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‘The Milk of the Lions’ is the national drink in this country: Read on to learn why.

You are attending lunch with your friend’s family, right in the heart of Lebanon, a region that is home to Khalil Gibran, Gaddafi, and Maroun Bagdadi. As people pass around a jug during the mezze, a feast of hot and cold foods, your eyes are drawn to it. As your inquisitive brow rises, what the hell is that? In France, they call it pastis, in Turkey raki, but in Lebanon, it is called arak (and please don’t confuse it with our arrack, which is entirely different); it is the grandfather of all flavored spirits and may have been the first-ever created.

As arak is usually served in small glasses, it is unavoidable in Lebanon party scenes, especially where mezze platters are available. During meals, if there is enough spirit flowing around lubricating the conversation, it will go on for hours.

How does arak get started?

The crude form of arak dates back to the 12th century when the Arabs developed alembic distillation. People of many regions in the Middle East were accustomed to distilling grape juice and steeping it with anise seeds. It was only during the Turkish occupation when ancient vineyards were abandoned or cut down for religious reasons that the practice in Lebanon suffered a setback. Even so, many people who harvested grapevines made the spirit secretly as a way to keep the tradition alive.

In order to make arak, local people distill white grapes and ferment them to produce crude wine. The wine is then stored in barrels. Alcohol volume will be primed to 90% during the primary distillation, which must then be watered down to 50% before the next distillation. In order to impart the distinctive flavor of arak, aniseeds are added.

Don’t mock the easiness of production, for the Lebanese are proud about the hard work they put in and the resulting flavor of their home-made arak which they either keep for themselves or give away as gifts to friends and family. Usually, families celebrate the day they make the arak, throwing parties with amazing Lebanese food. It is mezze time again!

How should you drink arak?

The correct proportion is one-third arak and two-thirds water. Your Lebanese friend may then ladle it to an ice-filled glass. Get ready for an incredible spectacle. A milky liquid forms when alcohol reacts with water. You’ve seen it before – the louche effect – if you’ve ever had absinthe. Nevertheless, many first-timers are put off by the thin film that ice forms on top of the liquid. A topping would add another layer of yuckiness to the drink. The only solution is to use fresh glass for every repeat.

Arak is not only the national drink of Lebanon, but also a passion for the Lebanese. In addition to family-owned arak producers, Lebanon’s biggest winemakers are also creating their own brands of the spirit. But beware. The alcohol content of 53% to 60% makes your cockles not only warm, but also burn. That’s why it’s called ‘The Milk of the Lions’.


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