There’s a reason you’re seeing more cocktails with arak on drink menus these days — the fragrant, centuries-old Levantine spirit is enjoying a bit of a renaissance and reintroduction right now in America, and some Atlanta bars are ready for the arak revival.
Arak (sometimes spelled arrak, araq) only has two ingredients: anise seeds and grapes made into grape brandy. The flavor is bold, spicy, and slightly minty (think licorice) with a seductively oily finish, refreshing the palate with each sip. Arak is clear when poured on its own. Add a splash of water, however, and it turns hazy white. The essential oil of anise seed is soluble in alcohol, and not in water. When water is added, arak goes through a transformation called louching, turning the color of the spirit opaque.
This highly aromatic spirit is said to have first been distilled around the 12th century, with deep roots in Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Jordan, and Syria. Some believe arak is the earliest of such flavored spirits ever created.
The very first time I tried arak was with Jason Bajalia, who owns Levant-focused wine importer and distributor Terra Sancta Trading Company. The pour Bajalia gave me to taste was from the Palestinian distillery Muaddi Craft Distillery, considered one of the finest arak makers in the world. The aroma and taste sent me back to my roots in India. It was reminiscent of the sweet fennel often served after meals in India to help cleanse the palate. But Bajalia says arak isn’t just another digestif.
“You drink it throughout your meal,” he says. “Eating mazza [appetizers] on a Sunday at mom’s house, you generally begin with fresh vegetables, then cold dips and cheese. Then, you move on to warm dips, hot and grilled meats,” Bajalia continues. “You drink arak in between to cleanse your palate through courses. That’s my favorite way to eat.”
Bajalia has family in Palestine and Lebanon, and he visits them as much as possible. He says Sundays are reserved for grilling, and locals enjoy arak with meat fresh off the fire, while socializing with family and friends.
“Every village has its own arak stored in amphorae or other pots. It’s been made here for a millenia,” he says, noting that arak comes in tiers of quality and is traditionally cut with water and ice before drinking. “For a traditional arak service, remember A. W. I.: Arak; water; and ice, in that order. Usually, one part arak, one part water. That’s how you do it back home.”
While drinking arak with water and ice is traditional, the flavor-packed spirit is also a fantastic mixing ingredient for cocktails. Just make sure to ask for a sample of the arak being used for the drink, which will help you understand the flavor profile and depth this spirit brings to cocktails.
Below are five Atlanta restaurants offering great arak cocktails to try right now.
This popular restaurant in Inman Park serves up delicious Persian fare, including mezze spreads, saffron-marinated meats and fish, and traditional dishes like adas polo (lentil rice made with tahdig) and gheimeh bademjoon (lamb shank stew). The cocktails at Delbar are just as refined as the food from chef and owner Fares Kargar. Try the Magic Carpet — a concoction of mezcal, rum, falernum, baharat (a spice mixture of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, coriander, and paprika), and arak. This cocktail is a great complement to the smoked Chilean sea bass spiced with saffron. Reservations highly encouraged.
Located at Westside Provisions District, Aziza serves a menu filled with wood-fired dishes inspired by owner Tal Baum’s childhood in Israel, who designed her restaurant with a cozy neighborhood bistro vibe. While it’s always a top-choice spot for dinner on Atlanta’s westside, Aziza is even better for a sexy night of cocktails and snacks at the bar. The Levant negroni is the lone arak cocktail on the menu, mixing Massaya arak with mahia (distilled from figs, and Morocco’s national spirit), contratto bitters, and blanc vermouth. Reservations encouraged.
Looking for a frozen arak cocktail to try? Head to Tal Baum’s street food and Israeli-style shipudiya (or skewer house) at the Ford Factory Lofts along the Eastside Beltline. The Hof Alma is a frozen tropical drink of passionfruit, gin, rum, orange, and arak. It’s reminiscent of the popular Levantine mint and lemon slushie or frozen lemonade known as the Limonana. The Drum Beach also features arak, along with silver and spice rum, pomegranate, spiced syrup, and lemon. Dine inside or on the patio, or grab food and drinks to go from the walk-up window off the Eastside trail.
Ryan and Jonathan Akly and chef Ian Winslade, the trio behind Mission and Market and Tre Vele, recently opened Zakia in Buckhead to offer their perspective on Lebanese food rooted in family recipes. Expect dishes of stuffed grape leaves, beef fried kibbeh, kafta kebabs, and a grilled Chilean sea bass dressed with za’atar chermoula here. Ask for the traditional arak service, where servings of arak, water, and ice are brought to the table in courses. Choose single servings or opt for a bottle. Table reservations can go fast, especially on the weekends, but the bar is first come, first served. Reservations highly encouraged.
Three Arches at the Hyatt Centric
Three Arches is billed as a “pan-Mediterranean restaurant and bar.” Located at the Hyatt Centric hotel in Buckhead, the cozy bar is a great place for an after-work cocktail with marinated olives or grape crostini. The cocktail containing arak here is found in a take on the margarita — the Agave My Dude. It’s mixed with reposado tequila, arak, honey, black pepper, and lime.
Henna Bakshi (@hennabakshi on Instagram) is a food and wine writer, TV producer, and on-air talent who carries a WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) level 2 certification. She was born and raised in New Delhi, India. Bakshi previously worked for HLN/CNN as a writer, producer, and on-air talent focused on food and wine. She has also written for Chowhound and Indian-American community magazine Khabar, based in Duluth, Georgia.