Wine Talk: Back to arak

Indigenous to Israel and the region, the ethnic anise-flavored drink is regaining its popularity.

Arak (photo credit: Thinkstock)
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
The largest-selling spirit in Israel may be vodka, but the indigenous spirit is arak. This is an anise-flavored drink that goes milky white when mixed with water. It is the ethnic drink of the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish raki, Greek and Cypriot ouzo are variations on a theme with Lebanese and Israeli arak. It is also not dissimilar to French Pastis and Pernod, and the Italian liqueur Sambucca. The word arak means “sweat.” The drops of condensed alcohol are said represent perspiration! The world’s finest arak comes from Lebanon. There, they treat their finest araks with total reverence. Arak is known there as “lion’s milk.”
Up to recently, the finest bars in Israel would stock Yeni Raki from Turkey, Haddad Arak from Jordan or Touma Arak from Lebanon. The only ever-present Israeli alternative was the Elite or Aluf Arak.
However, in Israel there has been a revival of quality araks in the last two years.
The finest newcomers have been Kawar and El Namroud.
Kawar comes from Jordanian roots, and El Namroud is produced in the Galilee by a refugee of the South Lebanese Army, now resident in Israel.
Both have introduced a new quality to local arak.
Kawar Arak was first produced by Iskandar Kawar in Jordan 70 years ago The tradition was in turn maintained by his children and grandchildren.
In 2002, Baheeg Kawar started a new initiative in Nazareth, and in 2010 a new state-of-the-art facility was opened in the Zipporit Industrial Park, near Nazareth Illit. Today the third generation, Alaa Kawar and Annan Kawar, are joint chairmen, and the CEO is Said Salem.
They produce premium arak, which they sell under two brand names – Kawar and El Pasha. These may be found in leading restaurants, bars and wine stores throughout Israel. The basic brand in the range is Arak El Pasha, which is 45 percent alcohol. Then, under the Kawar label, there is a Delicate Premium Green Label at 45% alcohol, and a Classic Premium Red Label at 50%.
The prestige arak is the Kawar Traditional Premium Black Label at 53%.
Kawar Arak is produced 100% from grape alcohol made from sweet white grapes grown in the Galilee.
The anise comes from the exclusive area near the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, where the best anise is grown. It is kosher.
Many spirit experts will assume that the higher alcohol one is the best. The Black Label is certainly the one to give as a gift, but I prefer the Green Label as being more in balance. For cooking or cocktails, I would use Elite Arak, which is more inexpensive but also not a bad arak at all. The anise in Elite Arak is slightly more understated than in the Kawar. So if you are new to arak, Elite is a good starting point.
However, for those who want the Rolls-Royce, the quality of Kawar Araks is undisputed by experts that taste them. They have also received the ultimate thirdparty recommendation in the international arena. Kawar Arak Red Label 50% won a gold medal and the award Best in Class at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition in London.
The Kawar Green Label 45% and Kawar Black Label 53% both won silver medals in the same competition. Furthermore, the Kawar Green Label Arak 45% won a double gold medal, and the Kawar Arak Black Label 53% won a gold medal at Terravino in 2011. The IWSC and Terravino are, respectively, the leading world and Israeli competitions for spirits.
The way to drink arak is to pour it into a narrow glass and add five parts water to one part arak, though this may be varied according to taste. Arak should not be refrigerated (like vodka, for instance). Cooling may be done by adding ice cubes, but only after the arak has been poured. A sprig of mint could be added, too.
Arak should be sipped over a period of time and not gulped or downed in one go, like vodka. It is the perfect aperitif before a meal. It is the classic partner to mezze, the small plates of starters served in Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Israel. A wine may be thrown off course by the acidity, garlic or spice of traditional mezze, but the arak will stand supreme against the variety of flavors.
However, best is to sit on the patio on a cool summer evening with some pistachio nuts and spicy souri olives, sipping arak as the sun goes down. It is the classic summer drink. Michael Karam in his excellent book Arak and Mezze describes the typical cycle. The artisanal Lebanese farmer would harvest his grapes in the autumn, take what he wanted for food or to make raisins. The rest he would make into wine, which would be drunk during the winter months. As the wine would begin to turn in the spring, he would distill the rest to make arak. This he would enjoy throughout the summer months until the cycle would repeat itself the next harvest.
Arak is an acquired taste to some but is also a refreshing drink, and it represents excellent value for money.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.