Also spelled ‘araq’, arak is a distilled alcoholic drink which means ‘perspiration’ in Arabic. Arak is different from arrack, another type of liquor with a similar name. It is made primarily with two ingredients: aniseed and grapes (aniseed is the seed of the anise plant, the oil from which gives arak its characteristic licorice flavour). Arak varies from region to region, and may sometimes contain dates, molasses, figs, plums or sugar. Out of all anise-flavoured spirits, including absinthe, arak is the strongest. 

The spirit is native to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Arak evolved from alembic distillation, which was an Arab invention, in the 12th century. Since the majority of Arabs at that time were Muslims, arak was mainly used in the manufacturing of perfumes. However, the spread and use of arak as a beverage follows the path of the Arab-Islamic conquests. This shows that Muslim Arabs drank arak and did not abide by the prohibition placed on alcohol by Islam during the 12th century.

Arak is mixed with water in the ratio 1:2, in a traditional water vessel called an ‘ibrik’, which is native to the Eastern Mediterranean region. The diluted mixture, which turns a translucent milky-white, is then poured into cups filled with ice. The translucent milky-white colour of diluted arak is due to anethole, the essential oil of anise, which is not soluble in water and results in an emulsion. The droplets of the emulsion scatter light and render the liquid translucent (this process is called louching). Glasses containing arak are usually not reused to avoid the precipitation of the anise.

Usually served with mezze or Middle Eastern appetisers, arak is rarely consumed by itself. It also makes a good accompaniment to barbecues and garlic-flavoured dishes. The spirit is an important part of social gatherings held at homes and can even be found at restaurants and bars. When serving arak, the ice must never be added to the alcohol, but instead the other way around. This is because adding ice to arak results in an unpleasant film to form on the top of the liquid, caused by the oils in the anise that tend to solidify. The addition of water prevents the formation of the film over arak and also gives the drink its milky-white colour. 

These days, cocktails prepared with arak have become common. While these creative concoctions may have made their way into bars, nothing beats the charm of drinking plain arak diluted with water and served over ice for those who belong to countries where arak is a centrepiece.