GOREN, Israel (Reuters Life!) - At a trim distillery within sight of the fortified border with his native Lebanon, Elias K. brings a taste of home to exile.
Arak, the syrupy yet acrid Lebanese liquor based on grape alcohol and stewed aniseed, drips off handmade, gas-fired copper alembics. The spirit goes into crenellated or jug-shaped bottles that have the classic look of the souk.
But alongside the Arabic on the labels are English and Hebrew, as well as rabbinical seals certifying the drink as kosher. This arak, Al-Namroud, has an unusual prime market: Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.
Elias, a Christian veteran of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a now-defunct Israeli-allied militia, relishes the twist.
“We used to be soldiers for Israel. Now that we’re not serving in a war, I wanted to bring something else from the people of Lebanon to the state of Israel,” he said.
The SLA collapsed when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, under fire from Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas. Around 700 militiamen and their families were taken in by the Jewish state.
Some of the exiles moved abroad. A few went back to Lebanon, braving treason verdicts against them in military courts. Those who stayed, while shunned by Israel’s Arab minority, find their assimilation eased by state subsidies and military pensions.
Though the 52-year-old Elias declines to publish his surname for fear of his SLA records surfacing — Israel fought a costly war with Hezbollah in 2006 and has no diplomatic ties with Lebanon — his provenance is good for business.
Al-Namroud boasts the same production methods as Zahle, the Christian Lebanese town that is to arak what France’s Bordeaux is to wine. That exotic pedigree has not been lost on Tel Aviv’s bustling nightclubs and Jerusalem’s kosher banquet halls.
Two major Israeli distributors — including IBBL Spirit, a subsidiary of Coca Cola — have bought the arak in bulk. Al-Namroud posters overhang Israeli highways. The firm even sponsors an international wine festival in Jerusalem.
“In the last year alone, sales for this product went up several hundred percent,” says Dudi Zatz of IBBL Spirit told Israel’s Channel 10 television.
Thrift is a factor. Al-Namroud’s most popular label retails at around 60 shekels ($15), twice as much as Israeli or Palestinian araks but still cheap enough to beat out premium vodkas and whiskeys for budget-minded bar-goers.
“When you taste my arak, you know immediately that it’s the real thing,” Elias says, dismissing non-Lebanese variations for their use of alcohol derived from sources other than grapes, or aniseed extracts rather than raw grain. Arak is a close cousin of the Greek ouzo, Turkish raki and Italian sambuca
Yet Elias is not above innovating to cater to Israelis for whom gimmicks often trump tradition. Al-Namroud is available in peach, date, plum and coffee flavours. Elias also produces buha, a Moroccan version of arak based on alcohol from fermented figs.
Elias named his spirit after Nimrod, the Bible’s pagan king. Adding water to the arak — the word means “sweat” in Arabic — makes for a cloudy white mix that Elias calls “lion’s milk.”
“When you drink it, you’re as brave and defiant as a lion,” he said jokingly. But it’s a comment that clearly reflects his business strategy and way of coping with life in Israel.
Pointing toward Lebanon, shot-glass in fist, Elias said: “I may not go back. But if not me, then my children will go. And if not them, then their children.”
Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Paul Casciato