The ancient history of distilling Arak

Arak is the oldest spirit in the world. Every single spirit, whether it’s whiskey, gin or tequila comes from the roots of Arak. Its history goes back to the eighth or ninth century and it really starts with Jaber Bin Hayan.

It was at this time when Europe was in the dark ages that the Arabs were having a Renaissance period. They continued where the Greeks and the Romans had left off in terms of mathematics and science. And they made a lot of achievements. Jaber Bin Hayan was making a lot of scientific advancements, mathematics advancements. Algebra is even named after him!

The Arab scientist who discovered alcohol distilling

Jaber Bin Hayan, the first to distill alcohol

Jaber was based in Baghdad. He was the first person documented in the world to distill alcohol. And he said that “it’s of little practical use, but of scientific significance nonetheless”. As he was a devout Muslim alcohol as an intoxicant was forbidden. But he did appreciate the scientific value. He created the first rudimentary periodic table, as well as the tools to be able to isolate different compounds from any mixture.

The origin of the word alcohol

He created the still, which is a distillation apparatus. But why would Jaber Bin Hayan, a devout Muslim, create a still to distill alcohol. He didn’t create it to distill alcohol. He created the still to refine the process of making ‘al-kuhl’, eyeliner. Back in the days during the medieval period, eyeliner was the medieval Ray-Bans. You would put eyeliner around your eyes to absorb the sunlight so you can see during the day when it’s a very bright and very hot.

But after he created it, it turned out that it didn’t work for that purpose. So he began looking for other purposes to use. When people began distilling wine, they didn’t know what to call it. They called it ‘al-kuhl’ after the eyeliner, which is what it was orignially used for. And when it reached European ports, it became alcohol. And you can see, according to the Oxford dictionary, the word alcohol comes from the word ‘al-kuhl’ from eyeliner.

The origin of the word alcohol

The origin of the spirit Arak

Jaber Bin Hayan used the still for developing new medicines out of herbs, basically taking the essential oils from the herbs and distilling them. He wanted to get more concentrated oils from medicinal herbs to make more potent medicines.

What happened was that when people started distilling herbs on their stills and also used the stills to produce alcohol, the oils that were build up inside the stills, started leaching into the alcohol.

So they ended up getting those herbal oils and flavors inside their drink. At that time anise seed was a cash crop, it was very flavorful. It was used for perfumery. It was also used at the same time for sweets and delicacies to add new flavors.

And it was also used for many different ailments, mainly abdominal ailments and anyone who had stomach pains, colic, they were using anise seed at the time. And because it had these different uses, anyone who is distilling herbal essential oils at the time was most likely distilling alcohol. So we presume that someone was distilling anise seed and it leached into alcohol, which was a neutral spirit. And from that you had your first anise spirit by coincidence.

People drank it. They preferred the anise flavor to the neutral alcohol, and then they decided that they would introduce some more anise to give it more flavor. And when they did that, they had to slow down the distillation process. Because when you put the anise in the still on a high flame, you’ll burn the anise and it gives a bitterness. So you have to keep it on a slow flame.

The still in Muaddi Arak distillery

The origins of the name Arak

As the spirit comes out of the still drop by drop and those drops resemble the sweat drops of people as they’re sitting down in hot weather next to their hot stills, they named the spirit Arak, which is the Arabic word for sweat.

Arak as the origin of all anise based spirits

Through the well established trade routes from the far east all the way throughout the continental Europe, alcohol began approaching the Mediterranean shores.  And soon every country developed an offshoot, a direct relative of Arak. Think of Pastis in France, Anise in Spain and in Portugal, Ouzo in Greece and Raki in Turkey. The Turks call Raki “Raki” because they discovered it in Iraq so to them it was Iraqi, from Iraq.

Throughout the Mediterranean, people indulge in Meza and tapas. And when you dip into one dish which is zesty and you dip into another which is spicy and you go into another flavor, all of these flavors start to battle on your palette and they conflict with one another.

So the idea of Arak is that you dip into one dish, you taste it, you take a sip of Arak, you dip into the other, and it basically resets your palette and refreshes it so you can get the most out of the dish. Until today every country in the Mediterranean maintains an anise flavored spirit, regardless of where they are. Every country in the Mediterranean has an offshoot of Arak.

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