This story shows how the regional upheavals of a few years back could turn into a chance for amateurs of quality booze in Israel : the founders of what is maybe the best arak distillery in this country are actualy Lebanese born. An interesting thing is that they were all members of the south Lebanon militia known as the SLA, which helped the Israelis fight the Hizbollah threat when Israel invaded south Lebanon at the end of the 70s'. When the Israeli army retreated from there in 2000, many SLA milicians (700 of them according to some articles) took refuge in Israel with their families. Elias, the founder (not on any picture here) was one of them. He doesn't give his family name for security reasons regarding the rest of his family still living in Lebanon. Along with fellow SLA members he founded this arak distillery following the same traditional quality process carried out in Zahle, the hometown of quality arak and wines in the Beqaa valley. Elias said in an interview that now he and his associates were not serving in a war, but they wanted to bring something from the people of Lebanon to the state of Israel. Like in Lebanon, the arak is made with white grapes with multiple distillations. The El Namroud distillery is located in Moshav Goren, a settlement just 5 kilometers south of the border. The area is hilly and green, Provence style, and not far from there, there are interesting ruins of a crusader castle atop a ridge, the Montfort fortress.
I didn't know anything about arak, but I now know that it is a cousin of our French national drink Pastis, this famous Mediterranean anise drink which is now not only drunk in Provence but all over the country. Like the Pastis, arak turns mysteriously from colorless to white when getting its water addition, and it gets way more drinkable and light. There are equivalent of Arak all around the Mediterranean and we tasted one from Turkey (named raki) last april as B. and I visited a Turkish-born friend living in Aix en Provence (and who told us by the way that even in Istambul the islamist pressure made raki now impossible to find in non-tourist local cafés). I had noticed at the time the similarity of this arak with Pastis (although I recognize I virtually never drink Pastis).
Here are a few interesting sentences about the subject found on the now-offline mylibya.org website :
In the old days Anise was often prescribed as a laxative and known for it's relaxing characteristics and, as such, embraced by liqueur distillers in early times. In 1755, it was Marie Brizard whom made a sweet anisette in Bordeaux, France, but the famous Absinthe, with a much stronger anise taste, came from Jura, a mountain range on the border between Switzerland and France. It was Henri-Louis Pernod, the founder of the Pernod company, that made this absinthe elixir, mixed with water, a great success all over the world.
Around 1915, when Absinthe became the scapegoat of the temperance movement, it was labeled as the root of all evil. Almost immediately after the prohibition of absinthe the pastis was first made. This drink is colored and caramel has been added for taste, but the main characteristic is still the anise taste. Pastis is still the most consumed spirit in France, today.
We're received by someone in charge, there's a shop and they probably sell also a lot here even if the brand is now well advertised and distributed throughout Israel. Our guest explains to us how they work. The distillery is still very artisanal even though it reached a certain size, and now the Israeli arm of Coca Cola has become an important partner of the distillery, but they keep working their way. First, they keep by the rule which states that real arak is made from white grapes, not cheaper alternatives. They use a destemmer to keep the grapes only. The more sugar the grapes contain, the best it will be because it will translate in more alcohol. They don't add yeasts but let the fermentation unfold by itself, waiting that the sugar level reach zero.
El Namroud also makes arak from other fruits, like date, plum and even fig. The latter alcohol is named Boukha and it is a traditional drink in Tunisia.
After they left, we taste arak in a small disposable plastic glass. It is 50 proof arak which went through a triple distillation. Vey strong but, well, seems good and this anis aroma is impressive. I thing I'd had prefered to taste it with water but didn't dare to ask.
A last detail for the jewish amateurs : the arak is kosher here.
El Namroud arak is distributed throughout Israel by IBBL Spirit Limited, a subsidiary of Coca Cola (the labels are in Hebrew, Arabic and English). It is also widely exported. You find it also in bars like you can see on the drinks list of a tapas bar in Beer-Sheva (southern Israel), where at the Anise chapter it can be found along with Absinthe and Pastis, it is priced at 26 Shekels (5,3 € or 7,6 USD) by the glass.
I don't know about the price in the shops but a bottle of Arak costs 65 Shekels at the distillery (13 € or 19 USD).