Arak – An Ancient Drink With A Modern Interest

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Tamar Genger MA, RD
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A few weeks ago, I discovered Zachlawi Fig Arak on Facebook.  I thought it sounded interesting and wondered what Arak was.  The next day I saw it in a friend’s house. Isn’t it weird how you discover something new and then you see it everywhere?  I sampled this sweet, strong fig Arak.  It was absolutely delicious and I had to learn more.

Arak is a Middle Eastern aniseed flavored liqueur with a long history.   It is made by fermenting grapes, dates, sugar, plums or figs with water, aniseed and sometimes more sugar.  It is usually served ice cold: 1/3 Arak to 2/3 water and ice.  As water is added, the Arak becomes milky in color which is why it is sometimes referred to as “Milk of Lions”.  It can also be mixed with fruit juice or tea.  Since fig Arak is a little sweeter than clear Arak, it can be enjoyed straight up.  It is best served alongside Mezze -- middle eastern appetizers like Stuffed Grape Leaves or Hummus and Pita.

In 2005, Marty Kairey, a New Jersey resident with a Syrian-Sephardi background, decided to commercially distill his own Arak in an artisanal Jersey shore distillery under the brand name Zachlawi.

I asked Marty, what drove him to make Arak and he told me “When I was first married my wife and I lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  My landlord was an old sage from Aleppo, Syria.  Mr. Srour would buy cases of raisins and ferment them.  He would then cook the mash with Aniseed in a stove top ‘Kirke’ or pot still.  I remember Mr. Srour controlling the flames that would shoot out from the gas burners with a couple of bricks. Thinking back, it was a wonder it never exploded.”

“Anyway,” Kairey continued, “my desire to reach back to my heritage sparked my curiosity and I picked up the ancient craft of making Arak.  My education went from moonshining to industry training and finally when I opened my own distillery, I hired Roy Emerson of Seagram’s Canada to work with me and train me in my apprenticeship as a master distiller.”

Most commercially available Arak is distilled with molasses, as a less expensive alternative for mass production.  Marty decided quality was the most important thing and he makes his product with fresh natural ingredients.  He makes a traditional Arak, a Fig Arak and a very small production of single cask Arak.  All Zachlawi products are certified Kosher for Passover by the OU.

At 80-proof, Arak is not for the light hearted, but the fruit does shine through and it is the perfect complement to any Purim seudah.