Galilee Arak: Lebanese-style, but Strictly Kosher

At the Hadid distillery in the Christian village of Meilya, the licorice-flavored drink is brewed according to an ancient Lebanese method.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

A summer afternoon in the old center of Kfar Meilya, located east of Ma’alot in the Galilee. The wooden doors of the Greek Orthodox church, which was built in 1825, are closed. Even the village priest doesn’t think his flock will find its way there in the heat of the day, in spite of the pleasant breeze that is blowing on top of the hill and in the grapevine-covered lean-tos in the backyards.

“Locking the gates of the house of God? That has never happened,” mutters Wadia Hadid in amazement, taking his guests to see the millstone of an ancient olive press and the house where his grandfather was born.

The visitors are in a good mood. Arak in the afternoon is a great habit. The drink that becomes milky in the glass veils the world with a thin, white layer of hope, and the caprices of the rural priest or other petty matters easily slide off the body and the soul.

The homes of Meilya’s founding fathers who came from the Lebanese region before the borders were drawn are now being renovated by their third- and fourth-generation descendants. Anyone who digs deep into the earth, or empties piles of sand that have accumulated over the years, exposes stone arches and a maze of cool and beautiful rooms that were used for housing, for people and farm animals. Some of the homes of the modern village were built over vestiges of the wall of the “king’s fortress” a Crusader castle that stood in the heart of a feudal estate during the Middle Ages.

The remains of the fortress, as documented in a rare color photograph taken in 1958, appear on the labels of some of the bottles of arak produced in the distillery built by the Hadid family. But, of all the magnificent names in the world, the new distillery has been named “Masada.” The Hebrew or Latin name of the local fortress is not catchy enough, the family decided: They rejected the name “Montfort,” inspired by the Crusader castle on a nearby mountaintop (the Montfort Garage and Montfort Guest Houses are respectable institutions that have become identified with that historical structure), because they said they don’t want to cheapen it. Thus a castle from another part of the country entered the story.

Lebanese expertise

Two years ago the Hadids’ pigpen the family’s source of livelihood during the past two generations burned down. About that time brothers Wadia and Jeryis Hadid met Shukri Hayak. Hayak, a native of the Lebanese town of Jezzine and a former soldier in the South Lebanon Army, specialized in the art of distilling arak in his homeland. In Israel he worked in the El Namroud distillery, which was built in the Goren industrial zone by another former SLA soldier and was purchased by a large corporation, and dreamed of making an arak of his own.

Together the trio decided to embark on a new career and to open a traditional boutique distillery in the brothers’ village. First they found vineyards in the area of Zichron Yaakov where dabouki grapes a local species that is reminiscent of the one used to produce Lebanese arak were cultivated. In the next stage they examined various types of anise for seasoning, until a certain species imported from Syria via Jordan satisfied the expert, Hayak. After the first grape harvest, they produced small, experimental quantities of various types of arak. These were sent to known imbibers in the Christian Galilean villages (“We deliberately refrained from using the services of the expert tasters. We wanted people who love the drink and drink it every day to express their opinion”).

The positive reactions led to the establishment of the distillery in Meilya’s industrial zone. In the spacious premises are storage containers, copper distilling vats in the best Lebanese tradition, and a laboratory where the bottling is done. The second harvest yielded commercial quantities. Furthermore, the distillation process used in producing Masada arak takes place under the watchful eyes of strictly kosher lamehadrin inspectors.

Five months ago, the group started to market three types of arak under the Masada label in the north of the country. The three differ from one another in the number of distillations, the balance in the ratio of alcohol to anise and, as a result, in price as well. Jabalna is the simplest one – a product of one distillation and a deliberate decision to downplay the dominant taste of anise. “Arak aimed at Israeli taste,” says the Lebanese-born master, offering a simple, nonjudgmental description.

The local palate has become accustomed to various kinds of arak made from industrial alcohol and flavor concentrates, and Jabalna produced from a distillate of grapes and seasoned with genuine anise seeds is designed to satisfy it. Kafroun, named after the Syrian village that has a reputation for producing fine arak, is the result of two distillation processes. Alwadi, inspired by the days when the traditional distillation process took place in riverbeds, is the crowning glory and the apple of the distillers’ eyes  – the result of three distillations, with the delicate taste of genuine Zahlawi arak. Even Jabalna, which costs the same as the familiar commercial arak, tastes far better and less coarse.

The only question preoccupying the guests is when the bottles of good arak will also be on sale in the center of the country.

Arak Masada, 04-9977934,

For love of pork

The Hadid brothers don aprons and sharpen knives and cleavers. They are supplying 120 kilograms of pig meat for skewers for a wedding being held that evening in Tarshiha, and there’s a lot of work to be done: Slabs of saddle meat and lower ribs are hanging on iron hooks, boned and cut into small pieces. It is hard not to notice the skill of those involved in the work, and the expression of calm and satisfaction on their faces: The production of arak is a new and fascinating field, but love of pork flows in their veins.

The father of Wadia and Jeryis was the first among Meilya’s residents to build a pigpen, in 1955. At about that time as a result of a series of parliamentary and public debates about preserving the Jewish legacy versus democratic principles of freedom of employment and religion the Knesset authorized local councils to handle the subject of pig farms. It hastened to pass bylaws that limited the raising and sale of pigs, and pigpens located on kibbutzim in the western Galilee were moved to nearby Christian villages.

This year is marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called 1962 pig law, which prohibited the raising and sale of pork in Israel, with the exception of several local authorities with a Christian majority, and a few scientific research institutes. Thus the village of Meilya became a small, isolated enclave for raising pigs.

“I’ve been in the meat business from the age of 13,” says Wadia. “An outsider can’t understand this sort of love, but I used to run away from school to work with the Romanian butcher from Nahariya, whom my father supplied with meat. I would carry quarters of animals and heavy sacks so that he would teach me something in exchange. It took me years to achieve the taste of the old man’s kebab, and today all the residents of the north who recall the lost flavor of the so-called ‘white’ [i.e., pork] steaks and beef kebab prepared by the Romanian butchers come to us.”

At the start of this decade the Hadids established a minimarket-butcher shop where they sold raw beef and pork, kitchen tools, Christian religious articles and charcuterie products. Subsequently the family’s pigpen was set on fire and burned down due to local underworld conflicts. The brothers say there’s no point in rebuilding it. The government demands sophisticated, modern facilities for purifying sewage from such a facility, but doesn’t allocate the necessary area to build them.

A month ago officials in the Agriculture Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry recommended that the country’s remaining pig farms be transferred from the north to the south, to bring about a reform in the industry. The reform is necessary, admit legislators and farmers, but in the Jewish state the one that shortchanges citizens of other religions pig farmers, who have no lobby, find themselves in an impossible situation.

In the Hadids’ minimarket-butcher shop, however, they continue to prepare and sell wonderful cold cuts, produced in the in-house smoking room at the far end of the plant. Their smoked bacon, gently salted, is as good as the excellent products imported from overseas. Moreover, the sausages are an outstanding example of the taste of local Christian cuisine: The seasoning, full of garlic and hot pepper, is reminiscent of the taste of merguez sausages; the soft, rich texture benefits from the advantages of the pig meat and fat. We haven’t tasted such good sausages even in the kitchens of the leading local sausage makers – the ones who try in vain to subdue lamb and beef to the rules of French charcuterie.

And again, in order to remove all doubt, and because we are familiar with the Israeli tendency to be deterred by the word “pig,” the distillery and the butcher shop are entirely separate businesses. The former has received a strict kosher certification, the other deals in processing and producing pork products. Only in Israel is such a charming combination possible: a kosher arak distillery whose Christian-Arab bosses are also responsible for producing pork sausages and Romanian-Jewish kebab.

Hadid Jeryis Butchery Minimarket, on the main street of Meilya, 04-9979016

A glass of arak, which turns a milky color when mixed with water. Credit: Dan Peretz
A copper distilling vat, in the best Lebanese tradition. Credit: Dan Peretz
Cold cuts and bacon, from the Hadids' butcher shop. Credit: Dan Peretz