This Mediterranean distillery in Mississauga makes house calls
The White Distillery brings its Syrian-style Dayaa Arak straight to curious cocktail enthusiasts, with free in-home tastings
The White Distillery produces a line of traditional Mediterranean spirits at its facility in Mississauga. Its flagship offering is Dayaa Arak, a traditional Syrian-style arak made from Niagara grapes and flavoured with aniseed, which just hit the LCBO. But rather than buying a bottle, it’s more fun to take the White Distillery up on its offer of a free in-home tasting.
Partners Kevin Dahi, Tony Salloum and Milad Chebly have largely aimed their arak at the Syrian and Lebanese communities of Toronto and Montreal since launching the company last year. But they’re also trying to popularize the spirit among the wider population, who may not be as aware of distilling traditions in the Arabic-speaking world. Dahi, who moved to Canada in 2006, says it’s a tradition in Christian areas of Syria—such as his home village of Hafar (or Al-Hafar)—to gather in a party atmosphere each fall to make arak together, or at least it was before the Syrian civil war. “Dayaa” means “small village.”
To help immerse participants in Mediterranean drinking culture, the in-house arak tastings usually include an assortment of mezze. “Food pairing is a very important thing with arak,” Dahi says. Dayaa is also available at Tabüle, Fat Pasha, Lara’s and other Middle Eastern restaurants around the GTA.
Here’s what goes on at one of the White Distillery’s tastings.
Kevin Dahi, left, starts a tasting for a group of friends on the patio of a Harbourfront condominium. Some of the guests initially assumed Dahi was importing the spirit, rather than producing it in Canada. The White Distillery’s spirits are made under contract at Dixon’s distillery in Guelph for the time being, awaiting the arrival and installation of The White Distillery’s still, which will be shipped from Portugal in the coming months.
Mana Moghadam, left, pours a round of Dayaa Arak for the guests to try. The White Distillery’s arak is an unsweetened anise-flavoured grape spirit in the Syrian or Lebanese style. With a nostril-blasting hit of liquorice, hint of basil and 50 per cent alcohol percentage, Dayaa is bracing, bright and cleaner-tasting than other varieties available at the LCBO. (Somewhat confusingly, “arak” and “arrack” can refer to a few different spirits, traditionally distilled in a swath of countries from the Middle East to Indonesia.)
Since it has such a strong flavour, arak is often cut with water. There’s a trick happening here: When water is added to anise-flavoured spirits, the H2O molecules bind to an essential oil called anethole and disrupt the way the light travels through the liquid.
A spirit that had been transparent has turned cloudy white. This is called the “ouzo effect,” and it prompted oohs and ahhs from the assembled crowd. (You can perform the same magic trick on ouzo, pastis and absinthe.) But even diluted, arak represents a challenge to palates that aren’t accustomed to drinking straight spirits in the first place.
Cocktails are a good way around this. Moghadam created a crowd-pleasing arak concoction by blending an ashta—a fruit known as a sugar apple, custard apple, or sweetsop in English—with honey syrup, orange blossom water, lemon juice and mint.
Tastings can be booked via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ten to 20 guests is ideal, Dahi says, and at least two weeks’ notice is required.