Arak might just be one of the most interesting spirits you’ve never heard of – and the Middle Eastern drink is having a revival across the globe.
The anise-flavored liquor is one of the oldest spirits in the world. But a new generation of boutique distilleries is hoping to bring the classic Levantine drink to fresh audiences and to celebrate arak’s heritage with World Arak Day, which is being celebrated this Tuesday, June 27, for the first time ever.
The day was conceived during a conversation between Jason Bajalia, the owner and founder of Terra Sancta Trading, which imports arak and other Middle Eastern alcohols into the US, and several arak producers.
“It is a holiday that embraces the rich history of Arak, as well as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan’s shared culinary heritage, drinking culture, and Levantine identity,” wrote Terra Sancta in a Facebook post
The event’s first goal “is to get more people aware of arak,” Bajalia told CNN in an interview. The drink is a mainstay at dining tables across the Levant – the region on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean – but it has a much smaller footprint outside of the region, he explained.
The secondary goal, according to Bajalia, is to promote more integration of arak in the restaurant world. He noted that it’s still common for Middle Eastern restaurants to stock European wines rather than traditional spirits like arak.
Bajalia added that he started importing arak from the Palestinian territories after civil war “dried up” the supply from Syria, which used to be a top producer.
The revival of the spirit has been mostly led by small boutique producers led by young distillers working to reclaim part of their heritage, he said.
“They’re people that see this history, this tradition, that sort of got shunted over the years and put aside and they’re like, ‘No, this is our thing, and we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it better than they used to do,’” he said.
A spirit with ancient roots
Historians trace the development of alcohol distillation to several different times and places. In the Middle East, the invention of arak is often attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, considered the father of Arab chemistry. The 8th century scientist is credited with the invention of the alembic, which allowed for the distillation of alcohol from wine and beer.
He wasn’t trying to make alcohol, as the story has it. He was experimenting to refine the production of al-kohl, a traditional form of eyeliner, according to Arak Muaddi, a Palestinian craft distillery. He distilled wine and ended up producing a strong clear spirit – an early form of arak.
Arak – sometimes spelled araq in English – is made from a combination of grapes and anise seeds that give it a distinctive slightly liquorice-y scent and a flavor comparable to absinthe.
You can find similar drinks across the Mediterranean, like Turkey’s raki or Greece’s tsikoudia.
The spirit has to be distilled three times. Nader Muaddi, the founder of Arak Muaddi, explained that producing arak starts with creating wine. The first distillation concentrates the spirit, resulting in a much higher alcohol content. The second distillation purifies the spirit, getting rid of volatile compounds that result from the fermenting process. The final distillation adds in the anise seeds.
The labor-intensive process requires “our senses of taste, touch and smell,” Muaddi said. “That’s the craft part of it.”
The resulting spirit is clear and typically 53% alcohol, says Muaddi, who added that his arak is then aged for a year before being bottled and sold.
Preserving a cultural heritage
Muaddi, one of the young producers leading arak’s renaissance, told CNN he started distilling the spirit using traditional methods in 2010 because he struggled to find high quality arak after moving to the Palestinian territories for humanitarian work.
Unlike other spirits like bourbon or cognac, arak has no protected designation of origin to regulate its production. Muaddi says economic pressures in the Middle East have helped create knockoff versions of arak made by mixing industrial alcohol with anise oil.
Arak “took on this stigma of being the poor man’s drink,” he said.
His distillery is part of a wider mission to restore arak’s reputation. The drink is a crucial part of Levantine cuisine, he explained, often serving as a palate cleanser between many differently flavored mezze dishes. The powerful spirit is typically diluted with water and ice in a process called “breaking” the arak.
The Middle East has “a very rich history of making wine and spirits, and it’s about time that we share it with the world,” Muaddi went on.
Creating arak in the Palestinian territories is particularly poignant for Muaddi, a Palestinian-American who grew up in Pennsylvania. He sources his ingredients from local farmers who “are all at risk of forcible displacement,” he said.
In recent years, at least three of the towns that provide the distillery with ingredients have suffered attacks on their crops by Israeli settlers. In one instance, in 2018, Israeli settlers claimed that Palestinians also destroyed their crops in reprisal, according to the Times of Israel.
“If I can provide them with a financial incentive to remain steadfast and resilient on their land, and to continue to cultivate it – that’s awesome,” he said.
Arak serves as an important cultural motif for many Arabs living abroad. For Lebanese-American wine educator May Matta-Aliah, arak’s distinctive scent immediately brings her back to her childhood in Lebanon.
“There are certain smells that just completely transport you back to a certain time and space for me,” she told CNN in an interview. “Arak is 100% one of them.”
As a child, her parents would rub arak on her gums when she had a toothache, she said. And Sunday gatherings in Lebanon were never complete without arak on the table.
But she said she’s seen a new interest in the nostalgic spirit. Arak is “starting to have more of a trendy moment,” she said. “I think it’s kind of tying into a whole kind of culture now where people just want to experiment.”
Arak’s unique visual appearance also makes it particularly suited for the social media age, according to Matta-Aliah. The spirit is clear at first, but “louches” when added to water, turning milky white. “It’s sort of magical,” she said – and makes for great photos and videos.
A new generation of arak
Based in Lebanon, artisinal distiller Arak Farid, has experimented with adding different flavors such as cinnamon and lavender to its small-batch arak.
“We wanted to revive arak a bit and change the perspective,” said Jess Abi Khalil, who founded the brand alongside her partner Frederick.
Arak is “our original drink,” she said. “But it’s such an underrated drink – it’s not as famous as wine.” It “was more consumed by the older generation, and the young generation are a bit hesitant of arak.
“We wanted to reinvent the concept without touching the roots.”
The company exports its arak flavors to France, Germany, and Austria, where it says it’s found a market among both Arabs living abroad and others who are simply interested in trying a new spirit.
For Amman Saqqaf, a consumer experience executive at Jordan-based wine retailer FYXX, an improvement in the quality of arak has been an essential component to renewed interest in the spirit.
“High quality arak offers a superior drinking experience, and has elevated the overall perception and reputation of the beverage compared to commercial arak, which often focuses on mass production and standardized flavors,” she explained.
The detail-oriented methods used at small distilleries “result in a more refined and complex flavor profile, providing a truly enjoyable and authentic drinking experience.”
And consumers are more and more interested in products with a specific history and heritage, she added.
Likewise, Muaddi said that a younger generation interested in authenticity has helped drive interest in traditional arak.
“This new generation is really obsessed with tradition and authenticity,” he said. “I’ve been able to cultivate a new generation of drinkers that are really, really proud of it, and celebrate arak and understand how it fits in our cuisine.”
Ultimately, Muaddi hopes the World Arak Day celebration helps “put arak on the map,” he said. “I just want it to be recognized and respected.”
“And I think it could be a gateway for people to better understand this region of the world.”