A clear liquid flows out of a copper pot into a stainless-steel barrel. It sounds like church bells. Nader Muaddi makes a fresh batch of arak every year at Advent. It is an anise-flavoured spirit.
This drink turns milky-white when it is mixed with water or ice and pairs well with Levantine cuisine such as mezze and grilled pork.
Muaddi stated that Arak was used to gather people around a table, to have conversation and to build relationships. It’s more than the spirit of Palestine; it’s also our Christmas spirit.
Arak, which was first made in Iraq over a thousand years back is the oldest known distilled spirit. In the past, Levantean families produced wine and arak that they shared with their guests during Christmas.
A small percentage of Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem are Christians. Many people live in Bethlehem and the immediate vicinity, which is Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Muaddi said that making arak is a method to reuse leftover wine, before it turns into vinegar. He said that this tradition is still popular in Syria and Lebanon, but it was ended by the British, Jordanian, and Jordanian bans on home distillation.
Muaddi says that licensed Arak factories gave up distillation in order to cut costs and improve profits. However, this led to a decline in quality.
He said, “When the quality was low, people left it.” It was regarded as “a drink for drunkards” by Palestinians.
Muaddi, an American Arab diaspora community, was raised in America and arak was the central of any celebration. He said, “It is the drink of companionship.”
He was still spending so much money on high-quality arak in Syria and Lebanon when he first returned to West Bank in 2007. A friend suggested that he make his own. This challenge he accepted in 2010.
Muaddi read, participated in online forums and watched YouTube videos to perfect the recipe. Muaddi who is a full-time worker at an international humanitarian organisation decided to make his hobby a side hustle when neighbours and friends expressed interest in purchasing his arak.
Muaddi’s award-winning arak was made from native grape and anise varieties grown in West Bank. Muaddi said that he hopes to work with Palestinian farmers in order to encourage them in their cultivation despite Israeli threat of displacement, restrictions on movement and settler violence.
Muaddi stated that he purchases between 5 and 15 tonnes per year of grapes, depending on the demand. These produce up to 3,000 bottles each year.
Muaddi selects high-sugar grapes and allows them to ferment naturally with wild yeast. They take about one month to become wine. Then, they are triple-distilled in a copper Arabian still. In the third round, you add the aniseed.
He sets an alarm every 15 minutes to monitor the process which can last up to 26 hours.
Muaddi stated that making arak traditionaly takes time. It’s also tiring, and costly. It’s difficult for small producers to keep up with imports from Turkey and China, especially when it comes alcohol.
He said that holiday sales are a great time to sell because people tend to be more generous during holidays.
Adel Hodali (treasurer of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce) stated that more than 95% of Palestinian registered businesses are either small or medium-sized.
There are many craft distilleries and wineries popping up in the West Bank. Hodali stated that the Palestinian alcohol market was small, and that Muslims are most likely to consume it. Therefore, arak producers are encouraged by Hodali to export their products.
Muaddi sees restoring that local tradition as a source for pride regardless of the price.
In Palestine, not only are we losing our land, but also some elements of our cultural and culinary heritage. Arak should be popularized again. “I want to see a renaissance in arak.”