Arak Festival Tickle Taste Buds of Many Lebanese

Published September 17th, 2018 - 07:27 GMT

In the village of Taanayel, tucked into the Bekaa’s forests and vineyards, lunch tables topped with vibrant-colored tablecloths punctuated Lebanon’s annual Arak Festival.

Extended families gathered around arrayed platters of mezze, with a jar of Lebanon’s national spirit sitting at one end. “Keskon!” a man shouted, raising his glass to make a toast. “Cheers!”

The anise-flavored drink is a staple of Sunday family barbeques and a celebration of heritage and tradition. These nostalgic scenes were evoked at the festival’s third edition, organized Sunday by local NGO Arcenciel.

Arak is popular among middle-aged Lebanese people, who constituted the majority of the crowd, bringing their relatives along.

“I enjoy drinking arak,” 42-year-old Mirna, a mother of two, told The Daily Star as her 5-year-old daughter sat beside her.

Asked why she brought her kids along, Mirna said the event was still family friendly, despite revolving around alcohol. “There aren’t many gardens in Beirut. Here the children can play comfortably.”

Children ran around, dancing to a band of musicians donning traditional attire, crowned with tarbooshes, while parents enjoyed the Bekaa’s culinary specialties, refilling one glass after another.

Gathered around an oud player, one group of young people – the pot of gold for the industry, several of the arak makers told The Daily Star – stood out from the crowd.

With 51 arak producers registered with the Agriculture Ministry – 20 of which are in the Bekaa – competition is fierce for the limited portion of drinkers industry leaders can target.

“Youth prefer to go for vodka, whiskey, rum or gin. Reaching a market outside of this is difficult, as arak largely remains left out of nightlife,” said 28-year-old Michel Sabat, creator of the new company Arak Al Naim, which was founded in 2016.

Sabat said he’s focusing on the “taste and quality” of the distilled drink to attract younger people, who don’t want to drink just with food.

“It tastes good on its own. As someone in my 20s, I know what my age group likes, and that gives me an advantage,” Sabat said, though he admitted that it has been difficult to prove his name in an industry led by decadesold producers.

At a stand for one of the most established brands in the country, Arak Brun, which dates back to 1868, its caterer, 33-year-old Joseph Francis, said he figured taste alone would not cut it.

“Younger people often don’t like the taste of arak – they think it’s too strong. The idea is to shift that mentality by showing that cocktails can be made from arak as well. It’s our national drink, in the end,” Francis said.

The clear spirit contains an alcohol concentration of 40 to 63 percent, and becomes white when mixed with water. The conventional way to drink it is to mix one portion of arak with two portions of water and then add ice, but Francis is doing things differently.

The addition of juice from freshly smashed pomegranate seeds, mint and lime juice results in a bright-pink mixture – “an arak mojito,” Francis said.

He also makes cocktails with other fruits, such as watermelon. The trick seemed to draw interest from one of the attendees. “I don’t usually drink arak. I drink vodka,” 29-year-old Antonio Najjar told Francis.

But these attempts to attract younger drinkers were not endorsed by everyone.

“What is that pink drink you’re having? Throw it away, let me serve you real arak,” said Walid Touma, 53, a co-owner of the family business Arak Touma, founded in 1888.

His brand is among the most recognized Lebanese arak products, both locally and internationally, alongside Chateau Ksara.

“Anise is a refreshing agent – if you make it into a cocktail, you’re killing it,” Touma said. “We are targeting youth through these events,” he said, but argued that “a family business means authenticity,” and that should not be compromised.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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