I haven't yet made it to Lebanon to taste the ancient anise spirit known as arak in its own element. There, it's traditionally diluted with ice water to accompany mezze small plates. But after sipping through a suite of creative arak-tails at Suraya in Fishtown, now I definitely need to. This favorite spirit of the Middle East thrives despite teetotaling Islam. It is made in homes but also by winemakers such as Lebanon's Massaya, which distills native white obeidi grapes from the Beqaa Valley three times in copper Moorish stills over burning grape vines then infuses the final spirit with organic green Syrian anise seed that ages for several months in clay amphorae.
The finished product is drier than many of its anise brethren in other regions, and it's also potent, with a 100-proof kick that deserves its "milk of lions”"ickname. That's why I admired beverage manager Aaron Deary's balanced hand when crafting his inventive series of arak cocktails for Suraya's bar. The liquor lent its distinctive licorice kiss but also played surprisingly well with other flavors. For the Last Watch, high-proof Knob Creek bourbon lends a stiff Kentucky backbone to arak's anise shade, which also takes a tart dose of lemon for a riff on a whiskey sour. A sweet splash of Ceylon tea syrup infused with orange peels and black cardamom (which also gets grated over the top) coaxes all those strong personalities into one harmonious exotic tune. Poured into a cut crystal goblet stuffed with ice, it's very much like Suraya itself, an elegantly seamless melding of Lebanese and American cultures that refreshes, intrigues, and calls you back for more.