January 19, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Lebanon keeps arak-ing along

The New York Times reports thatLebanon's Stills, Chilled by War, Are Rekindling the Old Fire:

"Arak from the village is like the sons of the village: pure," he said. "If you use good grapes, if you keep the entire process clean, if you distill the mash well, if you use good aniseed, everyone can make good arak."

Fans claim that arak (the name is sometimes transliterated as arrack) is the sole drink to accompany meze, which relies heavily on lemon and tangy spices. Wine and whiskey tend to clash with the myriad flavors, while arak washes the taste buds, refreshing the palate for each new dish: bitter olives, dewy goat's cheese, radishes, tabbouleh, raw minced lamb, zucchini with cinnamon, potatoes in coriander, mashed eggplant with garlic or chicken livers in pomegranate juice, to name just a few.

Grapes? Who knew that Choo-choo Charlies favorite drink was made with grapes? I guess that explaines why Carmel sold it so cheaply.

Then again, really cheap Arak dispenses with the grapes:

Arak, especially the artisanal or village variety, is undergoing something of a revival in Lebanon. Like the country itself, the drink suffered a tangible corrosion during the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. The question now is just how much of an appetite exists for the drink among a younger generation wooed away by wine, beer, whiskey and sake.

The problem, arak producers say, is that the start of the war in 1975 coincided with the arrival in Lebanon of new machines that let producers throw any old mash at one end (fermented molasses from beet roots was popular), along with a little chemical anise flavoring, and — presto! — a dubious distillation spewed out the other end, to be sold as arak.

Its coarseness often caused blinding headaches. But with the old arak distilleries in downtown Beirut largely bombed out and shells whizzing overhead, consumers were not particularly discriminating. Any cheap sedative would do.

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