Nothing describes East meets Pacific Northwest better than the story of Bull Run Distillery’s Oregon Arak. Unofficially known as the national beverage of Lebanon, arak is a classic Middle Eastern grape-based spirit. In the case of Bull Run Distillery’s version, the base spirit is distilled directly from Willamette Valley Pinot Noir wine (not just must) combined with anise seed from Syria, providing the best of both worlds. Bottled exclusively for the Gorham Restaurant Group (and available to taste at Bull Run Distillery tasting rooms), arak is best enjoyed with mezze — as it is traditionally served in the Middle East — where it aids in cleansing the palate in preparation for the next food flavor. It also can be sipped as a delicious and refreshing after-dinner digestif, or — as Jamal Hassan, bar director of Mediterranean Exploration Company and Shalom Y’all expertly demonstrates — mixed in cocktails.
Hassan explained how Oregon’s interpretation of this Middle Eastern spirit came to be. “Basically, my background is Middle Eastern, and when we opened Mediterranean Exploration Company with the Toro Bravo group, it was a great chance to reconnect with the cuisine and cocktails of my heritage,” he said. “Much of the arak imported into the U.S. is rough and racy, with that familiar grappa burn. They tend to be overpowering with anise and challenging to mix in cocktails.”
After Hassan traveled to Haifa, Israel, on a culinary tour with chefs and partners, he tried softer arak spirits that were more fruit forward. He became obsessed with the spirit and spoke to Lee Medoff, head distiller of Bull Run Distillery (who he thought was making the best aquavit in the country), about his hopes for production. Both are fans of exotic licorice spirits, and it didn’t take much convincing to get the project started. After tasting numerous Middle Eastern araks, they both agreed on a style that would be authentic yet uniquely their own. They knew it was important not just to replicate the spirit, but to create something that was recognizably Northwest and Middle Eastern.
Adhering to centuries-old tradition, where the arak base is distilled from wine or grape must, Bull Run specifically uses Oregon Pinot Noir, lending balanced body and cherry backbone to the base brandy. Syrian anise seed is then infused and it is redistilled. The result is a bright, black licorice aroma that hints at sweetness but surprises with a dry and lingering finish. Though well-known for its dominant flavor profile, arak can be quite versatile, adding dimension to cocktails paired with grapefruit, tea and mint. It also is excellent on its own, showing off its beautiful opalescence when mixed with water or ice.
Hassan has created a host of imaginative arak cocktail recipes for the two Gorham restaurants. Here’s one to try:
Easy Way Out
This cocktail is a riff on an Absinthe Frappe, using the first strawberries of the season with lime juice, mint, arak and gin to produce a fruity and floral seasonal drink.
Makes 1 cocktail
¾ ounce strawberry syrup (recipe below)
¾ ounce lime juice
1 ounce Tanqueray 10 Gin
1 ounce Mediterranean Exploration Company Oregon Arak by Bull Run Distillery
In a cocktail shaker, combine strawberry syrup, lime juice, gin and arak. Give it a short shake, strain, and pour into a goblet. Add crushed ice and garnish with a big mint sprig.
4 cups strawberries, stems removed
5 cups sugar
4 ¼ cups hot water
2 ½ grams acid blend
Lightly press strawberries to release juice. Combine with sugar. Let rest until almost all sugar is incorporate
Add water and stir to dissolve remaining sugar. Strain solids and add acid.