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!