may also take arak with a chaser on the side. Arak is usually served with mezza, which could include dozens of small dishes, which many arak drinkers prefer as accompaniment rather than main courses.
When the main course of the meal is served, it may hardly be touched, in favour of these smaller dishes. It is also well appreciated with barbecues, along with garlic sauce.
Tradition requires that water is added before ice, because if ice is added directly it results in the formation of an aesthetically unpleasing skin on the surface of the drink. For the same reason, an arak glass should never be refilled directly after being emptied; a clean glass must be used each time.
In restaurants, when a bottle of arak is ordered the waiter will usually bring a number of glasses along with it for this reason.
It all begins with the vineyards, and the grapevine quality. The vine should be well mature, usually of a golden colour. The vineyards are not sprinkled, they are left to the care of the Mediterranean climate, natural rain and sun. The grapes are cultivated in late September and October.
The grapes are squeezed and put in barrels together with the juice (in Arabic El Mestarr), and left to ferment for three weeks. Occasionally the whole mix is stirred to release the CO2.
Now the first distillation, the goal is to get the alcohol out of the mixture that has fermented for three weeks. The distillation is done using the alembic or el karkeh also al karkeh, made of copper. It's basically three parts. The lower being a container used to boil what's inside (on fire). The middle part collects the vapors coming out of the boiling ingredients. The third part is used to cool the vapor that will be transformed to liquid and collected on its way out, usually in a container of glass. So the mixture of all the fermented and squeezed grapes is put into the lower part and it is boiled at a temperature around 80°C (boiling temperature of alcohol), but below 100°C (boiling temperature of water). The idea is to collect the alcohol in the container without any water.
Now the second distillation, here is made the actual final product. The alcohol collected in first distillation is to be distilled again but this time mixed with aniseed. The whole alembic is washed to remove all the remains of the precedent distillation. The alcohol and the aniseed are mixed together in the lower part of the karkeh (called in Arabic ddessett). The ratio of alcohol to aniseed may vary, it's one of the major factors of the quality of the final product.
Another distillation takes place, usually on the lowest possible temperature. The procedure is very slow.
Traditionally a drinking party takes place at the same time. People would gather to help the producer and have a drinking party. This is one of the most prestigious and traditional parties of the Lebanese mountains. It usually takes place in November.
Note: Once the first distillation is done, it's not mandatory to have the second one immediately after.
One of the basic varieties, considered by many to be the prototypical arak, is distilled from grapes and anise. Numerous varieties of arak are popular in all the countries edging the Mediterranean, and in parts of the Far East. In the Levant, it is distilled from fermented grape juice or, at times, sugar, and is considered by the inhabitants to be greatly superior to similar hard liquors in other countries. The same spirit is called Ouzo in Greece, Mastika in Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria and Rakı (another form of the word arak) in Turkey; they are made from a variety of products like grain, molasses, plums, figs and potatoes. Other similar drinks are the arak of Iraq, made from fermented date juice, and the zibib of Egypt, a peasant-made drink. An Iranian variant, called Aragh-e Sagi (Persian: عرق سگی, literally dog's sweat), is produced without anise, and has a higher alcohol content than other varieties. Further west, along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, the Italian anesone, French pastis and Spanish ojén, served as aperitifs or refreshers, are all sweeter versions of arak. Also, in the Far East, a comparable drink known as arrack, distilled from palm sap or rice, is very popular; in Korea it is known as Soju.
While arak is extremely popular in Syria, the most prized brands are Lebanese, amongst them Ksara and, most famous of all, Massaya. Many Lebanese drinkers, however, themselves distil their own liquor. The quality of home-made arak (arak baladi) is considered far superior to commercial brands. Some restaurants occasionally serve home-made Arak at a very high price.
Many Lebanese towns are well known for their high quality home made Arak, among them Zahle in the Bekaa valley.
The best quality can be found in Toula, a village in the Northern Lebanese Mountains. Toula is very well known across the north for its famous home made arak;you can find it in any restaurant in zgharta or ehden two important towns around that area.
The ABV differs from one version to another, with the most alcoholic reaching 80% or even more. The best quality arak is usually between 53% and 60%; when mixed with water it is diluted to 20-30%.
It is believed that arak was developed by the Jews, Christians and other non-Islamic minorities of the Middle East, particularly in the Levant. Jabir ibn Hayyan, a Muslim alchemist of the early Islamic era, invented the alembic, which facilitated the distillation of alcoholic spirits, the name used in Lebanon is al karkeh or little more formally al kattara. However, Muslims did not use his invention to produce alcoholic beverages since, in Islam, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. Hence, his discovery was employed to distill perfume from flowers and to produce kohl, a women's eye cosmetic in which a black powder is liquefied, then converted to vapour and allowed to re-solidify.
The Arabs carried the art of distilling kohl to Spain from where it spread to the remainder of Europe. In these Christian lands, it took on a much different use: the production of alcoholic drinks. With the utilisation of this method of producing hard spirits, the Arabic name "al-kohl", which became alcohol, was adopted due to the similar method the Arabs used in manufacturing this cosmetic.
The words in English relating to the art of distillation, besides alcohol, such as "alchemy", "alchemist", and "alembic" attest to an Arab origin.
Traditionally, arak was generally of local or village manufacture, but in the last few decades it has increasingly been produced in large manufacturing plants. It has remained the preference of those who enjoy alcoholic drinks in the Middle East, in competition with the many drinks imported from the West.