Right now—this very second—there’s a backgammon game at play in Lebanon, the old-timers tossing dice between swigs of arak. This clear spirit, distilled from grapes and generous quantities of anise, bubbles in home stills across the Middle East. It’s Lebanon’s national drink. In Turkey, it’s known as raki. Iraq’s arak is made from dates.
Now, Portland can toast tradition with its very own. Oregon Arak—produced by Bull Run Distillery and Jamal Hassan, bar manager at (and co-owner of) Portland’s Mediterranean Exploration Company, Bless Your Heart Burgers, and Shalom Y’All—is distilled from imported Syrian anise and pinot grapes from Willamette Valley producers like J. Christopher and Fullerton.
“It’s everything I love distilled into one bottle,” says Hassan, an Oregon native who grew up slinging mezze at his Lebanese parents’ food cart. “It really has one leg in the Middle East and the other here in the Northwest. That’s basically myself right there.”
When MEC opened in 2014, Hassan gamely stocked the bar with the few imported araks available in the state: harsh, herb-chomping hooch that dominated cocktails like an “800-pound gorilla,” he says. Then, a research trip to Israel in 2016 rocked his world. Everywhere, people sipped arak that tasted leagues better, herbal flavors in balance with a brandy base distilled from local white grape varietals like obeidi. Arak was the ubiquitous social lubricant: served neat as a digestif, mixed with fresh citrus juice, diluted at mealtimes.
Hassan knew he wanted an arak that showcased Oregon’s own wine culture—and one that would play nice in classics like the sazerac, piña colada, even a gin martini. “With MEC Oregon Arak, [we’ve] created something much softer,” Hassan says. That means a delicate, floral, 86-proof quaff that goes light on the anise to elevate brandy notes of fruit, grain, and nuttiness. It’s the spirit that will center Hassan’s cocktail list at Shalom Y’All’s recently opened SE Industrial location.
On the menu: Hassan’s twist on a casual Israeli sipper: a shot of sweet, tart lemon on the rocks, redolent of mint, rose water, and wine-tart pomegranate. Call it a new Oregon tradition.
Muddle ½ oz orgeat with 3 lemon wedges and 12 pomegranate seeds (fresh, if in season). Add 2 oz MEC Oregon Arak* and ¼ oz St-Germain, shake with ice, then double-strain into an “old-fashioned” glass. Top with ice and garnish with 6 pomegranate seeds and a sprig of mint.
*Available at Bull Run Distillery, 2259 NW Quimby St, bullrundistillery.com