Tales From The Top Shelf: Arak The Milk Of Lions

In an instant this clear spirit is turned milky white with the addition of water.
In an instant this clear spirit is turned milky white with the addition of water. Photo by Kate McLean
After years of trauma caused by chancing it on the black jelly bean, it’s time to give the anise category another try— and what better place to do so than at One Fifth Mediterranean with an Arak setup. It’s common for all cultures near the Mediterranean Sea to get down on anise liquors before, during and after meals; Pastis for the French, Ouzo for the Greeks, Sambuca for the Italians and Arak in the Middle East.

In the same way duct tape is used to fix anything or Windex is used to clean everything, Arak is a do-all spirit. The anise flavor, which naturally makes the mouth salivate, stimulates hunger, helps with digestion, and serves as a palate cleanser in and between the bold flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine. Because of its high alcohol content; Arak is most always served diluted with two parts water and alongside mezze, or small plates. Upon dilution, the oils from the aniseed instantly emulsify turning the beverage a milky white, which in combination with its high proof is where Arak gets the street name, “The Milk of Lions.” Rarr.

While as a beginner it’s difficult to pinpoint the texture of liquids, Arak makes an excellent introductory subject. The weight is absolutely lush as oils coat the tongue finishing with the subtle sweetness of anise. Enjoyed neat or over ice, an Arak setup typically involves several glasses as transferring from one to the other lessens the oil amount.

The production of Arak is traditionally a family enterprise as generation after generation are schooled in the art of distilling explains Westin Galleymore, spirits director for Underbelly Hospitality.  The process first starts with fermented indigenous grapes, like Oubeidi, though sometimes figs or dates can be added. Often distilled three to four times, aniseed is then added in later rounds. This rather hot spirit is typically “rested” in clay pots, which differs from “ageing,” because there is no expectation of flavors to change. “Resting lets the spirit calm down a little,” says Galleymore, who has loved immersing himself in the third installment of the yearly revolving restaurant.

Because of loose regulations on Arak, Galleymore says it’s estimated only a quarter is exported. “It’s hard to get information on this stuff; how much is actually produced is unknown.”

One Fifth currently offers four different brands to try, each with nuanced differences and El Massaya being the top shelf selection. An Arak setup costs $7 to $14 and paired with any, or more like all of the mezze section, is a great start. The Kibbeh Naya, a lamb tartare, is exceptional. Finely chopped by hand and served alongside Toum, a whipped garlic emulsion, mint, spring onions, and Malawach, a dense, fried, Jewish bread makes for fun back-and-forthing.
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