Last November I was fortunate enough to have dinner in one of Beirut's best restaurants, Em Sherif, with a group of Lebanese winemakers. There's no menu—they just bring you seemingly endless small dishes such as kibbeh nayyeh, finely chopped raw lamb with onions, or baby eggplants stuffed with walnuts. Each one was extremely delicious, though I made the schoolboy error of filling up on the insanely good hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Mezze really isn't designed for greedy Englishmen.
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Along with the food we had some excellent local wines but one of the winemakers admitted to me that the best thing with mezze isn't wine, it's Arak. This aniseed spirit, diluted with water and ice, cleans the palate and sharpens the appetite so you're ready for a bite of something different. I looked around the restaurant, and most of the fantastically glamorous clientele (everyone in Beirut is very chic) were drinking Arak.
Arak is part of a family of aniseed-flavored spirits that exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. The word comes from the Arabic for sweat: a description of the alcohol dripping off the still. There's Raki in Turkey, Rakia in Bulgaria and Ouzo in Greece. Further afield there's Sambuca in Italy, Anis in Spain and Pastis in France. In fact, about the only country in Europe that doesn't do something similar is Britain.
Though Arak is similar to its Greek and Turkish cousins, it's generally a far superior product. "The Lebanese are very quality driven. There is no industrial Lebanese Arak," says Michael Karam, author of a Arak and Mezze: the Taste of Lebanon. It's only ever made from a spirit distilled from locally-grown grapes, rather than the neutral alcohol more common in Europe. I visited Domaine des Tourelles in the Bekaa Valley, which makes of one of the country's favorites, Arak Brun. It was November and they were still bringing in grapes for Arak production—mainly Obaideh and Merwah but also some Cinsault. Those grapes would be gently pressed, and the juice would ferment (using only wild yeasts) in enormous concrete tanks. They add no sulfur, because it would be accentuated during distillation.
They age Arak Brun for a year and the Special Reserve for five in clay jars similar to classical amphora but with flat bottoms. Recently, they wanted to expand production but nobody knew how to make the jars. Luckily they found a 70-year-old man in a remote village—probably the last person with the requisite knowledge. They have now started a workshop making jars where younger men can learn the necessary skills. It's a slow, labor intensive process, so they can only make 30 to 40 jars per year.
At Clos St. Thomas, just up the road from Tourelles, they make Arak Touma. Here I tried the pre-aniseed eau-de-vie, which tastes a little like an unaged Armagnac crossed with rum. The flavor of this high-quality spirit doesn't need disguising with sugar, which explains why good Arak is so refreshing. Said Touma, the patriarch of the family, showed me how to add water from a height into the Arak so that it goes cloudy. ("Louching" is the technical term.) You generally drink it in a ratio of two parts water to one Arak with ice. I was gently reprimanded by Michael Karam for adding too much water. "Your Arak looks a little weak" he told me.
The aging and care at every stage of production makes Lebanese Arak much smoother than Ouzo or Raki. In fact, for a drink so strong (usually around 50 percent alcohol), it's dangerously drinkable. Michael Karam told me that "as one drinks sake with sushi, I dream of the day when people will eat Lebanese food and drink Arak." With the growth of Middle Eastern food across America and Europe, Michael's dream might just come true.
3 Araks to Try Now:
Arak Brun ($22)
Made by Domaine des Tourelles. According to Michael Karam it is "considered by the Lebanese to be the gold standard". Pure and elegant with a distinct grassy note.
Arak Touma ($20)
Unsweetened like all good Arak with a very clean taste, it is distilled four times for extra smoothness. It comes in a beautifully Middle-Eastern looking bottle which is a work of art in itself.
Arak Musar ($45)
It's worth paying the premium for this one made by Lebanon's most famous wine producer, Chateau Musar. They put just as much care into this as they do their wine.