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Anise Liquor: A Middle East “Milk of the Lion”

In every region of the world, there is a common alcoholic beverage that is more popular than others. In the United States alone, you might get a few different answers depending on the state. In the Caribbean, rum is a major export, while in Russia and other parts of Europe vodka is the libation of choice. “However, in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, distilled aniseed alcohols, like Arak, are the most popular.”[1] This particular style of anise liquor is also produced and consumed in Eastern Mediterranean and North African countries as well as Iran, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. “Arak or Araq, is a highly alcoholic spirit from the anis drinks family. It is a clear, colorless, unsweetened anise-flavored distilled alcoholic drink, also labeled as an Aperitif.”1 “Called by the Arabs of the Middle East, ‘the milk of lions’, arak, is the national alcoholic drink of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It is given this nick-name because of its highly potent and lethal character.”[2]

As a member of the parsley family, “anise dates from at least 1500 B.C. and is indigenous to Greece, Asia and the Middle East. Today, however, the aromatic seed of the herb Pimpinella anisum is found throughout the nations that rim the Mediterranean Sea, in the fields, in local foods and, perhaps most of all, in the drinks that form so important a part of Mediterranean life.”[3] In Greece, family and friends gather at the ouzeri, or ouzo bar, for meals composed entirely of mezes, the Greek version of tapas, always accompanied by cool ouzo. The Lebanese have even built a mythology around their ubiquitous arak, making the outrageous claim that “one drink will double the alcoholic potency of anything drunk after it, but only if the arak is taken without food.”3 Turkey has raki; and a multitude of Middle Eastern countries have their own interpretations of arak, sometimes spelled arrack. When you look at the culinary proficiency of these same countries, and the way in which their citizens universally love to eat, the appearance of anise in their regional drinks begins to make sense. “Praised for years as a stomach-settling herb”3, anise is suspected to have been used to flavor alcohols for longer than history has been recorded. All three of ouzo, arak and the Turkish raki are distilled from the leftovers of vindication; grape seeds, stems, skins and the like. “Ouzo is said to have originated sometime around 1889 in Tirnavos, a northeastern Greek town renowned for its spirits and its silks. Ouzos’s life began when one particularly smooth, anise-sented version of the spirit was decreed to be “as good as USO Massalias,” the high-end silk sold at market in Marseille. USO was soon corrupted to ouzo and a new drink was born.”3 At 50% alcohol, “arak is the most potent of the anise spirits and its taste reflects its strength. Best enjoyed diluted, as ouzo or pastis, the Gantous & Abou Road Arak of Lebanon is herbal and grassy with anise on the nose and pepper in the body. The softer Kazan Arak is also much fruitier, with on aroma and flavor that speak of anise and whisper of grappa.”1 One of the distinct properties of anise liqueurs is that they turn cloudy or milky when mixed with cold water. “This effect is generally known as the Ouzo effect. This effect is caused because the essential oil of anise called Anethole is soluble only in alcohol and not in water.”2 Adding cold water releases this oil. It is also a known fact that although Anise liqueurs are generally categorized as liqueurs, they have no added sugar in them. That technically makes it a spirit.

Arak literally means “sweat” in Arabic because the still sweats and drips the liquid. “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. A Muslim chemist invented the first still called alembic (Inbiq).”[4] This is a very important landmark in the history of alcoholic beverages. Before this, the entire world drank fermenting spirits, wine and beer, as opposed to distilled alcohol, Vodka and Whiskey for example. The invention was used to produce “perfumes and Kohl an, 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.”4 The distillation of Arak is performed in two stages. “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.”4 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.”4 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 is considered a poison which is why people died from drinking moonshine in prohibition. 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.

One has only to sit in the restaurants and night spots of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria which serve alcoholic drinks to appreciate the people’s attachment to this product of the grape, and the distilling process. On every table, a bottle of arak surrounded by endless plates of mezza, much like Spanish tapas, is the focal point of the party. Middle Easterners believe that it is very important to snack while sipping their drinks. They would never dream of drinking their arak without nibbling on an endless array of foods. Many believe that eating cuts down the lethal effect of the `lion’s milk’. “There is a saying among the Arab Christians that `anyone who drinks arak becomes its advocate’.”[5] It’s not just the arak that is getting people’s attention. Anise liquors have been getting a lot of recent attention in US bars and you can even find anise liquors in the fallowing drinks: the Flaming Lamborgini, the 46 Magnum, the Flaming Sambuca, the Russian roulette, the B-53, the Vulcan Mind-probe, the Sazerac, and the Bailey’s Comet. The next time you are in a place to try arak or another anise style liquor remember that you are about to drink the Middle Eastern Milk of the Loin.

Bibliography

“Abufares Said…the World According to a Tartoussi.” : Everything You Wanted to Know about Arak and More. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. <http://www.abufares.net/2006/10/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about.html&gt;.

“Anise Liqueur.” – Drink Secrets. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. <http://www.drinksecrets.com/ingredient/anise-liqueur/i1310c6&gt;.

“Anise Liqueurs – Sambuca, Ouzo, Absinthe, Arak, Raki & Pastis.” The Epicentre Exotic Herbs and Spices. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. <http://www.theepicentre.com/Drink/anise_liqueurs.html&gt;.

“Arak.” – Drink Secrets. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. <http://www.drinksecrets.com/ingredient/arak/i1371c20&gt;.

“DRINKING ARAK – A GOURMET RITUAL IN THE MIDDLE EAST.” Bishmezzine El-koura North Lebanon Bishmizzine High School. Web. 24 Feb. 2012. <http://www.bishmezzine.com/Arak.htm&gt;.


[1] Arak.” – Drink Secrets.

[2] DRINKING ARAK – A GOURMET RITUAL IN THE MIDDLE EAST.”

[3]Anise Liqueurs – Sambuca, Ouzo, Absinthe, Arak, Raki & Pastis.”

[4] Abufares Said…the World According to a Tartoussi

[5] Anise Liqueur.” – Drink Secrets

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