RASHMAYA, Lebanon: The quality of Lebanon’s vines is well-known, but a small and dedicated group of entrepreneurs have found that the country’s geography and local produce make it ideal for something stronger: gin.
The primary botanical used to flavor gin is juniper, which grows naturally in the country’s higher terrain. “The Lebanese juniper was a discovery for us,” said Maya Khattar, one half of the two-person Rechmaya Distillery.
“The European and American juniper is not even close to ours.”
Khattar eventually spent more time coming back from an advertising job in Dubai to her hometown of Rashmaya, where she looked into renovating a building that her family had generations ago used as a silk factory. It’s now a tastefully decorated space housing the area where tastings are held on weekends and “Matilda,” the still named after Khattar’s grandmother.
Now she and her husband Chadi Naccour live full-time in the pretty hilltop village on the edge of the Chouf, having left behind their busy metropolitan lives in the Emirates.
Naccour, who has a background as a chef, is the creative engine behind the distillery’s first product, the “Jun” gin. “For him, doing the gin was like cooking,” Khattar said.
“He chose the ingredients that we use in our Lebanese kitchen.”
The outcome, she explained, is a gin with Lebanese juniper, supported by eight other botanicals.
The unique juniper plant relies on small birds to eat the berries in order to spread its seeds. As a result of widespread bird hunting in Lebanon, Khattar warned that this key ingredient is under threat.
For now, though, it’s widely found in certain mountains where the couple hand-pick their berries.
It was a chance encounter with the bush on a hike that caused Jamil Haddad, the founder of Colonel Brewery, to consider branching out from his craft beer: He has been selling gin made locally in Batroun for the last two months.
As well as its native juniper, “Lebanon is very rich in herbs, vegetables and plants, and this is what you need for gin. ... We can be really outstanding making gin because of the ingredients we have in the country,” Haddad said.
The brewer-turned-distiller explained that on a visit to London, he noticed the boom in consumption of the spirit and judged that Lebanon should be producing its own.
He wasn’t the only one to have the idea and within a few months, three Lebanese distillers – The Three Brothers, Rechmaya and Colonel – had brought out their gins.
The advantage of gin, Khattar said, is that it is not overly demanding and is relatively easy to distill.
This means Khattar and Naccour can focus on their respective talents: He handles production while she takes care of “distribution, communication, design, everything else. He’s the creator, I’m the communicator.”
The pair have voiced interest in taking their gins to the international market, but Khattar is aware she has to consolidate her brand in Lebanon before taking the next step.
“To sell abroad you need to have a nice image in your hometown. It’s a Lebanese gin so you need to have a Lebanese identity in the Lebanese market and to have awareness. People have to know you in Lebanon before you go abroad,” she said.
Still, they know their limits. “We don’t want to be industrial,” Naccour said. “We want to be more down-to-earth, just having everything in our garden, being self-contained or self-producing our stuff. ... We’re planning to stay craft, artisanal.”