by Habeeb Salloum

Called by the Arabs of the Middle East, ‘the milk of lions’, arak, also known as arack and arraki, is the national alcoholic drink of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It is given this nick-name because of its highly potent and lethal character. An aniseed-flavored colorless spirit which turns to a milky-white liquid after water and/or ice are added, it is much sought after in the Middle Eastern lands by those who indulge in intoxicating drinks. Usually drank before it matures, it is a fiery rough liquor made for tough palates.
Never drank by itself, arak is always served with mezza (titbits of food) which could include up to a hundred dishes. A dinner invitation to friends and colleagues who savor alcoholic drinks always begins with this gourmet ritual. After a few ounces of arak and the consuming of a large amount of mezza, the guests are usually sated. When the main course of the meal is served, the food is hardly touched. Sipping on arak while consuming titbits of appetizers is always thought of as the highlight of the meal.
Various forms of arak, which in Arabic means both sweat and juice, are popular in all the countries edging the Mediterranean and parts of the Far East. In the greater Syria area, it is distilled from fermented grape juice or, at times, sugar and is considered by the inhabitants to be greatly superior to similar hard liquors in other countries. The same spirit in the Balkans and Turkey, called raki - another form of the word arak - is made from a variety of products like grain, molasses, plums and potatoes. Other similar drinks are the arak of Iraq - made from fermented date juice, the zibib of Egypt - a peasant made drink and Greek ouzo - the most popular aperitif in that country. Further west, along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, the Italian anesone, French pastis and Spanish ojén, served as aperitifs or refreshers, are all sweeter versions of arak. Also, in the Far East, a comparable liquor known as arrack, distilled from palm sap or rice, is very popular.
It is believed that the arak is among the first of these liquors - apparently developed by the Christian and Jewish minorities in the Middle East. The art of distillation was initially discovered in the early Middle Ages by the 10th century Arab alchemist, Albukassem. However, the Arabs did not use his invention to produce alcoholic spirits since in Islam, liquor is forbidden. Hence, his discovery was employed to distil perfume from flowers and to produce kohl - a women's eye cosmetic where a black powder is liquefied, then converted to vapor and allowed to re-solidify.
The Arabs carried the art of distilling kohl to Spain from where it spread to the remainder of Europe. In these Christian lands, it took on a much different use - the production of liquor. With the utilization of this method of producing hard spirits, the Arabic name al-kohl, which became alcohol, was adopted due to the similar method the Arabs used in manufacturing this cosmetic. The words in English relating to the art of distillation, besides alcohol, like alchemy, alchemist, and alembic attest to the Arab origin of producing the many intoxicants found in western lands.
Arak, in the past, was generally of local or village manufacture, but in the last few decades it is increasingly being produced in large manufacturing plants. The modern hard drinks of the West have not overwhelmed this ancient peasant refreshment. It is still the preferred liquor of those who enjoy alcoholic drinks in the Middle East.
One has only to sit in the restaurants and night spots of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria which serve alcoholic drinks to appreciate the people's attachment to this product of the grape. On every table, a bottle of arak surrounded by endless plates of mezza, much like Spanish tapas, is the focal point of the party. Middle Easterners believe that it is very important to snack while sipping their drinks. They would never dream of drinking their arak without nibbling on an endless array of foods. Many believe that eating cuts down the lethal effect of the `lion's milk' - to its fans, the epitome of drinks. There is a saying among the Arab Christians that `anyone who drinks arak becomes its advocate'.