Review: Château Kefraya Arak

I have a question: why is pastis cool, but ouzo… very much not?

Is it because the former bestows a certain Gallic chic, like Alain Delon in a fedora smoking Gauloise, while the latter has airs of Tom Conti in Shirley Valentine?

If so, that’s a shame. Because ouzo’s just a stop on the road to the tipple of the Paris of the East: Arak.

Arak (not to be confused with arrack, which is another beverage altogether) is the traditional spirit of the Levant. It’s made with with grapes and flavoured with aniseed on its second distillation, out of a typical total of three. It throws a white suspension when mixed with water (the so-called ouzo effect), ideally at a ratio of two parts water to one arak. And the very best of it is aged in clay amphorae.

I first tasted Arak over 20 years ago on an archaeological trip to Syria, long before the horrific civil war which destroyed pretty much everything worth visiting and continues  without end, its death toll now uncountable. Each evening would end with a couple of araks, served in a small glass over a cube of ice with water on the side, the most memorable of which was served in the bar of The Baron Hotel in Aleppo, which apparently still stands even though it’s currently not open for business. (How can you not enjoy a drink in a place that has hosted Agatha Christie and Laurence of Arabia?) I was hooked.

Because there’s something ancient and romantic about arak. There’s something about its anise-y smell that seems to conjure other scents that are not there, of sun-baked stone and cypress trees, of hot winds and desert sands. Which is surprising because arak is not subtle. If you don’t like aniseed, this is not for you.

If anything, it’s closer to old fashioned absinthe than to its cousin pastis. It, too, is made with green aniseed. Unlike pastis, it is not bottled with sugar. And like absinthe, it sometimes comes in at quite a high ABV. In the case, we’re talking 53.1%.

Château Kefraya’s is the arak I keep coming back to. As with vodka, there’s not an awful lot of serious distinctions to be made between araks—they’re clear spirit, after all. Except for the fact that there is. Château Musar, for example, makes their distillation from the Lebanese white grape varieties Obaideh and Merwah. Kefraya favours Cinsault, a red grape. Mussar also distills four times, and brings in the finished spirit at a 53%ABV. I can’t believe that 0.1% really makes that much of a difference, so I guess it’s down to the grape.

As to the drinking itself, Kefraya’s arak offers a solid, mid-palate punch of aniseed with tingly notes akin to Szechuan pepper on the finish. It is really most beguiling.

So, if you’ve been at the Ottolenghi books, and you fancy making his roast chicken with clementines and arak, or his buttered prawns with tomato and… arak, you can of course just buy the 20ml miniature you need for the recipe and be done with out.

But you’d be missing out.

In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?


Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity of flavour very seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.