You're right in the heart of Lebanon, yeah, Khalil Gibran's Lebanon, Gaddafi's Lebanon, Maroun Baghdadi's Lebanon, attending a weekend lunch thrown by your friend and his family. Amidst the feast of mezze, a selection of hot and cold dishes, your eyes fall on a jug that people pass around. Your inquisitive brow rises, what the hell is that!
In France, they call it pastis, in Turkey raki, but for the Lebanese it is their favourite arak (and please don't confuse it with our arrack, which is very very different) that you behold now; it is the grandfather to all other spirits, believed to be the first of flavoured spirits in the world.
Usually served in small glasses, arak is unavoidable in party scenes in Lebanon, especially in the presence of mezze platters. Meals would stretch on for hours if there is enough of the spirit flowing around oiling the conversation.
Where does arak begin its journey from?
A crude form of arak evolved from the 12th century when Arabs invented alembic distillation. The custom of distilling grape juice and steeping it with aniseeds was popular among people of many regions in the Middle East. It was only during the Turkish occupation when ancient vineyards were abandoned or culled due to religious reasons that the practice in Lebanon suffered a setback. Still, many people who harvested grapevines continued the tradition by making the spirit clandestinely.
To make arak, local people distill white grapes and leave them for fermentation to make a crude wine. Time to leave it in barrels. The primary distillation will prime the alcohol volume to a whopping 90% which has to be watered down to 50% before the next distillation. Aniseeds are added to impart that distinct flavour of arak.
Don't mock the easiness of production, for the Lebanese are proud about the hard work they put in and the resulting flavour of their home-made arak which they either keep for themselves or give away as gifts to friends and family.
Usually, families celebrate the day they make the arak, throwing parties with amazing Lebanese food. It is mezze time again!
How should you drink arak?
One-third arak with two-thirds water is the correct proportion. Your Lebanese friend may then ladle it to an ice-filled glass. Get ready for an amazing spectacle. The alcohol reacts with water and clouds up to form a milky liquid. If you have ever had absinthe, you have seen this before - the louche effect. But the thin film that ice creates on top of the liquid puts off many first-timers. Topping the drink would add more such yucky layers to it. The only way around is to use fresh glass every time you take a repeat.
The Lebanese not only see arak as their national drink, it is their passion too. In addition to the family-owned arak productions, big winemakers in Lebanon are also on the scene creating their own brands of the spirit.But be warned. With 53% to 60% alcohol, it not only warms but sometimes burns your cockles. No wonder it has earned the nickname 'The Milk of the Lions.'