Adam S. Montefiore
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A CEDAR OF LEBANON

This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post

I was so sorry to hear of the untimely death of Serge Hochar, a true cedar of Lebanon. He was one of wines most original and much loved personalities, which was expressed through a unique wine, Chateau Musar.

The winery was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, Serge’s father. He planted vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, a current stronghold of the Hezbollah, where all the best Lebanese vineyards are situated, but kept the winery at Ghazir, in a safer Maronite Christian area. (The Hochars are Maronite Christians.) A major early influence was Ronald Barton of the Bordeaux Chateaux, Langoa Barton and Léoville Barton. Gaston’s second son was named Ronald in his memory.

Serge Hochar was born in 1939, and studied in Bordeaux. When the Civil War struck Lebanon, he took his wine around the world to find new markets. He was an elegant, charming figure, in a pin stripe suit, with all the exaggerated hand movements to support his French accented English. It was the mischievous twinkle in his eye, gap-toothed smile and wonderfully expressive eyebrows that caught your attention.

He was a wine philosopher who would answer the most basic question with his own question, like querying the reason for being and wines place in the universe. “I know nothing about wine” he once said, “and each day I discover I know less.”

In 1979 Chateau Musar was ‘discovered’ at a wine fair in England and since then took its place as one of the world’s most idiosyncratic, recognizable wines. He brought Lebanese wine to the attention of the world and made his Chateau Musar the icon wine of the Eastern Mediterranean. On many occasions it was the only wine outside the traditional wine producing countries on a Michelin star restaurant wine list.

Chateau Musar is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. Part classic Bordeaux, part spicy Rhone. It is a wine that does not see a customer until at least seven years after the harvest. To put this into perspective, the current releases of the Margalit and Castel wineries are from the 2012 vintage.

The Musar red is a unique expression of the Hochar laisser-faire mode of winemaking. Many look at its tawny hue and nose the volatile aromas and insist the wine is faulty, oxidized and past its best. Others are in rapture at the exotic character with a combination of aromas of ripe plums, sweet dried fruits, spice along with the heat of the Lebanese sun. It is a wine that appears tired in its youth and gains a second wind and extra layers of complexity as it ages.

The enigmatic Musar white is even more unconventional. It is a blend of two indigenous Lebanese varieties, Obeideh and Merweh. Again, the purist would say it was flabby, lacking up front fruit and acidity. The patient Musarophile, prepared to wait up to 20 years, would find a white wine with honeyed aromas, whiffs of honeysuckle and a touch of apricot, not a refreshing dry white wine, but a complex full bodied mouth filling wine without a beginning or an end.

Wine today reeks of sameness. Wines from Napa, Barossa and the Galilee begin to taste the same because of globalization and the advance in technology. The need to make wines over ripe and extra clean, strips them of personality. Musar is the ultimate expression of individuality, originality with a distinct sense of place. Whether the wines are your cup of tea is less important than the non-conformist approach which has to be celebrated.

Why would an Israeli newspaper be interested in a Lebanese winemaker The answer is because wine is above politics (something Serge used to say and he would know). I believe someone who truly wants to understand Israeli wine, should study our neighbors. Israelis have a self confidence that sometimes over talks itself. In wine too, not just football.

Well we have a great deal to learn from our neighbors, whether Cyprus, Greece, Turkey …or Lebanon. Never forget that if Chateau Musar is the most famous wine from our region, the World Atlas of Wine pinpoints the best wine from our region as being Domaine Bargylus…from Syria! I spend my life championing Israeli wines of which I am very proud, but it is not a crime to be humble, reflective and to occasionally look sideways.

Like it or not, our wine growing region is the Eastern Mediterranean, not something called ‘kosher’. The best wines of Israel should be alongside the best wines of Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey on the restaurant wine list and on the shelves of wine stores.

Serge Hochar was the charismatic figure who inspired a boom in Lebanese wineries. Twenty five years ago there were just five Lebanese wineries. Now there are fifty. It is still Chateau Musar that garners the most attention, but other Lebanon wineries are making wonderful wines today.

How I wish Israeli wineries would work together like Wines of Lebanon, or even Wines of Turkey for that matter, to advance brand Israel. I wish we had someone half as charismatic as Serge to lead the charge. Serge Hochar showed it was possible to break through the stuffiness and preconceived ideas of a conservative wine world.

I first came across him in the mid 1980’s. I was buying wine for Crest Hotels (part of the Bass Hotels Group) and put his wine on the wine lists throughout the chain, alongside an Israeli wine, under the heading Eastern Mediterranean. Thus was born my interest in the Eastern Med as a region.

I then organized and hosted a memorable vertical tasting of Chateau Musar in London in 1989. Hochar did not forget this. Years later when I
changed my status from an English buyer to an Israeli representing Israel at wine exhibitions, he was no less charming and kind and always gracious enough to refer back to ‘that’ tasting.

He broke out of the comfort zones of the ethnic market, where sales were easy, into the real wine world. He showed the way for wines in our region. If a Lebanese wine could break through the glass ceiling, there was a chance that Israeli wines could do so too.

He was a symbol of continuing life as normal through war and adversity. Hell, we can admire that quality here in Israel. In fact he did not make wine in 1976 and 1984 because of what we call in Israel, ’the situation’, but in other years, nothing would stop him.

I loved the way he makes his own wine in his own style. In a world of globalization and technical perfection, Hochar not only insisted on doing things in an eccentric way, he positively delighted in being different.

I found a meaningful quote by Serge in a wonderful article by Elizabeth Gilbert: “If you are open to understanding change, ..wine can teach you a lesson of tolerance. When you understand that all the flavors and smells and memories .. experienced over ……hours.. .. come from the same wine, then you will learn not to condemn any wine until you have stayed with it through all its stages.’

The essence of time, against the need for instant gratification. We taste wine and demand an instant description. If you like, a snapshot of the particular second it was tasted, provoking a knee jerk reaction from the rushed taster.

I remember seeing the great Michael Broadbent tasting wine with a stopwatch by his side and adding a tasting note every half an hour to capture the ever evolving wine. I think of Mark Squires the Israel expert in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate team, who often takes the time to taste wine over a two day period.

Hochar understood that wine was an evolving thing which needs time to develop both in the barrel and bottle and even in the glass. It is not something to be summarized in a sniff or shluk (Israeli slang for a taste.) A great lesson for all wine lovers.

The Psalms say ‘The righteous shall grow like a Cedar of Lebanon.’ I feel privileged to have met him. Thank you, Serge, for the memories and the inspiration. This cedar has fallen, but Musar continues.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for both Israeli

and international publications.

adam@carmelwines.co.il<span style=”vertical-align: bottom;”> (http://adam@carmelwines.co.il)</span>

 

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SALT OF THE EARTH

This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post.

Assaf Kedem. He stands upright, with the posture of a guardsman. Bespectacled, he has a warm broad smile, with hair swept to one side like a schoolboy. The welcome is always warm, but quiet and modest. There is nothing he likes more to show his wines in the place he made them.

However he won’t tell you how good they are. He lets the wines talk.

He is a man of the soil and salt of the earth. But not just any soil, or any earth. It is the Golan Heights where he put down his roots. At Kidmat Zvi, the agricultural village on the high altitude plateau, he cares for the vineyards amid the volcanic tuff and basalt stone, and has done so since 1990.

In 1998 he opened Bazelet Hagolan with Yoav Levy. It was the first boutique winery on the Golan Heights and immediately gained plaudits for its quality. Kedem studied at the Technion and Tel Hai College, gained practical experience at a Stellenbosch winery in South Africa and theoretical knowledge from the winemaker Peter Silverberg.

Silverberg was a charming person, who worked at the Golan Heights Winery, in the days I also worked there. Silverberg had studied winemaking at UC Davis in California. He looked the spitting image of a young Woody Allen and even his mannerisms sometimes seemed to ape the famous film director. However he could make wine better than Woody Allen that is for sure. Smart, savvy and up to date, he took the new winemaker under his wing and led him through the early learning years. Assaf Kedem takes every opportunity to give him the credit and thanks due.

In 2004 Kedem went out alone opening the Assaf Winery. He grew the grapes and made the wine. His British born wife Hadassah, looked after the visitors center and customer club.

Assaf Kedem always had a dream to create a wine village. How many dreams does one hear that people rush to tell you breathlessly, but more often than not they end up on the threshing floor. Sometimes one gets the impression that talking about something has the same weight as actually doing it. Here words can speak louder than actions!

My policy is usually to ignore tittle tattle until there are facts on the ground. So when I heard Assaf’s vision, I said out loud “great idea”, but inwardly thought ‘it will never happen’. However he was determined and steadfast enough to overcome the legendary Israeli bureaucracy and the Kedem Wine Village now exists.

His son, Oren Kedem aged 32, is the next generation. He worked the harvest in 2005, more out of filial duty than love for wine. He was prepared to assist his father, but the wine bug had not yet really hit home. Then he travelled abroad for a few years to see the big wide world. He worked in America, returning to serve in the Second Lebanon War, where he was wounded in action.

In 2009 he found work in California at the Michel Schlumberger Winery in the Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma County as a cellar rat. This is a job that entails doing everything and anything whenever it is needed. He loved the pace of a stylish winery and quality of the wine life struck him. Why chase abroad what he had at home In no time at all he realized this was where he his future lay and he returned to the family business.

His sister, Adi Kedem Alon, also had her own epiphany, but this was in the food world. She studied to be a chef in the French Culinary Institute but also returned home and opened a coffee shop called Adika.

Assaf & Hadassah’s other children, Shahar and Tomer, and Karen, Oren’s tall, slender, pretty Brazilian born wife, also contribute to the success of the winery. It seems that within the black basalt stone of Kidmat Zvi, there is a powerful magnet that drew this particular family back to its home base, close to its roots in the soil.

The wine village comprises the Assaf Winery and Adika Coffee Shop. They organize wine and culinary events, along with workshops based on wine, food and yoga. Their tastings and wine evenings are highly rated, giving the family the opportunity to show its strengths in all their colors. People travel from Tel Aviv to experience the Kedem hospitality, wine quality and food. Soon the first of the guest cabins will be opened allowing visitors to stay overnight.

Regular tours are also available for tourists. They cost 25 shekels. Visitors can taste a few wines and eat in the Beit Café. I always recommend taking the time to book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Assaf Winery produces 45,000 bottles a year and a large proportion of their sales is done at the cellar door. The wines are not kosher. They produce eight different wines under the labels Silver, Reserve and the rare, strictly limited Grand Reserve.

Assaf Kedem’s loyalty to South Africa is plain to see in that he specializes in two grape varieties that are very popular there. One is Pinotage, which was developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold. It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault and has become the signature variety of South Africa. In Israel, Barkan Winery is a Pinotage specialist, but it is not heavily planted here.

The other is Chenin Blanc, which is the staple white variety in South Africa, where it is often known as ‘Steen’. Of course, its most famous expression is in France’s Loire Valley,.’ Kerem Shvo and Sea Horse are other wineries leading the welcome revival of this variety in Israel.

It is the philosophy of the Kedem family that underwrites the whole initiative. Oren explains how wine helps people get away from the daily pressures. He says “we want to be simple, humble and modest. We are not chasing after marketing noise. What is important is the family and nature.”

I asked what plans they had, and he answered: “ to continue to do what we enjoy and to do it the best way we can.” How is that for a recipe of contentment, in the hectic, fast moving, instant gratification era of the 21st century. The Assaf Winery is worth a visit to sample the beauty of this particular corner of the Golan Heights and witness the perfect synergy between a family, their land and their wines.

The Assaf wines I tasted were as follows:

Assaf Chenin Blanc 2013

A dry white wine, with a yellow straw color, which was aged for 6 months in Hungarian oak barrels. It has an attractive flowery nose, prominent acidity and a slight bitterness on the finish, which gives it a refreshing quality.

Price: 90 ILS

Assaf Four Seasons Pinotage 2011

This is made 85% from Pinotage and the remainder from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz. It is aged in American oak barrels for 20 months. The wine has red berry fruity aroma with a sheen of spicy vanilla, a mouth filling flavor and a good finish.

Price: 90 ILS

Assaf Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009

This is a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Cabernet Franc. It is an aroma of overripe berry fruit contrasted with bell pepper notes from the Cabernet Franc. There is a prominent note of eucalyptus – as there always used to be in the Bazelet Hagolan. The wine has good length.

Price: 130 ILS

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about winen both Israeli and international publications.
adam@carmelwines.co.il<span style=”vertical-align: bottom;”> (mailto:%20adam@carmelwines.co.il)

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DANCING VINES

This is a story of love, romance, art, culture, war and wine, all with an Italian accent. Sounds like good fodder for an opera. The star is a ballerina called Elena, who was swept off her feet, came to Israel for love and is now sharing with us the beautiful Italian approach to lifestyle and wine.

Elena Guglielmi was born in Venice and began to take ballet lessons as a child. She then progressed to ballet school and eventually became a classical dancer with the Ballet di Verona.

Many of us would say it was a hard life, but Elena had passion, was not afraid of physical hard work and thrived on the disciplined life. Until today she remembers the sensation that the smell of the stage evoked in her. She was a professional, dancing with all the great names, and afterwards did not leave the fraternity, but became a ballet teacher. Only later, she moved to Rome to work in sales and marketing. Because of her personality, she found she was quite good at it.

Now in Italy, everyone drinks, and there is a lot of wine available. It does not mean that wine is something precious or elitist. The opposite is the case. It is simply there, part of the scenery and on the table. Wine is a drink to accompany food, assuage thirst and it is the obvious choice for a social get-together in the local bar. No drama or drum-roll. In this atmosphere, Elena learnt to drink and enjoy the fruit of the vine.

She met her future husband, Rani, at a party held by ballet colleagues late in 1999. He glanced at this elegant, graceful person with a dancing light in her eyes, and immediately told their hosts that this was his future wife. He then invited her to Israel to enjoy the millennium. On the night of 31st December 1999, whilst watching the sunrise in Jerusalem, he cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon and asked her to marry him.

She said she would think about it. A week later she agreed and left everything for love to come to Israel. Her mother was not so pleased. When told, she put the phone down and would not speak to her for two months.

Her husband, Rani Zimbalista, is a businessman who also hales from an artistic family. His mother is the famous sculptress, Ofra Zimbalista and his brother Chen, the well-known percussionist. The mother in law soon came round. She and Elena now believe Rani is more Italian than the Italians!

They settled in the Avigdor Moshav, north east of Ashkelon. Elena’s husband said that she drank so much wine, they had better start a winery.

Wines from Ashkelon were prized in Biblical times. Many wine presses have been excavated nearby, including some quite recently. The Segal family of distillers also immortalized Ashkelon. In 1950 they founded a winery which they called Ashkelon Wines, because that is where their vineyards were. They thought it was the Bordeaux of Israel!

Now, as all English speakers know, Israelis aren’t that hot at spelling in English. One can see evidence of this on menus, maps and road signs. I once saw three different spellings of the word Montefiore in English, on different street signs on one road…all within 100 meters of each other. Hilarious but true. Only in Israel!

Well, the Segals decided to spell Ashkelon in their own unique way. They wrote it as ‘Askalon’, and that is how it appeared on the labels and stayed that way until they changed the name to Segal Wines. Today the only remnant of this individualistic spelling can be seen on the labels of Askalon Arak, which still exists.

The Zimbalistas wanted to do it properly, so they travelled to Sicily, to compare soils and check varieties. Elena was certain of one thing. She only was interested in white wines. It was a good place to choose because the climate of Sicily is close to Israel, and perhaps surprisingly, the island produces more white wines than red.

They were particularly enchanted by the Muscat of Alexandria that they found there. This grape variety is not particularly noble or a classic, but it is one the oldest of all the varieties. It hails from North Africa, probably from Egypt if the name is a clue, but is pretty well indigenous throughout the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean. It is also known as Zibibbo in Sicily, Zibbib in North Africa, Haneport in South Africa, Gordo Blanco in Australia and Muscat Alexandroni in Israel.

Possibly because of its versatility, also being popular as a tasty, fleshy table grape, it has quite possibly been in Israel continuously, even during the time of prohibition of growing wine grapes. It may even stretch back to Biblical times.

It is usually known for producing blowsy, aromatic, grapey dessert wines. It is at its best in the Rivesaltes ‘vin doux naturels’ of Roussillon in France, the Portuguese Moscatel de Setubal, in some of the Samos Muscats from Greece and the Moscato di Pantelleria in Sicily. It may have been this last wine that turned their head.

Of course Sicily is an island that produces more wine than Australia, yet for many years they were known just for inexpensive wine, until Planeta came out with an acclaimed Chardonnay which drew new attention to Sicily’s new quality wines. Now Sicily is concentrating more on its indigenous varieties, but Elena and Dani had their inspiration. They chose to plant Muscat and Chardonnay in 2002, alongside olive trees and fruit trees, in the Italian tradition.

The first harvest was 2006. Later she also planted Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Zimbalista Winery now produces 15,000 bottles a year, which are snapped up by restaurants and leading wine shops.

Elena Zimbalista is a pioneer in a few ways. Firstly she is bringing focus back to Ashkelon region, an area reeking with wine history, but lately unfashionable as wine growing moved to the hills. Secondly she was arguably the first winery in Israel to focus on white wines only. When I came to Israel 25 years ago, people mainly drank white wines. The pendulum swung to red wines in the 1990’s.

Israel certainly learnt how to make quality red wines in the 1980’s and 1990’s. However since the beginning of the 2000’s, we have also started to make great quality whites. What goes around comes around. White wines are having a revival. Consumers are beginning to realize they are more suitable for our climate and match better with food.

This is what Elena is teaching us. She is making wine to be refreshing and to accompany food well, to drink and enjoy. She is not making wines to put on a pedestal or to win the highest rating.

She has wisely employed the services of Itay Lahat, the celebrated wine consultant, to provide wine making expertise, whilst she looks after the vineyards. Even war, and rockets being fired from Gaza, did not put off this slender, plucky, spirited Italian. She sheltered in the vineyard and even believes the experience brought her closer to her vines.

Zimbalista wines may be recognized on the shelves by their striking packaging. Each label is decorated with the blue three-dimensional figures, taken from Ofra Zimbalista’s unique sculptures, which stand guard, overlooking the vineyard.

So pop open a bottle, and experience a touch of the dolce vita. Try and picture the dancing vines of Elena Zimbalista in the little Italy she has created, here in Israel, not far from the Ashkelon coast.

I tasted the following Zimbalista wines;

Chardonnay di Zimbalista 2013
The new style of Israeli Chardonnay. Dry, unoaked, crisp, with green apple and lime aromas and a very refreshing finish. A great food wine.

Sauvinyali di Zimbalista 2013
A Sauvignon Blanc, named after their son Yahli. The nose is of tropical fruit and grapefruit. It has mouth puckering acidity and a clean, citrusy finish.

Vino Dariolino Zimbalista 2013
A blend of the two most aromatic grape varieties, Gewurztraminer and Muscat, named after their second son. The result is semi dry, very aromatic, slightly spicy. Those that like this sort of wine, will like it very much.

Moscato di Zimbalista 2013
Fruity, grapey and semi sweet. A wine that dances like the ballerina Elena once was. Drink it ice cold and it is a delightful any place, any time wine, from breakfast onwards!

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THE SPIRIT OF THE LEVANT

This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post

Savor the picture. You are sitting with friends in front of a table covered with small plates, each offering tantalizing colors and tastes in small bites. The sea is likely to be nearby, and fisherman’s nets will be out drying but you could be in Jaffa, Beirut, or Larnaka and Istanbul for that matter. It will be hot, but there will be a welcome sea breeze with a salty tang. In the center of the table will be small glasses of a milky white liquid,

twinkling with the condensation on the glass.

The pearl colored drink will be anise flavored Arak, if you are in Lebanon or Israel, maybe Ouzo (in Greece or Cyprus) or even Raki (in Turkey). The place will be anywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. The food will be Mezze, the local style of hors d’oeuvres. The atmosphere will be relaxed, almost timeless. The ritual will be indigenous to our region, though it is repeated elsewhere around the Mediterranean. For example, witness popularity of Pastis in Marseilles.

Arak is served in small thin, narrow glasses, somewhere in size between a ‘mini-me’ highball and a glass for Turkish coffee. Not dissimilar to an ornate Moroccan style glass for serving tea. It will be conveniently held between thumb and forefinger. The classic recipe is 1/3rd arak and 2/3rds water. However this may obviously be adapted for taste. If you prefer reduced alcohol content or a less pronounced anise taste, simply add more water. Make a longer drink, adding five parts water to one part of arak.

Pour the arak in first. The liquid will be clear. Then with the addition of water, it turns to its familiar cloudy, milky white color. Only after adding water, and the purists insist on this, is it permissible to add a cube or two of ice. Finally carefully place a sprig of nana mint in the glass for color, aroma and taste.

It then looks the part and you have before you a drink that symbolizes a whole region. It is not to be gulped like a shot of vodka, but to be sipped and savored slowly as you trip between the plates of mezze, whilst listening to the backdrop buzz of small talk in the bar or cafe.

Why arak is so suitable is that it truly accompanies the variety of tastes in a traditional mezze. The acidity, spiciness, sometimes hot, garlicky starters can murder a wine. However, just like sherry for Tapas bars, arak is a drink born to fufill the task of coping with a myriad of flavors.

To make arak you need freshly picked grapes, anise, water and a rudimentary copper still. Nothing else. The grapes are fermented and the resulting white wine is distilled usually two or three times. The anise is first added on the second distillation cycle. After this the arak will be stored in clay jars.

In Lebanon, Arak is regarded with holy reverence. It used to be a rich man’s drink, because only a rich man would have his own still. Today it is a drink for everybody. More often than not, production is domestic. When homemade, it is called Arak Baladi.

The cycle of events is that the Lebanese farmer will harvest his grapes in the autumn, eat what he wants for food and preserve what he needs for raisins. The rest he will use to make wine. The wine will be stoppered up and saved to be drunk during the winter months. Only when the wine starts to turn and become oxidized, he will then distill it to make arak. This he will drink during the summer, before the cycle repeats itself.

The word arak means ‘sweat.’ The drops of condensed alcohol are said to represent perspiration! In Lebanon they revere arak like a Scotsman reveres his whisky and refer to it as Lion’s milk.

The finest arak comes from village of Zahle in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa is the center of their wine trade (and also the profitable opium business!) The grapes they prefer to use are the indigenous Obaideh. Most Lebanese wineries make arak. Some produced arak first and then branched into wine. Others focus on wine, but found making arak a good way to find a use for poorer grapes.

The most famous arak in Lebanon is the Le Brun produced by Domaines des Tourelles. The most recognizable bottle to us outside Lebanon maybe the Touma Arak, produced by the same family who make Clos St. Thomas and Heritage wines. In places where arak is regarded as new and trendy, it may be the Massaya Arak that gains notice with its stylish packaging and blue bottle.

The finest arak in Israel is made in the industrial area of Moshav Goren, not far from the Lebanese border. There you will find Elias, who is a larger than life, impressively powerful figure, who protected Israel for twenty years as part of the South Lebanese Army. Somehow I can easily imagine him fearlessly standing up to the Hezbollah in South Lebanon on our behalf. His Yorkshire Terrier is slightly incongruous beside him. He does not give out his surname for fear of reprisals against his family.

He came to the western Galilee when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, and wanted to bring something inherently Lebanese with him. He decided on arak made in the Zahlawi way.

His arak is called El Namroud. Nimrod was a pagan king representing strength and power. Elias uses local Dabouki grapes grown in southern Mount Carmel area. The anise comes from the exclusive Syrian region the other side of Mount Hermon, which produces the finest and most aromatic anise. He distills his arak three times. He is experimenting with maturing arak in oak barrels and using wooden staves. El Namroud comes in two different alcohol strengths, and there is also a lower alcohol version called Fairuz. This is the arak which sets the quality standard.

El Namroud came to be distributed by IBBLS, Israel’s leading importer of sprits. So the iconic Israeli arak made in the Lebanese style may be found alongside the world’s most famous global spirit brands, including Johnnie Walker Whisky, Smirnoff Vodka and Gordon’s Gin. IBBLS is the exclusive importer and distributor of Diageo, the largest spirit company in the world, in Israel.

El Namroud’s success has encouraged other artisan distillers producing arak in Israel. Chief amongst them are Masada and Kawar.

Masada is produced by Wadir and Jiryis Hadid in the beautiful Christian village of Meilya, not far from Maalot. They use the distillation services of Shukri Hayak, another ex SLA soldier, who was in involved with El Namroud in the early days. They offer three labels. The entry level is Jabalna, mid-range is Kafroun and the top label Alwadi. All provide a taste of Lebanon in a bottle.

Another local producer is Kawar, now managed by the third generation of Arak distillers from Jordan. They have set up in Tsipporit. There are three handsome looking bottles. Green, red and black labels in ascending order of quality, alcohol content and price. No question these are high quality araks.

In every drinks store, supermarket or kiosk, it is possible to find the Elite Arak. It is present everywhere. It is the entry level arak for anyone, being readily available and relatively inexpensive, but these days arak is no longer drunk only by Israeli Arabs and Sephardi Jews. There are now some quality alternatives produced in an artisanal way from natural raw materials, which give the whole category a more quality feel. Arak may not have the status of whisky or the popularity of vodka, but it is the essence of the Levant and the authentic spirit of the place we call home.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery in Israel. He regularly writes about winefor Israeli & international publications.

adam@carmelwines.co.il<span style=”vertical-align: bottom;”> (mailto:adam@carmelwines.co.il)</span>