The Basics Tips & Tricks

How to Use Arak in Your Cocktails

The Middle Eastern anise-flavored spirit adds depth and flavor to drinks.

Cocktails at Laser Wolf in Brooklyn
Cocktails at Laser Wolf in Brooklyn Image:

Michael Persico

If you’ve sipped a spirit, regardless of whether it was aged or not, or distilled from agave, apples, wheat, or rye, chances are the process for making it found its roots, in some sense, in arak. “Distillation was invented in what is now Northern Iran,” says Chris Hassaan Francke, the owner of The Green Zone, a Middle Eastern cocktail bar in Washington, DC. “The word ‘alcohol’ comes from the Arabic word for distillate and the word ‘arak’ comes from the Arabic word for blessed.”

For many drinkers, arak gets lumped in along with the entire category of anise-flavored spirits, to be consumed merely as a shot or a digestif.

Which is a shame. “I think there’s so much apprehension about licorice-flavored things because someone would try licorice as a kid and hate it,” says Francke. “But drinkers will be shocked to find arak offers a complex flavor profile that’s integral to so many spirits around the world. Once you get used to arak, it really opens up your drinking palate.”

The tradition of anise-forward spirits spread to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and beyond. “Plenty of countries have created similar products, which goes to show there's something special in each bottle of arak,” says James Roe, the lead bartender at Callie, a Middle Eastern restaurant in San Diego. In Turkey, there’s raki or lion’s milk. In Greece, it’s ouzo. In France, drinking pastis is a national pastime, and Italy’s sambuca needs little introduction. 

“This Levantine spirit has stood the test of time and continues to be a treasured tradition in many cultures,” says Roe. “The rich culture and history with arak is so inspiring as a bartender.”

Arak Basics

While arak is widely adaptable, as these bartenders attest, there’s still an element of education necessary for most drinkers. 

When someone at Francke’s bar orders arak, he asks them: Are they familiar with its flavor, and if not, would they like to try some? Do they like the taste of licorice? 

Not all araks offer the same flavor notes. Like amari or any other regional-focused spirits, recipes and iterations vary from place to place or person. “Almost everybody’s uncle or grandfather has a still in the backyard and makes their own,” says Francke. He has several different araks on his back bar at The Green Zone, and their flavor profiles vary. Some are fresh and bright, while others are earthier and vegetal. 

For cocktails, Francke uses Golden Ramallah from Palestine. “It’s a very friendly cocktail price, and the anise flavor is very prominent, but not as intense as the other ones,” he says. “We’ll add up to an ounce to a cocktail with this one.” Then there’s Arak Brun, which is “very high-quality, but fresh and vegetal-tasting,” he says.

The newest one is Muaddi, distilled by a Palestinian man who grew up in Philadelphia. “It’s receiving so much hype from the Middle Eastern diaspora,” says Francke. It’s a bit more expensive, so he doesn’t use it in cocktails, but it sings on its own or with water.

Classic Ways of Consuming Arak

At The Green Zone, Francke employs arak in more than a third of the bar’s cocktails. But you won’t find it in a shot. “Shooting arak can be very overwhelming,” he says. It also undercuts the potential of the spirit. “The complex flavors of arak don’t pop unless you’re taking it slow and sipping analytically.”

Classically, arak is often sipped with water: either one part water and one part arak, or two parts water and one part arak, served with ice. “I personally prefer one-to-one because you can taste the spirit more,” says Francke. Cutting arak with water gives it a cloudy, milky appearance known as a “louche,” the same phenomenon that happens with absinthe and other anise-flavored spirits, a hallmark of anethole, the essent​​ial oil that gives anise its flavor.

Using Arak in Cocktails

One of the reasons arak appears in fewer cocktails than it perhaps deserves? “Black licorice forever gets a bad rep,” says Brian Levine, the manager at Laser Wolf, a trendy Israeli restaurant with locations in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. But arak is so much more than its licorice reputation. Besides, it’s technically showing off the flavors of anise, not licorice. They’re different in flavor: Licorice is sweeter, while the flavor of anise seeds is more similar to that of fennel.

Laser Wolf’s chef, Mike Solomonov, grew up drinking arak, for the most part out of disposable cups in the parks of Tel Aviv. Now Levine serves it in the restaurant’s Salty Lion cocktail, alongside gin, grapefruit, mint, and salt. He strives to “offer arak in an approachable flavor profile in our cocktails that keep our guests excited to try more,” he says. Traditional flavor pairings are grapefruit, lemon, and mint, he points out, though he loves arak in the restaurant’s Sazerac riff, the Saz-Arak, made with rye (Sazerac brand, of course) and an arak rinse, and accented with fennel syrup.

Roe will add a dash or splash here and there to elevate a classic cocktail recipe, but notes “It’s also fun to explore what it can do in a contemporary cocktail: A quarter-ounce can turn a straightforward cocktail into a unique experience that develops layers of flavor,” he says. Francke finds the spirit shines in a Middle Eastern Zombie with arak instead of Angostura bitters. He also finds that “Coconut water goes astonishingly well with arak,” he says. In a highball form, “It’s unexpected, but the coconut complements the flavors in a really synergistic way.” Adding a dash each of falernum and Peychaud’s bitters balances the drink.

Keeping it Balanced

Even though arak pairs well with a surprising range of flavors and jazzes up many cocktails, you’ll want to keep from going overboard with it. “Treat it like absinthe,” says Roe. “A little goes a long way.”

The Callie bartender finds that warm spices work “incredibly well with arak, as do fruits, especially fall and winter varieties like pears or persimmons.” He names rye, mezcal, gin, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and summer berries as other arak-friendly flavors. “Intense ingredients can balance with other intense ingredients,” he says. 

The takeaway, according to Roe, is that “Because the flavor profile of arak is so pure, it is quite versatile,” he says. “Aniseed is inherently a complex flavor, so it does a lot of work in cocktails.”

A drink on Francke’s menu is called “A Few of My Favorite Things” with a note that it’s “Middle Eastern AF,” and is made with equal parts arak, Scotch whisky, lemon, and honey. “People drink a huge amount of Scotch whiskey in the Middle East,” he says. “So I wondered about combining the two, and it worked out really well.” 

The team at Callie also leans on brown spirits, calling on rye, lemon, and smoked eggplant left over from the kitchen’s baba ganoush in the Stage Fright cocktail. “Arak makes everything dance on your palate and offers a warm spice quality that is unmistakably aniseed,” says Roe.