One evening, about a month ago, David Blau - the owner of Shesek, a fashionable Tel Aviv lounge-bar, gathered his waiting staff together and made the following announcement: "Arak. This summer, push Arak." It didn't take long for the word to get out, and the bar's regular patrons began ordering the venerable Middle Eastern drink of their own volition. Blau explains that financial considerations plays a large part in determining new nightlife trends, particularly in the current economic climate.
"To keep people drinking, despite the horrendous economic situation, we are trying to think of cheap but no less pleasurable options to offer. Arak is the quintessential Middle Eastern drink, and is ideal for the summer months. You can drink it mixed with water and ice, mint, grapefruit juice or lemonade. It's thirst-quenching and it cools off the mouth," says Blau.
In the past two years, arak has experienced a rejuvenation among young people in Israel. Alcohol wholesalers report a considerable increase in the volume of sales to bars, clubs, restaurants, supermarkets and kiosks. Asher Hasson of the Hinawi George liquor store in Jaffa, claims a 20-percent increase in arak sales compared to last year. He says businesses that until now had not had the drink on their menus have begun to feature it. Tel Aviv nightclub, TLV, began supplying the drink last year - by popular demand. "There were always older people who drank arak, but now it is most definitely a trend among young people," says Hasson.
The Wine House, a liquor shop in Tel Aviv, reported a whopping 25-percent boost in arak sales, and Naftali's House of Liquor in Givatayim notes that in the past month alone there has been a big jump in the number of bottles of arak moving out of the storeroom.
Simple and cheap
Affi Gur-Ari, professional director of the Zman Amiti (Real Time) Bartender School, says that unlike brandy-based drinks, whose popularity has been on the downswing for the past decade, the audience of arak drinkers is only expanding. "The younger generation doesn't get into brandy and cognac, which is customarily drunk at room temperature. They prefer the simplicity of arak. What's more, no one is apathetic about the dominant taste of arak, which lots of people like, but a lot of other people just hate."
Iris Danino, owner of the trendy Tel Aviv bar Betty Ford, says the main reason for arak's popularity is its low price. "Arak costs NIS 14 here, which makes it the cheapest drink offered in the bar," she says. She profiles the typical arak drinker: "Guys over 30 who have deep roots in the alcohol culture and who now want to drink without spending a lot of money. Instead of whiskey, they're ordering arak."
One of them is the author Dudu Bussy ("The Moon is Green in the Wadi"), who calls arak "the water of paradise." Bussy became a regular arak drinker partly because he wanted to cut down his nightlife expenses. "For a fellow who likes to drink, going out to a pub or club has become a more expensive proposition. An average drinker like me who consumes four or five drinks a night, each of which costs between NIS 25 and NIS 50. The cost of going out at night can add up."
Another attraction of arak is the high alcoholic content, which varies from 40 percent to 80 percent. Ben Shlavin, owner of Clal, a Tel Aviv bar - which sells a glass of Ashkelon arak for a low NIS 8 - says, "Not only is it a cheap drink, but you can get totally plastered, too."
Arak is a Mediterranean anise-based drink that originated in Lebanon. In the traditional Lebanese method of preparing arak, anise kernels are soaked in grape distillates and stored in clay pitchers. Although in Israel the Samaritans were already distilling arak thousands of years ago, it only found its way onto local palates after the immigration of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.
More than anything else, the new ascendancy of arak reflects a change in its image. Bussy explains: "Arak was representative of the lazy, screwed-up, violent and ignorant Sephardi, who would be willing to sell his daughter for a bottle of booze. This image was reflected in the cinema, in films such as Salah Shabati, and in a variety of arak-saturated roles played by Arye Elias and many other actors."
Bussy alleges that this is the reason why many second- and third-generation Sephardim in Israel have over the years dissociated themselves from the drink they had seen at home growing up. Now, with the legitimization of Sephardi identity, they sip arak with pride. "For years, I mimicked the Ashkenazi culture, so I would be part of the Israeli story. Aside from pulling away from the Oriental music with which I grew up, I also dissociated myself from arak and from all that it symbolizes. For years, I didn't dare order the drink in pubs, even if I was craving it. In my mind's eye, I saw the look that the waiter or bartender would give me if I ordered a glass of arak, even if they were Sephardim like me," says Bussy. "But now things are different. It used to be that as a repressed minority, Sephardim would `Ashkenize' themselves to feel like they belonged, but now the Ashkenazi brothers are `Sephardizing' themselves to feel like they belong to this sunstroke of a country of ours."
Danino concurs. "Arak is a drink you associate with your grandfather. But now, with young people's renewed connection with their roots, they're no longer embarrassed to drink it," she says. But there others, who never saw arak at home, who have succumbed to the charms of the local drink. "It used to be," says Shlavin, "that a yuppie drinking a NIS 50 drink was considered stylish. Today, simplicity is in, and the cheaper the drink you order, the cooler it is considered."
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