Around the Mediterranean from Lebanon in the east to Spain in the west practically all countries produce a version of anise flavoured distillates under a range of names: the Arabs call it arak, Turks raki, Greeks ouzo, Italians sambucca, French pastis and Spaniards anisado.
While Muslims are not supposed to consume alcoholic beverages according to one of the tenets of their religion, historians and researchers widely attribute the discovery of distillation to Arab alchemists in the 13th century. In fact, the word alcohol is derived from Arabic al-cool, and alembic still from al-embic.
Although there are theories that Chinese had discovered the secrets of distillation well before Arab alchemists, nothing has been unearthed to even remotely corroborate such claims.
Mary the Jewess and Hypatia of Alexandria, an important learning centre well into the 12th century had invented a contraption to separate liquids by heating but they never thought of exploiting the difference of boiling points of water (100 C) at sea level and alcohol (78.3 C).
It is thought that the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s order to burn all alchemists books in 296 A. D. contributed to the delay of the discovery of distillation principles by western scientists.
Regardless of historical facts and twists of events arak was and remains one of the most famous and widely consumed distillates in the world, but oddly enough not in the English speaking countries of the world. Maybe arak consumption requires the right environment and food. There is something to be said about drinking in the right environment, a pastis in one of Marseille’s quayside cafes tastes much better than the same drink in Toronto or for that matter elsewhere in the world..
Of all the Arabic, speaking countries Lebanon reputedly produces the best arak and the very best of them sells for more than Scotch whisky in that country.
For Lebanese arak means a clear flavourful distillate to be diluted with sufficient water and consume alongside food.
The Bekaa Valley south east of Beirut, considered the pearl of the Mediterranean before the almost 20 year of armed conflict ruined it, is well known for its arak,
but the the crème de la creme comes from artisan distillers with very small operations or restaurant owners who also distil their own.
In the valley, there is at least one restaurant owner who buys obeidah grapes (supposedly the mother grape of Chardonnay) presses them and ferments the juice naturally. After the fermentation, the weakly alcoholic liquid is left to settle and then filtered to remove the crudest suspended matter. Subsequently the wine is distilled in copper stills produced by skilled Arab masters.
During the first and subsequent runs the foreshots and faints are carefully separated, collected and redistilled to minimize methyl alcohol content.