The Spirit of The Levant

History, tradition and mystery unfold during a trip to the Rai restaurant and distillery. 

I stepped off the dirt road and onto a big patch of synthetic green grass. A 70-year-old carob tree kindly shaded the tables and chairs surrounding its thick trunk – as if it were hiding everyone under its bow – a sacred shelter from Israel’s hot October. Groups of men and families filled the restaurant’s open air seating. There were barely any empty seats in sight. People sat closely around tables overflowing with food and drinks while children ran around the space playing. Chatter in Arabic, clinking glasses and busy utensils made up the music in the air. The sounds blended harmoniously with the smell of meat that had been stewing for hours and pungent, sweet anise – such a distinct scent – entwined with the history and character of the Levant.

The Rai restaurant garden remained bustling for the rest of the day. One glass after another of the white, opaque liquid was taken slowly, as always, to match the pace of a Mediterranean afternoon. Only naturally unfolding when work is out of the way. In Rameh, in October, that means when the olive harvest is done for the day.

I took a seat under the welcoming tree. The restaurant’s breathtaking view stretched before me, Mount Meron and the Lebanese Plateau behind it peeked from the left, the sea of Galilee to the right, and Jordan straight ahead. Adeeb Doha, the younger of the two brothers that own Rai, poured me a glass of arak made in their distillery on the first floor of the restaurant. He quickly disappeared back into the stone structure. I sank two cubes of ice into my glass and watched the clear spirit turn milky, as the anise oils touched the water. The color spread like a drop of white ink. In Turkish, they call it Lion’s Milk, because, “Either you are one for drinking it or you’ll turn into one when you’re done,” I was once told.

Arak, or raki in Turkey, is a wine distillate infused with aniseed. The many other versions of anise drinks such as the Greek ouzo, French pastis, or Italian sambuca, typically contain a larger mix of spices while arak has just two, a grape distill and aniseed. A quality production of the spirit calls for good wine made of thin skinned, white grapes, high in sugar content – like Obaideh in Lebanon, or Dabouki in Israel. Then, a traditional copper alembic for its distillation, and actual aniseeds of the indigenous Levantine Pimpinella anisum are used. I was told that a respectful producer of quality arak will insist on using the seed and not settle for an extract, never replacing it with the cheaper Asian anise star. After the third round of distillation the spirit will normally have a minimum of 40% alcohol and is traditionally expected to contain 52-53% alcohol. Similar to the amount of alcohol in an artisanal quality mezcal.

Around the entire region, and well beyond its borders, the most famed for their arak production are the Lebanese. They are known for having home distilleries in every village and praised bottles from the Eastern city Zahlé. So much so that Zahlé became a synonym for quality when succeeding the drink’s name. In Israel and Jordan, most quality arak is made by Lebanese families.

Yet, despite the consensus, it’s not uncommon to find arak based on different distills, other than grape, according to what’s at hand and available – namely figs or dates. Still, even with the variation of the alcoholic base, if it’s an arak, it is expected to contain anise. But the obvious bond between the two – arak and the Levant’s royal herb – wasn’t always there from the start. That’s why speaking of the drink can sometimes be confusing.

Arak was actually the first word used for a distilled spirit. Coming from the Arabic word for sweat, as a metaphor to illustrate the dripping process required to produce the spirit. It came about in the eighth-century when the Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan invented his copper made alembic, and thus gave the world it’s first distilling technology. It was then that the actual practice of distillation began, and the name followed. From then on, the word arak was used as a generic term – before we had others such as alcohol, or liquor – to refer to any distillate. At the time, anise had nothing to do with the contents, and even today, arrack in Indonesia will mean a local coconut milk distill, alak in the Philippines will get you a glass of wine, and aragh in Iran, and Armenia, will refer to their local raisin or date distill.

The question of why arak started to refer specifically to the anise spirit, remains. But somewhere around the 12th-century it began. “Anise came after many years of experimenting with different [herbs] and flavors,” writes Erdir Zat in his book about raki. Today, when the word arak is used around the Mediterranean basin, certainly on its Eastern shores, it refers to the spirit of anise. Once adopted by the region, not only did the word arak reflect the sweat of its distillation process, it revived the local belief that the person who drinks it, will sweat. Drinking arak is the perfect way to keep cool in the Middle Eastern climate.

Adeeb came back holding a tray of colorful small dishes – a mix of the Palestinian cuisine he grew up on and the Bulgarian food he enjoyed while living abroad. “Our cuisine – of the Levant, or let’s say of the historical area of Greater Syria, was developed around arak,” he said, while pouring us another glass. “The year round vegetables, the pungent olive oil, the kibbeh nayyeh, the mint, fresh greens, citrus and grilled fish were all flavors created with the lingering taste of anise on our tongues.” The way of dining in the Levant was most likely influenced by the fumes of the lion’s milk as well. Arak, unlike any other high proof alcohol, is enjoyed with the food. Not strictly before or after eating. The many little plates of meze crowd the table and set a slow pace for savoring both food and drink. Just as the word meze, from Farsi, ‘to taste’, suggests it should be. “Otherwise you’ll get horribly wasted,” Turkish food writer Aylin Oney Tan warned, when I wondered out loud why drink is paired with food. Though her explanation has a lot of truth to it, the reason is likely tied to the historical health benefits of anise.

Anise is native to the Levant. It’s believed to have originated in Egypt, and was among the early medical herbs documented. The first time anise is mentioned is in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers dating back to circa 1500 BC. It was later noted by both Hippocrates and Pliny with an extravagant list of uses, to help a cough, soothe the lungs, ease menstruation symptoms and encourage lactating. It was even considered an aphrodisiac for the lazy libido. But above all, every text concerning arak speaks of anise’s digestive powers.

“Why not cardamom, mint or coriander seeds? Why, of all herbs, anise?” I thought about the conversation I had with distiller Yuval Hargil, earlier that week. “Show me another herb that is as diffused into food and beverages in countries throughout the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about this,” he shared with me. Since he established his craft distillery, Julius, in 2008, Hargil has produced an ample variety of spirits: eau de vie, gin, mead, a mead distill and a selection of bitters. But never arak, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. “I’m dying to produce arak. But the one precedent upon which we founded this distillery was the commitment to only use local ingredients. No one is producing aniseed in Israel,” he explained. Hargil ends up adding to the mystery rather than solving it. 

Adeeb finally took a break and sat across from me. “All the arak producers get their anise from Syria,” he said and opened his palm to reveal Syrian seeds. We both took a handful and tossed them into our mouths. Today, anise is rarely produced in Jordan, Iran or Lebanon. In Lebanon, a country that considers arak to be their national drink, Faouzi Issa from Domaine des Tourelles is the only commercial producer growing his own seeds. “It’s a very tough plant to cultivate. It needs a lot of investment, experience, and it’s extremely labor intensive,” Adeeb explains. Once a household plant around the Mediterranean, aniseed production mostly takes place today in Turkey, India and Syria.

At the same time, many older producers are speaking of the younger generation’s newfound interest in the traditional drink. Small craft distilleries and experimental home productions have been “picking up,” as Faouzi describes it. The international trend of discovering and promoting gastronomic cultures is likely to have had a hand as well. “Don’t forget that the majority of the Arab world affiliated with this drink, is a dry Muslim society,” Hargil mentioned. “Arak belongs to small communities of drinkers within that world,” he explained. There’s nothing like a shared goal to strengthen a community.

I took a seat under the welcoming tree. The restaurant’s breathtaking view stretched before me, Mount Meron and the Lebanese Plateau behind it peeked from the left, the sea of Galilee to the right, and Jordan straight ahead. Adeeb Doha, the younger of the two brothers that own Rai, poured me a glass of arak made in their distillery on the first floor of the restaurant. He quickly disappeared back into the stone structure. I sank two cubes of ice into my glass and watched the clear spirit turn milky, as the anise oils touched the water. The color spread like a drop of white ink. In Turkish, they call it Lion’s Milk, because, “Either you are one for drinking it or you’ll turn into one when you’re done,” I was once told.

The sun became soft on our necks and the sky lit up with a fiery orange and red. Abeed’s wife, Milka, finally came downstairs and joined us from the kitchen. Laughter rose from the large table to our right as people greeted her with a smile. If there was ever a time for the the Middle East to reclaim one of its biggest symbols, the time is now.

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