Between Arak and a Hard Place |

Israeli Arak-lovers in a Panic as Cost of Beloved Spirit Set to Double

'If there’s no arak, let them drink Remy Martin,' quips critic of alcohol tax reform, which will significantly raise prices of cheaper drinks while lowering rate on high-grade alcohol.

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Arak lovers are in a panic. The price of the anise-based liquor that has become Israel’s national drink is to double on July 1, following reforms in the pricing of alcoholic beverages.

A bottle that now costs NIS 35 will soon cost NIS 70. The shelves in some shops have already been emptied of the most popular brand of Israeli arak, Elite Ha’arak. Some are taking advantage of the situation and charging NIS 45 a bottle.

One sign of the panic can be found in a post by the popular, anonymous Hebrew-language blogger Ishton, full of juicy invective against the new finance minister, Yair Lapid, over the reform. “You are the Dead Sea of low humanity,” he wrote, addressing Lapid, as if the issue were more important than the rise in VAT. His post, “We the arak people,” got more than 300 likes.

Eran, the shopkeeper at the corner store Pinsker 2 in Tel Aviv, said: “Last Tuesday, before they announced the rise in the tax, I ran out of Elite Ha’arak. I managed to get another crate since then, but I sell them for NIS 45. ... Even at the higher price, this morning people already bought four bottles of Elite Ha’arak. People understand it’s a more attractive price than what’s coming.”

Ma’oz Alonim, from the restaurant Basta, says: “You already can’t find merchandise like arak and the simple vodkas whose price is going up. The importers and the manufacturers just aren’t letting it out. I think the reason is that if you buy a lot, you can turn a good profit. Lucky we have stocks of arak. I bet that 10 days before the price goes up, I’ll be all out.”

Will the price hike steal the newly won title of national drink from arak, I ask Maoz. He doesn’t think so. “Israel is a country where people get used to things and we’ll get used to this. Arak is a pleasant drink for our climate. They’ll curse the price rise and keep on drinking.”

Bottom line, Maoz says, is that “they hit the drinks that regular folks drink. In Israel the tax on beer is unbelievable by any standard. Beer costs an hour’s wages here, while in Eastern or Central Europe, you can buy five bottles for that.” A young woman listening in adds: “They spit in our faces.”

The restaurant and wine critic Dan Sessler, a big arak aficionado, says the drink started to become popular with Ashkenazim after the Six-Day War. “Arak is a Mediterranean drink that came here thanks to the Mizrahim. It caught on the moment that Ashkenazim started being ashamed of their origins. I believe that we’ll get used to the prices, like we got used to the rise in cigarette prices. I recommend adding arak to tomato soup.”

The ancient warehouse of Michaeli’s wholesale alcohol business is full of nervous clients. The owner, Moshe Michaeli, says he gets five calls a day from clients demanding arak and he has to disappoint them. According to Michaeli, the dry arak market right now is not due to speculation, perish the thought. Rather, the raw materials are lacking. “They’re just starting to produce again in the factories,” he says.

At the Wine House on Ha’aliyah Street, home of all things alcoholic, they’ll sell me a bottle of arak for NIS 45; on the wall they have pasted an article about the doubling of arak prices, to pressure the customers. When I tell them I’m a journalist, they say they have run out anyhow, but they would have sold me a bottle for NIS 35. Most of the brands of arak do not have their prices marked. “Every customer who hears the price of arak is going up rains down blessings on the finance minister’s head,” the salesman, Freddie, says sarcastically.

There’s something symbolic in the alcohol reform. It is a clear example of the way the rich are getting stronger, while those who don’t have much are having even that taken away. If the treasury needs money, why is the expensive alcohol going to get cheaper? Freddie points to a cognac on the top shelf, whose price has nosedived from NIS 18,000 to NIS 11,000.

Tweeters had plenty to say about the subject. “If there’s no arak, let them drink Remy Martin,” tweeted Ohad Raviv, a la Antoinette. Tweeter Uri Porat waxed biblical in his critique: “My father whipped you with whips, I will whip you with arak chasers,” he wrote.

Porat says: “A lot of people say to me, ‘to hell with it, why did I vote Lapid?’ I explain to them that it’s not him, the reform was planned before him for 2014 and they just moved it up. I wonder if Freddie is defending Lapid because he voted for him and he doesn’t want to look like a sucker.”

“I decline to respond,” Freddie says, and one of his employees offers: “He says that because he supports Lapid,” adding “I don’t know what this reform is good for.”

Moshe Michaeli in his liquor store, June 10th, 2013.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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