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The Spanish have exported their taste for such liqueurs as ojen and anisado to Latin America, where they appear in forms such as Colombia's robust aguardiente anisado. Others may find the stuff syrupy and cloying, but the French manage to swallow an astounding 75m litres a year.Understandably, those not familiar with Levantine arak tend to assume it is much like pastis.Some suggest that Egyptian monks did the deed some time in the sixth century. In one ode, versifying over a night of revelry in a Baghdad tavern, he called for increasingly strong drink, ending the session with a liquor that was “as hot between the ribs as a firebrand”.
Italy's sambuca is a sweeter version, made from witch elder and liquorice, which is drunk neat as a liqueur, but the more local mistra of the Marche region is straightforward arak, often drunk, like the original, diluted with water.In the outskirts of Mecca, Saudis secretly brew an even deadlier drink of the same name—but this home-made hooch is still a safer tipple than the methanol-laced after-shave that killed 11 desperate revellers in the holy city last year.For most Arabs today, arak has come to refer specifically to the aniseed-infused, wine-based liquor that is manufactured all over the Arab east, from Baghdad to Beirut.Later, Aristotle described a way of vaporising salt water into fresh, the Romans distilled turpentine from pine oil, and two Alexandrian ladies in the first centuries after Christ, Mary the Jewess and Hypatia, invented devices for separating liquids by heating them.Yet, oddly, nobody in the ancient world at this time seems to have exploited the different boiling-points of alcohol and water to concentrate weak wine into stronger spirits (though some historians assert that the Indians made a fortified beer this way, in or around 800).