Posted by Beshouy Botros on July 28, 2015 in Blog

arak.jpgAlcohol is Arabic. Quite literally the etymology of the word ‘alcohol’ points modern readers and consumers to layered, and often buried, roots in the Middle East. Al-kohl once referred to the metallic powder used as eye shadow, and was thereafter used to describe a family of beverages.

Arabs are not only to credit for the word alcohol, but spirits themselves have a rich history rooted in medieval and pre-Islamic Arabic culture. Beer and wine have existed for millennia, but spirits as we know them today are a fairly recent phenomena dating back a little over a thousand years. Spirits are products of a chemistry that was revolutionized by the early Arabs. Brewers practiced a science now known as alchemy in order to distill strong liquors and fortify beers, most failed. The term alchemy points to further Arabic origins, al-kimia, or the Arabic word for chemistry practiced in Kemet (or Egypt) allowed Arabs scientists to go beyond their Roman and Greek contemporaries.

Alas, there is no conclusive evidence corroborating theories on who in the Middle East first distilled liquor, but what we do know is that by the ninth century Arab poets, namely Jaber bin Hayyan and Abu Nawas, were writing about a liquid that is, “as hot between the ribs as a firebrand”. It is in the eighth century, in Baghdad and throughout the Arab lands, that historians trace the first textual references to hard liquor. Arabs had perfected the technique of distilling drinks, increasing ethanol content and removing the traces of poisonous methanol.

Traders went on to spread this knowledge, and arak became an emblematic Arab libation. In Arabic, arak, literally means sweat, this refers to the ‘sweating’ process by which the wine is distilled into liquor. Typically, it is then steeped in anise, which gives it its signature licorice taste. This drink, and the advanced brewing practices which made it possible, spread as far east as China and Bali, and as far west as Spain and France. At each stop it took on local dimensions, flavors, and names, e.g. pastis, raki, ouzo, sambuca, and others. This is not a difference in name only, significant regional varieties exist; in South and Southeast Asia it is made with the sap of flowering coconut, in Egypt it is made with the juice of dates, and in Italy it is made with witch elder and licorice.  

Arak, remains central in Arab cuisine, notably in mezzes, small plates featuring different meats, salads, and dips. The liquor is mixed with ice creating its signature milky appearance. After being watered down, arak is slightly more intoxicating than a strong wine and supposedly, a better palate cleanser between bites of a mezze. 

The irony this tale highlights is that the economic, social, and cultural exchanges fostered by the Islamic empires spread the practice of distilling hard liquor, and arak itself. Indeed, alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but today (and hundreds of years ago) Muslims have been able to negotiate their own faith, just like people of all other religious backgrounds.

At the height of Islam, arak travelled three continents. Many claim that the best is made in the hills of Lebanon where villagers brew their own, while others swear by their local varieties. In any case, spirit, and spirits unite us, and that may be worth drinking to.

Cheers, or should I say, saha!

Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute