The perfect arak
The arak production process begins with the grapes. For our purposes they should be white Lebanese varietals, preferably Obeideh or Merweh (although Ugni Blanc, the preferred grape in the Cognac region of France, can also be used). The Obeideh should be crushed slowly and allowed to ferment naturally without the addition of artificial yeasts.
The wine alcohol level should reach around 13 per cent before the first distillation process or brouillis (literally the first draft). The still’s head should be an Arab head or tête de maure (moor’s head) – unlike other stills such as the swan’s head or the rectification column, the Arab head exerts less pressure and is more gentle in extracting the aniseed aromas with the distillate. It should also be made of copper, which has the best properties with which to manipulate 70 per cent alcohol, being malleable and a good conductor of heat. It resists corrosion from fire and from wine and reacts well with wine components such as sulphur and fatty acids.
The fire under the still should be lit with vine wood. Not only does this guarantee that no chemicals enter the production process, it ensures that none of the raw materials in the production process goes to waste. Heat is evenly distributed to avoid any build-up of charring in the still and also creates the sense of ritual essential to the perpetuity of any national tradition.
The output should then be allowed to sit for one to two months before the second distillation, during which the distillate is divided into the head, the heart and the tail. The head – the aromas of which are too aggressive – and the tail – with the aromas too dull – are removed, leaving only the Coeur (the heart), which has the right balance. In this way the harmful methanol and other ingredients are removed. The new, purer distillate is left to sit for another one to two months before the third and final distillation, which sees the addition of the fresh aniseed that must come from the Syrian village of Hina. The aniseed should not be more than one season old.
The output undergoes a further separation of the head and the tail from the now ultra-pure heart. The arak has now been broken down into its purest form (there is a myth that a fourth or even fifth stage can achieve a purer state, but this is nothing more than a one-upmanship gimmick: in fact, the more times you distill, the more of the aroma you lose).
The arak must then be aged in clay jars. The best are made in the mountain town of Beit Shabeb just outside Beirut, where it is said that the clay in the soil offers the best porosity. The ageing process is important, since it allows for the evaporation of the low-density alcoholic properties (the parts that cause hangovers). This evaporation – roughly 5 per cent – is known affectionately in the distillation process as the Angel’s share.
All arak makers agree, however, that it must be made with passion. Human intervention is crucial to making a good arak. Let then the intervention be made with the hand of a patient craftsman.
Elias Najeeb Karam, is known in Zabougha as Abou Shanab (literally father of the moustache), because of his magnificent whiskers. Every year, like many of his contemporaries in the village, he makes homemade arak, called baladi, from his still.
‘Nearly everyone has a still in the area,’ he explains. At seventy-five, there is little you can’t tell him about arak-making and the much debated benefits of baladi over the commercial brands.
October and November are traditionally the months when arak baladi is made. The law technically prohibits the home distiller from owning a still without a permit, but in the absence of a clampdown, which would be unprecedented, the household kerki (still) will bubble away as it has done for generations.
The process is relatively simple. If you have a still, several big plastic barrels and a densitometer to test for alcoholic content, then all you need is a lot of grapes, aniseed and water.
The aniseed is added during the second distillation and once again in the final stage, when 2 kilos are added to every 20 litres. For Abou Shanab, the whole process takes three days. He makes 100 litres each season. For this he needs 400 kilos of grapes for which he pays around LL200,000 and 20 kilos of aniseed at LL100,000. The 60 litres of bottled water cost LL50,000 and a ton of firewood for his still costs LL300,000.
Factoring in his time and effort, he believes that it costs him LL825,000 to make his 100 litres, which boils down to just over LL8,000 per litre. The market rate for baladi mtalat (arak that is thrice distilled) is LL12,000, but Abou Shanab is at pains to point out that he never sells what he makes. ‘That would be illegal,’ he says with just the slightest of twinkles in his eye.
But why does he do it? Why doesn’t he just go to the shops and buy it off the shelves? ‘You don’t know what is put in the other stuff,’ he warns, no doubt referring to the commercial brands. ‘I want to know what I’m drinking.’