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The Magic of Arak

This anise-flavored liquor is perfect for cocktails. It’s also medicinal. And according to some, it can even do miracles.

Dana Kessler
June 30, 2023
Nir Alon/Alamy
Nir Alon/Alamy

This Sunday is National Anisette Day, designed to celebrate any liquor flavored with anise—from Greek ouzo and Turkish raki to French pastis. In Israel, we drink arak. This distilled Levantine spirit is made of grapes (and sometimes other fruit, such as dates), with aniseed added for taste.

“Arak should be based on grapes and aniseed only,” Yair Gath, editor of drinking-culture column “Sanhedrink” at Walla! and host of the Sanhedrink show on Radio Tel Aviv, told me, “without added sugar like in ouzo, or additional spices like in pastis.”

The name arak comes from the word “sweat” in Arabic, since the alcohol drips slowly onto the aniseeds in order to absorb the flavor. It is transparent, and has 40%-80% alcohol content. Like other anise drinks, either you love it or you hate it. Logic has it that if you dislike licorice, you won’t like arak either, but personally, I hate licorice but love arak, so don’t let a licorice aversion deter you from tasting arak. It should also be noted that arak is an acquired taste, so you may need to taste it more than once.

The drink is commonly consumed with cold water and ice. First, you pour the arak (up to a third of the glass), then you pour a third of cold water, and the rest is ice. When adding the water and ice, the arak turns from clear and colorless to milky white. It’s important to do it in this order so that the milky texture is even; without any white streaks. This is a strong drink that looks like milk. Israeli poet Ronny Someck wrote a beautiful ode to the spirit called “Lion’s Milk,” which is one of arak’s nicknames.

Drinking arak straight up is considered hardcore and “keeping it real”—check out parody-rapper Dudu Faruk’s hit “King David (Arak Arak Arak).” However, there are many cocktails based on it that are perfect for Saturday brunches, lazy afternoons, and summer evenings. The best-known is arak with grapefruit juice or lemonade, served over ice, sometimes with the addition of mint leaves.

You can make an arak mojito, using arak instead of rum; or add arak to Campari and sparkling water. Arak also goes extremely well with orgeat syrup, or orzata—a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water. In Israel people use the Tunisian/Libyan variety, named rosetta/rozata. An arak-based cocktail with rosetta and lime or lemon is pure heaven.

The perception of arak in Israel has changed dramatically over the years. During the period of austerity, in the 1950s, hardly any alcohol was imported into Israel, so people drank locally made arak. After austerity, arak was consumed almost exclusively by old-timers playing backgammon in makeshift taverns in Tel Aviv’s main bus station, the port of Jaffa, and other working-class hubs across the country. Young and modern Israelis wouldn’t have touched it.

But all that changed in the 21st century. In the last two decades young Israelis turned to arak as a cheaper alternative to expensive hard liquor. Since local Middle Eastern food became a trend, so did arak, which is the perfect drink to accompany mezze, fried fish, kebab, ikra, or tahini. “As with Maccabee beer, this is a hipster trend of ‘let’s drink what Dad used to drink back in the day,’” Gath added. “And it was the cheapest drink in the bar—a perfect combination.”

Israel’s most popular brand is Elite Arak, produced by the Galilee Wine Cellar Joseph Gold & Sons, which opened in Haifa almost 200 years ago. The winery was founded in 1824 by the Gold family, who previously produced vodka in the Ukraine. When discovering that vodka and wine were not in demand with the predominantly Arab population in Palestine at the time, they started producing the local drink of choice instead. Today the company is located in Tirat Carmel, near Haifa, and also produces other arak brands such as Alouf Arak and Amir Arak.

“Joseph Gold always dominated the market, but in Israel arak is a product without much brand loyalty,” Gath remarked. “People in the bar ask for arak, and don’t really care which one.”

Israel used to have small boutique manufacturers as well, but most of them abandoned ship when this stopped being profitable. “The reform of taxation on alcoholic beverages that Yair Lapid made in 2013 basically removed most of the small producers from the market,” Gath explained. “Before Lapid, the tax was only on the price, now the taxation is also according to the amount of alcohol. So, the tax on a bottle of arak with 40% alcohol is close to the tax on a 21-year-old single malt whiskey with the same alcohol percentage. And the prices have also come close.”

Since Yair Lapid decided to tax cheap booze, arak became much more expensive. A bottle of Elite Arak at a supermarket or convenience store used to cost 35 shekels; now it costs anywhere between 55 and 90 shekels. This move causes great grief to arak lovers as well as small local manufacturers, and is the reason that nowadays the big arak manufacturers dominate. The leading brands are Elite Arak (Joseph Gold), Arak Ashkelon (Barkan Wine Cellars), Arak Kawar (Kawar Distillery), Arak Yuda (Kawar Distillery), and Arak Noah (Kawar Distillery). The Kawar distillery started in 1950 when Iskander Kawar, the head of the family, set up a home distillery. Located in the Galilee, this family distillery has been producing arak—using Galilee grapes and Syrian anise—as well as other alcoholic beverages for three generations. There are also Israeli brands that are produced abroad, such as Arak Carmel (produced in Spain) and Arak Julenar (produced by an Iraqi in Greece). Plus, there is imported arak.

Producing alcoholic beverages by distillation is an ancient practice, but the history of arak dates back to the 12th or 13th century. The fact that drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam caused some to believe it was a Jewish idea. Either way, arak became a staple of chaflot—meaning parties—in the Arab countries, and a sought-after moonshine.

The main manufacturers of arak are Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The city of Zahlé in Lebanon is the world’s arak capital, and their arak—Arak Zahlawi—is considered the best and most prestigious kind. It is made from obaideh grapes, anise, and water from the Berdawni River. There are strict traditional methods to producing Arak Zahlawi and it reaches at least a 50% alcohol level (usually 53%). It should, of course, be produced exclusively in Zahlé, just as Champagne should only be produced in the Champagne region of France. “But this is the Middle East and everyone does what they want,” Gath snickered.

Some locals try to emulate the prestigious spirit. Elias Karem, for one, certainly has the credentials to do so. Karem is a former soldier in the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a pro-Israel Lebanese militia that fought the Palestinian Fedayeen and Hezbollah, with the military support of Israel, and was active until the IDF’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Seen as traitors in Lebanon, most of its members sought refuge in Israel. One of them is the man behind the now defunct El Namroud arak. Karem started producing “real Lebanese arak” using traditional methods in a small factory in the Upper Galilee, with help from SLA leader General Antoine Lahad, who was his relative. When he started, arak was not yet trendy, but Karem successfully predicted the future. “Israelis are not suckers,” he told a Kalkalist journalist back in 2005. “They will understand that the arak they are drinking is cheap alcohol with anise extract added to it. Quality will win.”

A bottle of arak from Netivot, featuring the face of the Baba Sali at right, and a bottle of Elite Arak at left
A bottle of arak from Netivot, featuring the face of the Baba Sali at right, and a bottle of Elite Arak at leftEinav Levi

“I assume he was talking mainly about the Joseph Gold brands,” Gath explained. “It is true that many of the lower-level big brands are produced more or less like he said: alcohol and flavor extracts.”

El Namroud doesn’t exist anymore, but there is Arak Eliali, which also claims to be “Zahlawi,” and its ads boast: “From the makers of El Namroud.”

One of the Israeli populations that always loved arak is North African immigrants. They call arak “mahia” (pronounced makhia), which means “life-giving,” “reviving,” or “resuscitating.” Sound familiar? Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae (“water of life”). This was translated into old Irish as uisce beatha, from which the word “whiskey” derived.

Mahia is the name for any drink that is made of a distillation of a sweet fruit, whether it’s grapes, dates, or figs, and since Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol, Jews living in the Arab countries of the Mediterranean basin—like Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco—produced it in the early 20th century and sold it in secret to their Muslim neighbors.

Middle Eastern grandmothers use arak to this day to cure any ailment their grandkids might have. Aniseed is reputed to contain anti-inflammatory and antibacterial qualities, so it has been used as a folk remedy to improve blood circulation, treat upper respiratory diseases, strengthen immunity, treat digestive problems, and improve male sexual function. People not only drink arak, but apply it to the skin to rejuvenate it and treat back aches or growing pains, gargle it for toothaches, and use it as a compress to reduce fever. Rubbing arak on the chest or inhaling the steam of boiled water with a little arak is used to treat a cold or bronchitis. It is noted that any of this works only if you use high quality arak.

However, for Moroccan Jews, arak is not only medicine; it also holds ritualistic value. One of its biggest champions was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira—known as the Baba Sali (which means “Praying Father”)—one of the most highly esteemed Moroccan Sephardic rabbis, who passed away in 1984. Masses used to come to him for a blessing, which he would generously give out, accompanied by a little arak. To this day you can buy a bottle of arak with the Baba Sali’s face on it in Netivot—the city in the Negev where he settled in the last decades of his life and where he is buried.

“The Jews would make the best arak in Morocco,” Einav Levi, a native of Netivot who hosts culinary tours in the city, told me. And in Morocco, they remember, as evidenced by the fact that when she visited her grandparents’ country, every time her group wanted to tip a local, the locals asked the Israeli tourists for a bottle of arak instead.

Regarding the Baba Sali: His arak consumption was miraculous on several levels. “It is said that no matter how much arak he drank, he never got drunk,” Levi told me. “And he would pour arak to many people from a single bottle and there was always enough for everyone. The bottle would never empty. This miracle happened many times.”

I wondered about the Baba Sali’s connection to arak specifically. “The Baba Sali would never do something without a reason and a deep meaning,” she said, explaining that it has much to do with the name mahia. “People came to the Baba Sali to ask for a blessing for life; either a life partner, children, livelihood, or health. He would give them a blessing and a drink of life, which is arak.

The word makhia also appears in Genesis 45:5:

וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם

(“And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”)

“Joseph tells his brothers not to feel guilty that they sent him away, because everything happens for a reason. He got to Egypt before them to later save their lives,” said Levi. “This shows how mahia symbolizes life, and the Baba Sali used this symbol. He knew that his followers are not at such a high spiritual level as him and they often need a physical thing to symbolize what he gave them, in the name of God.” This is just one example of the many biblical connections to the word mahia, as well as to the word arak itself, that Levi told me about.

Today, arak may not be as cheap as it used to be, but it is one of the very few things that bring Israelis from very different backgrounds together.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.