TWISTS AND TURNS

The Coolest Distillery to Visit in Israel

In a small modified garage in an Arab-Christian village in northern Israel is a boutique distillery producing some of the world’s finest arak.

Courtesy of Neri Zilber

Me’ilya, ISRAEL—The aromatic smell of anise, a close olfactory cousin of licorice, was already evident in the parking lot, tucked in the middle of an industrial park in this Arab-Christian village in northern Israel. It was the only real indication, aside from one actual faded sign, that here, inside a small modified garage, was a boutique distillery producing some of the world’s finest arak

Made from fermented grapes and the anise spice, arak is an alcoholic spirit—clear, colorless, and potent. It is indigenous to the Levant, a geographic area of the Middle East roughly corresponding to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, and a close relation to its Mediterranean cousins ouzo, sambuca, and raki. The distillery, now six years old, was the brainchild of two brothers, Jeryis and Wadia Hadid, native sons of Me’ilya, as well as Shukri Hayak, who was decidedly not. 

Hayak originally hailed from Lebanon, a short 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) north across the border but, in political terms, a world apart. Israel and Lebanon are enemies and still technically at war, the last one having taken place just in 2006. But there was a time not so long ago when parts of Lebanon were not only allied with Israel, but brothers-in-arms with Israel. Hayak was one such soldier. His story, and that of this liquor operation, tell a tale of what once was—and what may hopefully be again.

“It was always my dream to make arak,” Hayak, 52, tall, bald, and large, says now, almost sheepishly. His grandfather made arak for years out of a small workshop in their hometown of Jezzine, a picturesque hamlet in the mountains of south-central Lebanon. Politics, however, would intercede. In his early twenties, and with the Lebanese Civil War raging, Hayak joined the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a militia Israel helped establish in the late 1970s as a bulwark against their common enemies. “They needed us, and we needed them,” a retired Israeli intelligence officer active in Lebanon once told me. 

Made up predominantly of local Maronite Christians (like Hayak), but also Druze and Shia Muslims, the SLA was the effective government in the region, which at its peak swept over 10 percent of Lebanon and ruled over 150,000 people. Israel provided arms, training, and support, including its own military personnel; gave money to help build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure; and allowed trade to flow in both directions. Indeed, the Israel-Lebanon border at the time was called the “Good Fence,” an indication of the many Lebanese who entered Israel daily for work. 

If at first the enemy was the Palestine Liberation Organization, then after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the PLO’s expulsion, a new nemesis arose: Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militia supported by Iran. Years of bloody, and inconclusive, guerrilla warfare in southern Lebanon ensued. Public opposition grew along with the slow trickle of body bags returning home; many referred to Lebanon as “Israel’s Vietnam.” By May 2000, with domestic opinion firmly in favor, Israel almost overnight withdrew from what heretofore had been its “Security Zone.” The SLA, for its part, collapsed. Nearly 10,000 hastily fled south to Israel, including Hayak, who had risen to become an officer (and therefore a marked man). He left behind a wife and two children. 

These SLA personnel now live in exile, mostly in northern Israel—close enough to see their old homeland, but not to touch it. Some integrated into Israeli life, learning Hebrew, sending their kids to the army, and finding employment. Many, though, found it difficult to acclimate, and either left for points overseas or returned to Lebanon to face Hezbollah’s harsh judgement. 

Hayak stayed and, along with two other SLA veterans, started an arak distilling business. Hayak’s onetime hobby as a militiaman had turned into a profession, bringing a little taste of traditional Lebanese tipple to Israel. “Everyone drank it back home,” he told me, “that was our symbol, so to speak.” Business went well and the distillery was eventually bought by a major Israeli beverage conglomerate. And yet, increased taxes on alcohol introduced by the Israeli government a few years back, currently over 60 percent, ultimately forced the conglomerate to shutter its arak subsidiary. This is where the Hadid brothers stepped in.

Me’ilya is located a 20-minute drive east from the coastal city of Nahariya, just off the main highway that runs across Israel’s northern Galilee region. Literally meaning “something above,” the town is nestled in rolling hills, offering picturesque views of the surrounding countryside. Narrow winding roads, reminiscent of Italian village life, bring visitors to Me’ilya’s highest point: the ruins of a 12th-century Crusader fortress called the “King’s Castle.” People had built homes inside the fortress’ ancient walls, popping out to hang laundry from the ramparts. Many of the structures in town were built from white and brown stones dating back centuries. This included the main church just adjacent to the King’s Castle, as well as a home nearby whose arched foundations were being excavated for, oddly enough, a new Italian restaurant. 

Home to 3,000 Greek Catholic Arab Israeli citizens, Me’ilya’s inhabitants are known primarily for being accomplished academics and small business owners. Jeriyas and Wadia’s father, indeed, was for decades a pig farmer—an occupation that in the Jewish state was left to either the Christians or a handful of socialist/atheist kibbutzim (collective agricultural communities). During the SLA years, Jeriyas, 47, sold pigs to the south Lebanese, cultivating relationships he retained upon their forced immigration. While the Hadids still retain a foothold in this life, operating a butchery on the town’s main street offering choice cuts of meat, including pork, the herd had long been sold off. Born entrepreneurs, the brothers joined forces with Hayak to try their hand at a new business.

Jeriyas, with close cropped grey hair and an easy manner, seems to run on Davidoff cigarettes, black Arabic coffee, and his cellphone (always near to hand). “In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine where we’d be when we started all this,” he told me excitedly. And in truth, the early steps were uncertain. 

First they needed a name. The most obvious, Montfort, after another nearby Crusader fortress, was dismissed as being too clichéd. “Every garage, restaurant, and business in the area is called that, they’ve gone overboard,” Jeriyas told me. Ultimately they settled on Arak Masada, after the Roman-era fortress near the Dead Sea best known as the site where Jewish rebels committed group suicide rather than be caught alive. The name worked both in terms of its strong Jewish connection—a marketing boon in the Israeli market—as well as its more allegorical significance. “You know the saying, ‘Masada shall not fall again?’ Jeriyas inquired. “That was us. We won’t fail like all the other arak producers. We’ll give it our all.” 

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Further complicating matters, Hayak’s recipe required precise ingredients—not only for traditional Lebanese arak, but specifically Zahlawi arak, from the city in eastern Lebanon renowned for its “wine and poetry.” Dabouki white grapes closest to the Lebanese variety were sourced from an Israeli vineyard on the Mediterranean coast. The right anise, a cultivated plant, was found in the western Syrian town of Kafroun and moved to Israel via a Jordanian middleman. (Upon inquiry, Jeriyas said the Syrian civil war hadn’t stopped this Levantine anise trade. “You don’t think people still farm during wartime?” he posited.) 

To sum up: Israeli grapes and Syrian anise (via Jordan) all come together in a factory situated in a Christian Arab town in Western Galilee, under the name of an ancient Jewish fortress, where a Lebanese Maronite proceeded to put, as he called it, his “magic touch” on the proceedings. 

With reason, Hayak didn’t want to reveal too much. But the process in its most mechanical form called for a 21 day initial fermentation period, producing 96 proof alcohol. This alcohol was then combined with the anise inside big copper pots (called karaki) that are then heated for intervals of between eight to 12 hours. The resulting vapor was then funneled through copper piping into open-top metal tanks, where cold water was introduced, producing a liquid. The liquid, coming out the other side, was dripped into massive plastic vats. This was arak. 

The above difference in distillation times gave rise to the three types of arak that Masada produces: the most basic and best-selling, Jabalna (“our mountain,” after Me’ilya); Kafroun, after the Syrian village, for the more refined arak connoisseur; and Alwadi (“dry riverbed,” after a nearby stream), the most traditional Zahlawi of the lot, potent, and decidedly not for the faint of heart.

The entire operation, including another filtering process and then bottling, was all done by hand by six workers. A human touch, traditional, and something that probably wouldn’t look too out of place in the moonshine backwoods of Appalachia. And yes, they do provide tours, tastings, and lectures to visitors of the factory. It’s also strictly kosher, as would be expected from a product seeking to make inroads in the Israeli market. 

Israel, for its part, seemed to respond. Arak has been produced, and imbibed, by Jews here since before Israel’s founding, although, to hear the traditionalist take, the local arak was simply bottled raw material with anise flavoring. Arak Masada offered something different.

Not just a liquor used for shots at nightclubs, or mixed in with crushed ice and grapefruit juice—although Jeriyas was at pains to say that there’s nothing wrong with that either—but rather something of more quality and taste. The real way to drink it, he said, was a third arak and two thirds water, with a single ice cube. This process opens the arak’s aroma, as well as creating the cloudy white coloring that gave the liquor its well-known Arabic nickname: “lion’s milk.” In fact, the cloudier the arak, the purer the anise. 

From store to store, wedding to wedding, and mouth to mouth, Arak Masada began to make a name for itself, initially in northern Israel and now all across the country. It won multiple awards from various wine and liquor associations, especially in the Mediterranean region. They currently export their products overseas, including to the United States, Sweden, Holland, and even Jordan (under a different Arabic label that still says “Product of Israel”). Although it does help to export to markets with large Israeli or Arab communities already familiar with the product, Jeriyas said that it was only a question of marketing before people caught on. “Everyone drinks, even Muslims,” he told me with a wink. 

Everyone drinks, even Muslims.

The one place where Arak Masada couldn’t be exported to was its spiritual homeland, Lebanon. Sitting on the Hadid family’s front patio over a glass of Jabalna and water and ice, Hezbollah was just a few kilometers north, across a frontier patrolled by heavily armed men, on both sides, who were using this sunny summer afternoon very differently. 

Shukri Hayak will likely never be able to go back home. And Israelis and Lebanese will, at least in the foreseeable future, never be able to sit around a table together in Beirut or Tel Aviv, sipping “lion’s milk,” wondering how they ever allowed the politics of the Middle East to define them strictly by their differences, and not by all that they have in common.