This article is part of an Executive special report on beer, wine and arak. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up October’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.
No Lebanese mezze table is complete without a pitcher of milky white arak and its accompanying little glasses. This anise infused drink made from distilled grapes, which turns white when water is added, is part of the Levant’s culinary heritage as a whole, and is an integral part of Lebanon’s, which has the highest number of commercial producers and where villagers take pride in producing their own homemade — or baladeh — arak.
Is homemade the best?
There are no official figures available for the annual production of arak, but in addition to commercially-produced varieties, arak baladeh — or homemade arak — is prevalent. Producing the drink at home is a standing tradition among villagers, possibly due to the relative ease of making it. All that is needed is grapes, anise, a still — known as a karakeh — and the know-how.
Even though many of those who produce arak baladeh do so for their own consumption and as gifts for friends, some have taken it to a slightly more commercial level and sell a limited amount to Lebanese restaurants. Elias Fadel, owner of Fadel restaurant in Naas, produces 600 liters of arak annually, which he sells for $66 per bottle. Yet due to high demand, he says he can only satisfy 30 percent of his potential customers before he runs out. “I enjoy making my own arak because I can be sure of what quality grapes I put in it. I follow the best traditional procedures to make the best tasting arak,” says Fadel, insisting that one can tell the difference in taste between his four times distilled arak and other varieties that are distilled three times or fewer.
All arak producers, however, warn against arak baladeh that is distilled incorrectly, without properly removing the methanol which can cause, at the least, a throbbing headache and, at worse, blindness. “Not all arak baladeh is good and some can cause bad headaches. It all depends on the way it is done,” says Fadel.
Faouzi Issa, co-owner at Domaine Des Tourelles which produces Arak Brun, has no concerns regarding arak baladeh that is meant strictly for at-home enjoyment, but says there is a danger with the lack of control in this sector when such arak is sold commercially with no monitoring or quality assurance. This is because it could develop a bad reputation for the arak sector as a whole when bad quality arak is circulated, he argues.
This was especially true during the Lebanese Civil War, according to Saïd Touma, owner and general manager at Château Saint Thomas which co-produces Arak Touma. He recalls how anyone was able to produce arak using low quality ingredients and export it, thereby giving a bad reputation to Lebanese arak and causing both local and global consumers to lose confidence in it.
Commercial arak producers
Today, with the new modern stills available, commercial arak producers have the means to produce high quality arak and Fadel admits that the commercial arak producers’ equipment is more efficient and can produce better quality arak than the baladeh variety. “Give me their modern equipment and I will produce the best quality arak in Lebanon,” says Fadel. Producing high quality arak then becomes an issue of ingredients used and techniques employed.
Arak producers Executive spoke to agree that making quality arak is an expensive endeavor. “Production of high quality arak is more costly than wine because you need the best quality ingredients,” says Aziz Wardy, general manager of Solifed, which makes Arak Wardy and Arak Gantous et Abou Raad.
Every bottle of arak requires eight kilograms of grapes for distillation, compared to 1.6 kilograms needed to produce wine, explains Issa, and since the average price of grapes is 60 cents per kilogram, some producers might choose to limit costs by distilling alcohol from other sources such as molasses.
Arak producers Executive spoke to say the anise they use for their arak comes from Hina in Syria, which is considered by many distillers to be the best in the region. Due to the war in Syria, anise prices have risen from $3 to $7 per kilogram, according to the arak producers interviewed. “They deliver the anise to our winery at their own risk and so far, although they are sometimes late, delivery has been consistent,” says Touma. Due to the hike in anise prices, explains Wardy, some arak producers cut costs by using lower quality anise or anise substitutes such as anise oil or phenyl oil.
Considering the high cost of production, from the ingredients themselves to the packaging which is generally imported, and the distribution fees involved, both Fadel and Issa raise the point that it would be surprising if arak sold at $5 per bottle would indeed use the best quality grapes or anise available in the market. Here, and for lack of better measurement, price is being used as quality control.
Despite it being synonymous with leisurely Sunday family lunches and a staple of Lebanese restaurants, arak consumption has been struggling to maintain relevancy outside of these markets, both locally and abroad.
When it comes to the global market, Issa says they export 25 percent of their arak production per year to the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, the US, Australia and Canada, explaining that the international market is mainly driven by Lebanese expatriates although they are trying to change this trend by introducing arak to markets such as the UK.
Wardy believes the arak export market is shrinking because it is easier to market Lebanese wine abroad and “there is more potential” in the latter. In fact, all arak producers Executive spoke to started off with only producing arak before expanding to wine production. “We decided to move into wine because the arak market has dropped recently and so we decided to shift to something else. Wine on the other hand is booming,” adds Wardy. While the arak market may have experienced a general drop in the exports market, some reckon that local consumption may be on the rise. “Fifteen years ago, we used to sell 1,000 bottles of wine per year at our restaurant and only 500 arak bottles. Today, there is a shift and the numbers have been reversed. I attribute this to the rise in arak consumption among young people,” says Fadel, speaking of the trend in his restaurant.
Masaya Arak is generally credited with the rebranding of arak’s image through its modern dark blue bottle, but a more collective effort is needed to truly market this drink. “Young minds should learn to enjoy and appreciate arak more as part of our culture. To achieve this, we need more trendy events and venues to push for this. The problem is that arak producers have a smaller market so it is hard to finance a campaign to promote arak consumption,” says Issa, who has been actively pushing for the repositioning of arak through events at his winery and billboard promotional campaigns.
Arguably Lebanon’s national drink, Arak has weathered many a storm but has remained ever present; it should not be allowed to evaporate.