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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Everything You Wanted to Know about Arak and More

It was a rainy October afternoon. The wind was gusting and my office window resembled the windshield of a speeding car with broken wipers. I was lost in thought when the phone rang and took me out of my reverie. It was my friend Majed, hailing from “Saeen”, his little village in the middle of nowhere. “It’s time”, he simply said, “come early in the morning and bring a friend”.

Majed had already gathered enough firewood to start a bonfire. The old copper still (Karkeh) was in the woods, a couple of hundred yards from his house. And, he had just returned from Damascus where he bought the anise (Yansoun) from the spice market (Bzourieh). It’s moonshine time!

Before I go on, let me give you more information than you ever need about my favorite drink. Arak is the perfect companion for Mezza and the ritual calls for a small glass to be used only once. Each successive drink is poured in a new glass, Arak first, followed by cold water then finally ice is added as per preference.

Arak literally means “sweat” in Arabic because the still sweats and drips the liquid. There are other variants of Arak in countries around the Mediterranean. Raki in Turkey, Ouzo in Greece, Mastika in Macedonia, Anesone in Italy, Pastis in France and Ojén in Spain, just to name a few but not all. Our Arak is unique to the Eastern Mediterranean, namely to Syria and Lebanon as it contains no added sugar at all. Arak is also produced in other Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt. However, in Iraq it’s distilled from date juice (Tamer) and from raisins (Zibib) in Egypt.

Geber (Jaber Ibn Hayyan 721-815) the Muslim chemist invented the first still called alembic (Inbiq). This is a very important landmark in the history of alcoholic beverages. Before Geber, the entire world drank fermenting spirits (wine, beer …etc.) as opposed to distilled alcohol (Vodka, Whiskey…etc.). The invention was used to produce perfumes and Kohl (Arabian eye shadow) by the Arabs and they carried it with them to Spain. The Europeans soon enough started producing Kohl on their own and made the natural transition to alcohol. This is where the word comes from Al Kohl = Alcohol. The Mediterranean Syrian and Lebanese were a little smarter from the beginning though and they put the Inbiq = Still = Karkeh to good use as soon as they laid their hands on one. Their mountains and valleys produced plenty of grapes. No irrigation, just basic loving tender care and the ideal Mediterranean climate helped them produce the greatest sweet golden grapes, perfect for Arak.

The alcohol by volume for Arak is ideally between 53 to 60%. It is colorless but magically turns milky-white when mixed with water at a ratio ranging from ¼ to ½ . This is due to the presence of anise. The distillation of Arak is performed in two stages, or sometimes three (Mtallat). The harvested sweet golden grapes are squeezed and left fermenting in barrels for 3 weeks. The grapes and their juices along with a small quantity of pine coal at the bottom of the Karkeh (to act as a filter and absorb any undesirable smell caused by the release of CO2 during the fermentation process) undergo the first distillation process. The alcohol is drawn and rests in new barrels waiting for the second and crucial distillation process. This 2nd stage is when anise is mixed with the drawn alcohol. The quality and quantity of anise are as important as a good vineyard. The Karkeh is placed over a very feeble fire, just enough to cause the alcohol to evaporate (80°C) without the water then condensate at the end of the long neck into a steady, yet very weak crystal clear stream. This process is aided by a steady flow of cold water on the upper part of the still. The first gallon or so of the batch is thrown away since it contains ethylene and might be dangerous. The last couple of liters of the batch are also useless since the alcohol is almost all but gone and murky water starts coming out. Although it is not crucial to repeat the process a third time, it is done only to raise the alcohol by volume level to its maximum value.

I need to mention one final point of utmost importance as an avid Arak lover. The Lebanese commercial variety is by no means better than the Syrian one. The packaging and bottling in Lebanon are more appealing and definitely better. But take one of the very top and expensive Lebanese brands (say Fakra, Ksara, Kefraya) and compare it to the ubiquitous Syrian Mimas or Rayan. There is a fundamental difference; the Syrian anise in the Syrian Arak is of a much higher quality than the Cypriot or Turkish anise imported to Lebanon. As for vineyards, the Homs area alone produces twice as much as all of Lebanon. In the end, no Lebanese or Syrian commercial distillery can match the homemade spirit prepared for personal consumption with love and care. The best homemade Arak, Syrian or Lebanese, is only obtained when real Damascene anise (from the Sa’sa’ = سعسع region) is used.

We jumped in the car early the next morning. The rain had stopped, but the sky remained gray and damp with looming and menacing clouds. They were waiting for us at a little ravine, Majed and his father. We parked the vehicle off road, hid it from prying eyes and walked the final muddy track that lead us to a little shed in the middle of a clearing flanked by walnut trees. Hanging nearby on a branch was a leg of lamb. We sat in the near perfect silence listening to the sound of dew drops dripping from yellowed leaves and the slim stream of Arak pouring in the jug of glass. Abu Majed brought forward some raw fluid from the lip of the still for us to drink and savor. Damn, it is good! We each cut a piece of meat and toyed with it over the feeble fire. The sheep was young and a hint of flames made its succulent juices flow. It tasted just perfect with a lingering smoky tang. Our hosts didn’t take any risk. They were sure we won’t go thirsty or hungry well into the evening. With an abundance of Tannour bread, fresh green olives, shanklish, meat and the noblest of liquors in the world, we slowly consumed our lazy day. Late in the afternoon we were all happy, stupid and fat. Majed yet had another trick up his sleeve. From a wicker basket, he produced the most delicious giant Baklavas (Sh3aybiyat) stuffed with honey and walnuts. I’m not certain whether I wished that all of my friends were there with me, but I must’ve.

The sun dipped behind the mountain. Abu Majed had to stay a while longer for his shift. His son walked us to the car. He would rest for a couple of hours before relieving his father. If we’re alive same time next year, we would do it again we agreed. Majed handed my friend and me 2 transitory bottles of Arak. My jug would be ready for me next time I see him at his restaurant in the village. Meanwhile, I’m back at my office, staring from my window at the trees as they’re shedding their leaves in the cold afternoon gust. October, forever!


Highlander said...

Oh Abufares I don't drink , but with your beautiful essay you made me want to taste Arak - uhoh I'm having haram thoughts now - look what you did :P

Omar said...

you're one hell of a story lover.. and a pretty god science teacher too ;)

I must say, you made my mouth water.

abufares said...

Helo Highlander
The thing is that I can't argue with you about the "Haram" part for fear of this comment place becoming a heated battle ground. All I can tell you is this... Arak is sooooo gooood...
To the body and mind:)

abufares said...

Hi Omar
The Arak made the story and the science flow...
You missed your chance last time you were over in Syria. I hope you wouldn't next time.
Thank you for dropping by.

I love Munich said...

What a GREAT teacher you are - thanks a million for the lesson which taught me a LOT I had no idea about!!
I tasted Arak in Turkey as Raki ... and the Uzo of Greeze ... and YÈS - it is YUMMY!! I just diluted it about 10x as much as you usually I am afraid ... but the anis-taste was still left and delicious!
I can picture you guys in front of the bonfire, munching silently and sipping the yummy liquid - it sounds like hell of a lot of fun and most memorable!!
I (silently and secretly) ENVY YOU GUYS FOR THAT!!
Thanks so much for this GREAT post - and for sharing the little secrets! :-)

abufares said...

Hi Karin
One of the greatest recurring experiences in my life is the "Drawing of Arak" in October. I've been lucky to be a part of this inner circle for many years. It's sort of My "Oktoberfest".
The day passes by so gracefully and should be experienced with the best of friends.
It's a small world, and yes, who knows, may be we can enjoy it together one of these days.

Anonymous said...

As you said, it is more than enough info than anyone would ever need!! Very interesting though!! I never thought about the name as relating to "sweat" nor did I know about the origin of the word Alcohol originating from the Arabic word AlKohl!
Anyway, yes, it is a nice ALCOHOLIC drink and I had my share of it in the past, but not anymore.
Still, I would love to have been on the trip!
Abu Abdo

abufares said...

Allah Yerda 3leik Ya Abou Abdo.
I know your affection for details so I assume that this post is more in your line.
I wish I could've posted about our analytical research of the past. That was something, wasn't it!?

Anonymous said...

Abu Fares,
I've never tasted Arak before, but your description along with the colorful plates of Homous and Salata, makes me drool big times!
Though as you said it is a debatable issue whether it is Haram or not, however, the intrinsic golden rule is: there is no harm in knowing.

Anonymous said...

Yes Abufares, we had a "good" share of fun in the past, and it WAS "something"!!
Abu Abdo

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing the Arak story, I wish I could have been with you to sample some of that Arak and meat.

Do you think I can make Arak using a distiller rather than a Karkeh ? and where can I get a the proper recipe and measurements to make Arak.


abufares said...


may be one of these days we can have a go at it together.
I'm sure the (western style) distiller would eventually produce the same Arak. Remember that Arak is prepared almost the same way like Grappa. The difference is that Arak contains Yansoun.
I'm not sure how much Yansoun is added (as a percentage).
When I have the exact the recipe, I'll post it.
Thank you for dropping by.

fares said...

Hi Abu Fares
Do you think that using anis oil after the first distillation (just mixing) give same quality as using seeds & second distillation.

abufares said...

To tell you the truth, I don't know the answer. However, my gut feeling is that the traditional way of making Arak has seen many trials and errors until it reached its present state of simple perfection.
I'm almost certain that so many different little variations have been tried over the years.
The general consensus is that Syrian Anise is the best. Even in Syria, Turkish, Cypriot, ...etc. Anis is cheaper than the BALADI.
I have attended the Karkeh many times but always the same one at Saeen.

Fares said...

Dear abu Fares
Thank you for yourquick respond.
Do you how much alcohol,aniseed & water mixed just before the second distillation,again thank you very much.

abufares said...

Roughly 600g of Anise per Alafieh, because they use 1.5 kg Per Tem. A tem is the content of the Kerkeh, which usually draws about 2.2 - 2.5 Alfieh.
No water is added at any point.

Fares said...

Dear Abu Fares
How many liters in Alfieh?

abufares said...

An Alafieh is equal to an Imperial Gallon = 4.55 liters.

Piscean Rubble said...

Hi Abufares! I meant to leave a comment here but got distracted by my kids! ;) Thank you for sending me was a very informative post. The story of the Arak, lamb, and olives made my mouth water. Wish I was there...I've had similar experiences Greece...but clearly not with Arak. That will have to wait until my trip to Syria! :)

abufares said...

@Piscean Rubble
We are both Pieces and enjoy Arak/Ouzo, Lamb and Olives... Hummm, very interesting.
Please let me know whenever you decide to visit.
I look forward meeting you and your husband :-)

Piscean Rubble said...

Definitely will do, Abufares! :) Thank you! It would be nice to have someone show us the REAL Syria...I hate tourist traps! At least we know we can share some food and drink together!!

Is it Abu Fares? Sorry, I'm just learning Arabic...I think Abu is "Father"?

Ramadan Mubarak to you and your family.

abufares said...

Abu Fares the Proud Father of Fares indeed.
I have 3 kids, 2 girls and a boy. Fares is the youngest and... here we go again... I'm going to point you to another old post of mine.

Piscean Rubble said...

Well, Abu Fares, I thought of you today. I was at the liquor store and decided to see if there was any Arak for sale. Indeed there was, but much to my disappointment (but not surprise) it was from Lebanon only. Fakra and Gantous & Abou Raad companies. I didn't purchase any...I already had a few bottles of wine in my cart...I think I'll wait to try it when I can have the full atmosphere, if you catch my drift! Om Anastasio

abufares said...

@Om Anastasio
I'm glad you thought of me:-)
Fakra is one of the better Lebanese brands as for Gantous & Abou Raad I wouldn't be able to judge since I've never tried it.
It still is my strong opinion that the best Syrian commercial Arak brands (i.e. Export Mimas, Rayan, Batta, Dinan to name but a few) are better than the top Lebanese brands. However, the home-made Arak, Syrian and Lebanese are almost always better than all.
When you finally sit down to enjoy your Arak be sure you have the right atmosphere and food to go along. In this case, the (readily available) Lebanese cuisine in Canada is simply magnificent.

Piscean Rubble said...

If I could get my hands on a Syrian brand, you bet I would!!! But I can't find it.

Lebanese cuisine...oh, ya, I swear there are more Lebanese shawarma places here in Ottawa than there are donut shops...and that's saying something!! The food is absolutely scrumptious!!!:)

Arlette said...

Marhaba AbouFares,
Seems you are an expert in making homemade Arak, if you don't mind sharing a recipe , I need to know the ratio of grapes to anise seeds and the steps . Highly appreciated


jad said...

can we keep arak in bottle for how much time

Anonymous said...

A wonderful piece. It is a joy to read your essays.

Pash said...

Even though bringing in Alcohol to Pakistan is illegal, the temptation of a drink brewed in Lebanon was too much. So I got a small bottle from Dubai Duty Free and carried it with me in my backpack. What the heck, if the customs find it, I only get to lose 45 dirham I paid for the bottle, not my neck. Landed at the airport and confidently walked to the custom. The custom officer tells me to put my bag on the XRay machine belt. Just as I am about to, he notices another bag on me and says "Don't worry about this one, put that other one for checking". With a little smirk on my face, I let the other bag on the conveyor belt and walk out with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished!
So now it's me and a bottle of Arak, in a "supposedly" alcohol free land, and no idea if I should drink it straight or mix it with something. So yeah, I read your blog and now I'm gonna have a lamb BBQ and drink it mixed with cold water. Cheers.. or whatever they say in Arabic :-)

Tara said...

Dear Abu Fares,

I enjoyed your story immensely, and am so grateful to have stumbled across your blog while searching for information on arak. I have recently had the incredible good fortune of meeting a Fares from Syria (and his lovely wife) who was telling me about arak - and so generously sharing a taste! They came to Canada in October and we have enjoyed lively conversations about food and drink (lively even without our really sharing a language, but fed by our desire to connect and our mutual love of delicious authentic things). I am hoping to be able to help Fares gather the necessary things for distilling his own arak (and now, thanks to you, will do my best to create a scene similar to what you have described here, as I am blessed with much space for such a gathering) but am wondering about these very specific grapes both he and you mentioned. Do you know what variety they might be best described as?

With affection,

abufares tartoussi said...

Thank you for your comment on this very old post of mine.
I hope you and Fares get around making your own Arak. It's a lot of fun and well worth the time and effort.
I can only say that the best grapes for making Arak are white, small and round and the sweetest you can find. The Anise is extremely important. The higher the quality the better so you should look for and acquire the very best money can buy.

Good luck!!!

Samy N said...

Yes my friend now I want more arak.