Israeli's Craft Distilleries Are Giving Arak a Second Life

A Lebanese Christian who once fought Hezbollah is but one of a handful of distillers who have settled in the Galilee, a region in northern Israel best-known as Jesus's stomping grounds. There, they are giving traditional liquor a new life.

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Apr 13 2015, 5:07pm

Photos courtesy Steve Rubin.

Elias Karam looks like a man nursed on lion's milk. The hulking 60-year-old's dark eyes narrow to slits as he issues a deep belly laugh and pours a snifter of his El Namroud arak. A former South Lebanese Army commander, he fled Lebanon and left warfare behind in order to move to Israel and make the clear, anise-flavored liquor his trade.

El Namroud was the first of a growing cohort of distilleries to have opened in the Galilee, northern Israel's rolling hill country best known as Jesus's stomping grounds and lesser known for its grape cultivation. In recent years, distillers have taken advantage of the proliferating vineyards by making arak and grappa, both byproducts of the vine.

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Elias Karam.
haleeb al-assad,

Arak is distilled from the pomace: leftover pulp, skins, stems, and juice from winemaking. Anise seeds are then added for flavor before another distillation. Its name derives from the Arabic word for sweat, for the way it drips out of the still. When cut with water, as it's traditionally consumed, it turns milky white, hence its Arabic nickname or lion's milk.

Karam blazed the trail for craft distilleries in northern Israel after fleeing Lebanon in 2000. Born in a Maronite village near the ancient coastal city of Sidon, he joined a Christian Phalange militia during the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. He eventually rose in the ranks of the South Lebanon Army, a splinter group allied with Israel. When the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, he and 7,500 SLA fighters and their families bolted south, escaping Hezbollah's revenge, and settled in the Israeli towns of Nahariya, Kiryat Shemona, and Tiberias.

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Wadiya Hadid. Wadiya Hadid.

"What was someone like me supposed to do?" Karam said, taking a drag from a Marlboro as we met in his office just a couple miles from the border with Lebanon. He can't return to his home country because he's a wanted man, and hasn't seen or spoken to his family in 15 years, but Lebanese TV played in the background the whole time.

He began teaching Hebrew to his fellow Lebanese Christian immigrants, but ever an opportunist, he decided to open the Namroud distillery in 2002, drawing from childhood memories of his father and grandfather making homemade arak. "I looked for something that didn't exist here," he said. He named the label after the biblical figure Nimrod, described in Genesis as "mighty one in the earth," a feeling imbibing arak gives.

Before Karam, the only arak on the Israeli market was Elite Ha'Arak, a cheap booze popularly mixed with grapefruit juice to mask its overpowering taste. Israeli soldiers returned from fighting in Lebanon with a penchant for the local style. To reproduce the authentic flavor, Karam imported Syrian anise seeds through Turkey to Israel. With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, he stocked up on several years' worth; now he settles for Turkish-grown seeds. He assures that his arak's unique flavor is unaffected.

Namroud produces double- and triple-distilled liquors. Although 50 percent alcohol, the triple-distilled Namroud has no burn, is slightly sweet and has but an herby hint of anise. He's also made an unprecedented aged arak, left to mature in oak wine barrels for six months, which has woody, slightly smoky notes to complement the anise.

Down the road in Mi'elya—one of two entirely Catholic towns in Israel—Wadiya Hadid and his brother Jeryis started making arak with the help of a former El Namroud employee in 2011. With short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a cross tattooed on the crook of his palm, Wadiya said he wanted to bring back "real arak" to Israel by employing traditional methods and copper stills.

"If you look at young people today, they'll say that arak is gross," said Hadid, explaining that they're not familiar with the quality liquor he affectionately calls "grandmother's medicine and grandfather's tipple."

Shared memories of old-school arak has brought Moroccan Jews in neighboring Ma'alot-Tarshiha to Hadid's door, and even Muslims living nearby in local villages stop in for a bottle, he said.

Though competition's stiff, and a 2013 alcohol tax cut profits, Wadiya said Arak Masada's liquor has found appeal in Israel and abroad. Masada's single and double-distilled araks, Jabalna and Kafron, won gold awards in the 2015 Terravino Spirits competition. Its triple-distilled al-Wadi took double gold.

Over a lunch of hummus, stuffed cabbage, and okra with rice, Hadid pours a short glass of Kafron—named for the Syrian town where its anise seeds are grown—with equal parts water. He said he prefers it over his other araks for its earthy and floral notes and smooth finish.

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Yuval Hargil.

Arak isn't the only thing brewing among Galilean distillers. In a warehouse adjacent to the cowsheds of Kibbutz Beit Ha'Emek, Yuval "Joov" Hargil launched a craft distillery specializing in eau de vie.

His transformation of locally grown grapes into sublime liquor is part chemistry, part artistry, and he pursues excellence with a savant's passion. "There's a lot of science to it," he said as he explained the mechanism of his burnished Arnold Holstein still, "but a lot of sensation, too."

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Unlike arak, which distills grapes into neutral alcohol before adding anise, Joov's eau de vie retains the essence of the vine.

Only two years in the business, Joov learned the craft by visiting distilleries in Italy, France, and Germany. His Jullius Distillery, named after his late mentor, produced about 4,000 bottles last year, mostly of his award-winning Blanc de Galilee, a clear grappa redolent of its sauvignon blanc, muscat, and viognier grapes.

Marc de Galilee, an aged brandy, is imbued with maple, caramel, and honey notes after three years in oak wine barrels, and possesses a distinctly "Galilean flavor," he said. It won a silver medal in the 2015 Berlin International Spirits Competition, earning Jullius the Israel Distillery of the Year award.

Though Joov aspires to expand production six-fold to meet demand, he said Jullius is and will remain "an agricultural product, not an industrial product" infused with the local flavors of the Galilee.