An old alliance has taken an unusual – and tasty – turn. Israeli-Lebanese ties have a new flavor that is actually centuries old – as old as King Hiram of Tyre, Lebanon and King Solomon of Jerusalem, and as new as the 21st century.
At the center of this alliance is arak, arguably the most popular drink in the Middle East. Believed first developed several centuries ago by Christian and Jewish minorities in the Levant, it is a wine with a touch of anise that turns a milky white – hence, the nickname "lion's milk" – when ice and water are added.
Its popularity extends beyond the Middle East – the popular Greek version is known as ouzo – but the best in the world is widely considered to be the version created by Lebanese Christians from a variety of grape that grows along the borders between Lebanon and Israel, between the Mediterranean and the Golan Heights.
The newest twist to this old drink is an alliance of recipes from a leading Lebanese family famous for its high quality of arak and the skills of Israeli wine-makers.
The grapes, from the Goren mountains in northern Israel, are the same ones that had been grown in the Shouf mountains of southern Lebanon and used by the family for generations of making an arak known for its rare quality.
The family was among some 2,200 Lebanese who migrated to Israel following the Israel Defense Force pullout from that country five years ago; they settled in the Upper Galilee. They wanted to produce their arak for the Israeli market and sought help from Gen. Antoine Lahad, former commander of the Israel-allied South Lebanese Army.
Lahad made a shiddach, "a match," between the Lebanese artisans and Israeli vintners.
For the arak to be certified kosher, religious authorities told them, Jews had to take over the handling of the grapes and the preparation of the wine, and the Lebanese experts could oversee the process.
Lahad helped them build a facility in northern Israel to produce the arak. He is not an investor in the project, but serves the beverage at his beachfront restaurant in Tel Aviv, Byblos, which draws old Lebanon hands among Israeli military, intelligence and political circles from "the old days."
The result of the match Lahad made is the first certified kosher arak in the unique Lebanese style. It is available in Israel, and is now being exported to the United States because they believe there is a market here for high-quality, all-natural, hand-made arak that brings together the best of Israeli and Lebanese wine-making skills.
It has been certified by the Orthodox Union for sale in the United States; the first shipments arrived before Rosh Hashanah. At the outset, sales will be focused in the mid-Atlantic area in communities with large Sephardi Jewish communities with roots in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
It is distributed by Kedem in the United States under the name Arak el Namrood. It sells for about $28 a fifth, and is a whopping 100-proof.