Arak is in a bad state. Although it was the drink of choice for many Lebanese up until the Civil War, tough competition from whiskey and other spirits has driven it from all but a few traditional settings. And don’t even mention trying to penetrate the youth market. Indeed, as the eyes of both the country’s private and public sectors are focused on the more glamorous local wine production industry, arak production is sinking deeper into oblivion (see “In Flavor of Arak“).
But this should not be the case. Lebanon is known for its arak production: ask anyone from a Lebanese village about arak and they will spend impassioned hours telling you stories of how they or their neighbors distill it at home — or at least used to. They will also tell you what their favorite brand of commercial arak is, and why, and how many health benefits the drink has. As such, arak is the only spirit the Lebanese can place a national claim on, much as the Mexicans are known for their tequila and the Japanese for their saki. Arak is the only drink that is truly ours. It is an integral part of Lebanon’s traditions and culinary heritage — and if promoted in the right way, it could once again be a source of national pride.
We know the drink has the potential to make a comeback. In the late 1990s, its Greek cousin ouzo — which is also made from distilled grapes and flavored with anis — was facing the same issues of decreasing sales and the perception that is was an old person’s drink. So Greece’s big ouzo producers started marketing campaigns, filled with images of couples and friends drinking ouzo, targeted at young Greeks and the many tourists that visit the country. Essentially, they were trying to make ouzo hip again. It worked, and today ouzo is synonymous with the Greek islands’ way of life: not just popular among the younger generation and a must-drink for tourists, but also a growing export.
This is what should be done with arak. Both Massaya and Arak Brun have attempted individual marketing campaigns for their arak, but a more collective branding effort is needed to make a real impact. Just as Lebanon’s major wine producers gathered to form the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) to promote Lebanese wine, arak producers — many of whom are also wine producers and members of UVL — should form a league to promote the story of arak.
This story could capitalize on arak’s traditional roots to maintain its base of older drinkers while appealing to a younger generation. To capitalize on the latter, a wider strategy should involve distribution channels to the country’s nightlife outlets. Bars like Mar Mikhael’s Train Station are already experimenting with arak based cocktails, while pubs like Anise serve a wide variety of arak brands to favorable responses. More such efforts are needed and should be encouraged by arak producers.
Once arak consumption is revitalized in the local market, it will become easier to promote to the global market through tourists who will come to Lebanon and enjoy drinking it so much that they will take a bottle or two with them when they leave. The Lebanese diaspora should also be encouraged to take an active role in promoting arak as their country’s specialty drink.
A glass of icy cold arak is as Lebanese as a plate of tabbouleh or hommos, and it should be just as integrated in our collective repertoire. For all of our sakes, but especially their own, it is a time for the country’s arak producers to lead the effort in doing so.