In Israel: Liquor, Not War


Nomi Abeliovich

In a region so complicated that anything is possible, local gastronomy seems to be extracting the better side of a messy situation. This is how a group of former Lebanese militiamen has found themselves producing the "milk of lions"—arak, an aniseed-flavored liquor made from grapes or other fruits—in Israel.

It all started in the late 1970s. As a result of the Lebanese civil war, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) was set up to combat various groups, and it was no longer under the direct control of the main Lebanese army. The SLA was closely allied with Israel, and after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it turned over an occupied ''security zone'' in the south of Lebanon to the SLA, which mainly fought the Lebanese guerrilla forces led by Hezbollah. In return, Israel supported the organization with arms, uniforms, and equipment.

The second distillation sees the removal of any impurities and the addition of Syrian aniseed, considered the best.

When the Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah guerrillas took control of the areas previously controlled by the SLA, the SLA collapsed, and its members were declared traitors and collaborators by the Lebanese government. Some surrendered and stood trial in military court while others sought emergency refuge, along with their families, in Israel.

Fast forward to the present day. A few kilometers south of Lebanon in northern Israel, light years away from their old lives, several former SLA officers, homesick and yearning, began producing Arak Zahlawi, a Lebanese specialty. Arak (meaning "sweat" in Arabic) is a triple-distilled spirit, traditionally quaffed after being mixed with water and ice. Arak Zahlawi originates from the Lebanese village of Zahleh, famous for its superior arak and its strict adherence to traditional production methods.

The process begins with the pressing, straining, and fermentation of a local white grape variety. During the three-step distillation process, the alcohol is first cooked slowly, for about 10 hours. The vapors pass through traditional copper vessels, then condensate back to liquid. The second distillation sees the removal of any impurities and the addition of Syrian aniseed, considered the best. During a third distillation the alcohol level is adjusted to the desired 50 percent, as it easily exceeds 60 percent and can reach up to 75 percent alcohol.

After a two-month aging period, the arak is bottled and ready to be consumed. It is usually mixed with water, juices, or tea, and since the essential oils of anise are soluble in alcohol but not in water, the transparent liquid turns opaque when water is added, hence the name "lions' milk."

Forced to pay a price and flee their homeland, the former SLA militiamen turned into arak distillers, creating a gastronomic expression of nostalgia from their new terroir by bringing their production methods with them. The drink is the product of politics, but the Lebanese cedar they proudly print on the label of their now-kosher product marks the beverage as the essence of their home, heritage, and tradition.