Lion's Milk

It looks like water, tastes of anise and turns milky white when water is added. Arak, the indigenous spirit of the Mediterranean, is perfect for the summer.

Arak, araq (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arak, araq
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The indigenous spirit of our region is arak, which means sweat in Arabic. This presumably refers to the condensation that takes place during the distillation process.
Arak looks like water, tastes of anise and it turns milky white when water is added. It is similar to the French Ricard and Pernod, the Turkish raki, the Greek or Cypriot ouzo, the Macedonian mastika, the Egyptian zabib, the North African mahia, the Spanish ojen, Italian sambuca and the Armenian oghi. In Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Israel, it is called arak.
The most famous of them all is Lebanese arak, commonly called “lion’s milk.” Michael Karam in his excellent book Arak and Mezze describes the annual cycle. The Lebanese grape grower would initially use grapes for food. What he couldn’t eat, he would use to make wine. When the wine started to deteriorate in the spring, he would distill it to make arak. Thus wine was consumed in the winter, whilst arak became a summer drink.
Authentic arak is made only from white grapes, and the base wine is distilled three times. The anise is added during the second distillation. (The best anise is said to come from the Syrian village of Hina.) After this the arak is aged in clay jars. The finest arak comes from the Beka’a Valley village of Zahle, which is to arak as Bordeaux is to wine. Hence the use of the name Zahlawi to denote the best Lebanese-style arak.
Arak is usually enjoyed in cafes and bars as an aperitif or to accompany mezze. It should be drunk in a long glass, one third arak, one third water and one third ice, added in that order. A sprig of mint may be added for taste or to enhance the presentation. Alternatively arak may be used for cocktails or for cooking. Arak and grapefruit juice is a favorite long drink of mine, and many a fish soup or stew has been improved with a touch of the lion’s milk.
There has been a recent revival of arak in Israel, led by some traditional and new players. The Gold family of distillers came here in 1824 from Ukraine. They received a license from the Turks in 1879 and the Gold Distillery was founded. Also known as Galilee Wine Cellar, it is now based in Tirat Carmel. It is the largest of the Israeli distilleries. Its main brands are Alouf and Elite.
The Segal family settled here in 1925, having been distillers in White Russia. After the founding of the State, they went into the wine business. One of their old products, the Askalon Extra Fine Arak is still available.
Kawar Arak first appeared in Jordan 70 years ago. The Nazareth branch of the family has recently opened a distillery in Tzipori to bring its quality product to Israel. The label features a portrait of the founder, the great-grandfather of the current generation, Iskander Kawar. It produces a high-quality, clearly defined range of araks.
The El Namroud Distillery is owned by a Christian veteran of the South Lebanese Army who settled in Israel. It is situated at Moshav Goren in Western Galilee. He makes an authentic Lebanese arak, bringing his country’s expertise to Israel.
Both Kawar and El Namroud are high quality. If I had to differentiate, I would say the Kawar araks have a very slight sweetness to them and that the anise flavor of the El Namroud araks is more pronounced.
Other araks available are Haddad from Jordan and Ramallah Extra Fine Arak, but the best are the Lebanese versions. Touma arak is a bestseller and El Massaya in its distinctive blue bottle may be the best quality.