Middle Eastern Arak

Close-Up Of Arak Bottle On Table
Hassan Merheb /EyeEm/Getty Images

What is Arak?

Arak, sometimes spelled araq from the Arabic, is a distilled alcoholic drink favored in the Middle East. Commonly served in social settings and gatherings, the drink is famous for its potency and for the translucent milky-white color it turns when water is added to it. Arak has a particularly high alcohol content, anywhere from 80 to 126 proof, so water (typically 1/3 Arak and 2/3 water) and ice are almost always added to dilute it. But the strength of the drink produced its nickname “the milk of lions,” in the Middle East.

illustration with facts about arak
Illustration: Miguel Co. © The Spruce, 2019 

What Does Arak Taste Like?

Arak is typically made from two main ingredients - grapes and aniseed which are the seeds of the anise plant. They produce a licorice taste when crushed and that is the characteristic flavor of this alcohol. Depending on the region where it is made, some Arak variations also contain dates, sugar, plums, figs, and molasses. The aniseed is added to the distilled alcohol during the second of three distillation processes. The ratio of aniseed to alcohol can vary which results in different qualities of arak, but the strength of the drink usually falls between 30% and 60%.

Where to Buy Arak?

Arak can be purchased in the United States in many Middle Eastern markets. In addition, it may also be found at local liquor stores in neighborhoods with a high concentration of people with Middle Eastern descent.

When is Arak Served and With What?

Arak is most commonly served in social settings or gatherings, such as dinner parties, restaurants and night clubs. Traditionally, the drink is served with mezze, or small bits of food, which the guests consume to help deal with the potency of the alcohol. Arak goes hand in hand with these mini appetizer meals so so well that in the case of a dinner party or restaurant, the main dish is often hardly touched.

It is not only what the drink is served with so much as it is how it is served. While water and ice are normally added, the ice should actually never be added to the alcohol but, rather, the alcohol to the ice. The reason for the unusual pouring distinction is that if ice is added after, it causes an unpleasant film to produce on the top of the liquid. It's caused by the oils in the anise solidifying from the temperature of the ice and creating a film.

Adding water turns the drink to its characteristic milky color and also inhibits the film effects of the ice alone. Using multiple glasses when drinking arak is also common, due to the effects of mixing with water and ice. Because the milky color and lack of ice reaction is considered so important, Middle Eastern restaurants will usually provide several glasses for their customers when serving arak. When creating cocktails or mixed drinks with Arak, it's typical to use citrus such as lemon or orange since they go well with the natural anise flavor of the spirit.