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Around the Mediterranean from Lebanon in the east to Spain in the west practically all countries produce a version of anise flavoured distillates under a range of names: the Arabs call it arak, Turks raki, Greeks ouzo, Italians sambucca, French pastis and Spaniards anisado.
     While Muslims are not supposed to consume alcoholic beverages according to one of the tenets of their religion, historians and researchers widely attribute the discovery of distillation to Arab alchemists in the 13th century. In fact, the word alcohol is derived from Arabic al-cool, and alembic still from al-embic.
     Although there are theories that Chinese had discovered the secrets of distillation well before Arab alchemists, nothing has been unearthed to even remotely corroborate such claims.
     Mary the Jewess and Hypatia of Alexandria, an important learning centre well into the 12th century had invented a contraption to separate liquids by heating but they never thought of exploiting the difference of boiling points of water (100 C) at sea level and alcohol (78.3 C).

     It is thought that the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s order to burn all alchemists books in 296 A D contributed to the delay of the discovery of distillation principles by western scientists.
     Regardless of historical facts and twists of events arak was and remains one of the most famous and widely consumed distillates in the world, but oddly enough not in the English speaking countries of the world. Maybe arak consumption requires the right environment and food. There is something to be said about drinking in the right environment, a pastis in one of Marseille’s quayside cafes tastes much better than the same drink in Toronto.
     Of all the Arabic, speaking countries Lebanon reputedly produces the best arak and the very best of them sells for more than Scotch whisky in that country.
For Lebanese arak means a clear flavourful distillate to be diluted with sufficient water and consume alongside food.
     The Bekaa Valley south east of Beirut, considered the pearl of the Mediterranean before the almost 20 year of armed conflict ruined it, is well known for its arak, but the best of all comes from artisan distillers with very small operations or restaurant owners who also distil their own.
     In the valley, there is at least one restaurant owner who buys obeidah grapes (supposedly the mother grape of Chardonnay) presses them and ferments the juice naturally. After the fermentation, the weakly alcoholic liquid is left to settle and then filtered to remove the crudest suspended matter. Subsequently the liquid is distilled in copper stills produced by skilled Arab masters.
     During the first and subsequent runs the fore shots and faints are carefully separated, collected and redistilled to minimize methyl alcohol content.
     In fact, it is the separation of alcohol and water that Arab alchemists discovered and then refined it by redistillation of the aforementioned parts for purity.
     After the first distillation at 70 percent ABV, the distillate is diluted to 53 percent ABV and redistilled in the presence of unwashed, uncrushed anise from the village of Hinel on the Mount Hermon close to the Syrian border. Still the second run is separated, and redistilled twice more to obtain the ebst arak imaginable.
     If you want to experience this, arguably best arak, you must travel to Kesrouan in southeastern Lebanon and ask Maronites to direct you to the restaurant. Only 100 bottles per year are produced for consumption in her restaurant.
     Ksara, Fakhra and El Massaya are commercial brands of fine Lebanese araks but cannot compete with the both depth and sophistication of flavour and fine texture of the artisinal arak.
     The best way to enjoy arak is to pour it into a tall glass with a few ice cubs one part of arak and dilute it by pouring five parts of water. At this instant, it will turn milky white and will have been diluted to approximately 10 percent ABV. Arak requires Middle eastern food, (Small servings of feta cheese, rice and pine nut stuffed vine leaves, marinated olives, spicy, thinly slices sausages, cracked wheat balls stuffed with raw, chopped lamb, fried mussels, fried cubed lamb liver sprinkled with chopped parsley, red mullet roe blended with mie de pain, olive oil, lemon juice, fried smelts, poached sliced cold lamb’ brains with vinaigrette dressing, roast leg of lamb with vegetables, soy beans cooked in olive oil and tomatoes, plenty of flat bread), and good company.
     In effect, Middle Eastern food is designed for communal eating and never satisfying in a restaurant for a party of two.
     Turkish raki, Greek ouzo resemble arak but are lighter in flavour. Italian Sambuca is a liqueur meant to be a digestive and pastis contains anis, many herbs and a little sugar making it quite different from its Arabic counterparts.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu. 1/15/04

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