sweating the nation: Karam on araq
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 8, 2007
My friend Michael Karam has written a commentary for today’s Daily Star about two subjects he knows well: arak, and Lebanon:
A significant number of readers must remember Lebanon in the 1990s, a time when whisky was the sine qua non for those wanting to put on a show and Dewar’s White Label ensured it was the king of scotch by blitzing the nation’s television stations and billboards with a huge media campaign. With the legend: “When it’s love, it never varies,” the ads were unabashedly mushy vehicles for overplayed love ballads such as Nilsson’s “Without You” and Shirley Bassey’s “Impossible,” but for a nation stumbling into the daylight after years of darkness, they were a welcome diversion.
Nothing else would do and to hell with etiquette. Not far behind were J&B – whose more risque commercial featured unconventional newlyweds in the Nevada desert with handcuffs, pinball machine and a bottle of whisky – and Johnny Walker’s Black Label, the choice of the affluent tippler, from whence we got “Black,” the nom de guerre for all quality hooch.The Lebanese had 15 years of catching up to do and they wanted to do it on scotch.Wine, they complained, especially Lebanese wine, gave them a headache, while the aniseed-based araq was quite simply a peasants’ drink.
But was it? There was a time – pre-industrialization – when araq wielded considerable clout (and in more ways than one); when only grandees owned a still, or karakeh, and judiciously rewarded tenant farmers with an annual bottle of the coveted spirit. It was wine, for many today the benchmark of sophistication, that was for peasants who had no access to a still. It is ironic how the process came full circle when, in the 1990s, industrial araq producers like Touma and Ghantous Abi Raad added a patina of class to their portfolio by moving into wine.
And yet araq has been steeped in Arab history since the 6th century when Jaber Ibn Hayyan, a Muslim chemist, invented the still and perfected the process of distillation, primarily to make kouhoul, the black eye make-up from which the word alcohol is derived. By the 9th century, araq – literally “sweat” – had spread to Iraq, Egypt and Iran, and, within another 200 years, the distillation process had reached Europe via Moorish Spain and inspired the great eaux de vie of the Mediterranean such as the Greek ouzo, the Macedonian mastika, the Turkish raki, France’s pastis, Italy’s sambucca and Spain’s ojen.
And it didn’t stop there.While the drink was making its way across Europe cour tesy of the Arab scholars, the commercial caravans heading east also made their mark on the cultures they encountered.Today the word araq describes other eaux de vie as far away as China and Indonesia, though they are not aniseed-based.
Not even the Scots, who devote a huge budget to promoting whisky, the production of which is religiously scrutinized and subject to the tightest laws, can lay claim to such a heritage.
Araq is a national jewel that should be polished and presented to the world.
Lebanon, which aspires to be the boutique nation, should be selling a boutique eau de vie.A new law should be drafted in which the strictest guidelines for the production of what could be called premium araq should be laid down. Let those who still want to make “ordinary” araq do so, but let there be a benchmark for a premium product that, like wine, will take the best of Lebanon to the world.The Scots did it with malt and premium whisky, and even the Mexicans did it with the foul tequila.
Some suggestions include, for example, ensuring that grapes – araq should always be made with grape alcohol – are Lebanese varietals, preferably Obeideh or Merweh, while the still should be copper and the fire under it lit with wood.
The latter rule ensures that heat is distributed evenly and creates a sense of ritual, essential to the perpetuity of any na tional tradition. Distillation should occur three times – no more as this in fact reduces the aromas – and the aniseed should only come from the Hina, a village on the Syrian slopes of Mount Hermon.The araq must then be aged in clay jars.The ones with the best porosity are made in the mountain town of Beit Shabab, so why not insist on these guidelines? It’s a marketing man’s dream.
The El Dorado of course is araq as a global brand.There is no reason to poohpooh the idea, for if the massive drinks distributors deem it so, it can happen. If tequila, which came out of Mexico via the frat houses and cocktail bars of the United States, can delight tipplers across the world, then araq with all its glorious history and its proven purity can as well.
Lebanese food has been in the international consciousness much longer than sushi, but somehow the world is gaga over sake.Why not araq, with its added digestive qualities, courtesy of aniseed’s soothing properties? Araq has not been tarnished as a tourist cliche and can be marketed as the drink that started it all.
It’s just an idea.