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Put An Herb In It: Lebanon's Fresh Approach To Beer And Cocktails

At Anise, a bar in Beirut, Lebanon, beloved local herbs like za'atar, sage and rosemary are making their way into cocktails. "We want to do something fresh in our cocktails," says co-owner Marwan Matar.

The sun has very nearly set on Beirut, and in a bar called Anise, they're mixing the first cocktail of the evening.

There's vodka, vermouth and iced glasses. And next to the bunches of mint for mojitos are sage, wild oregano, rosemary and the Lebanese favorite, za'atar, a kind of wild thyme.

Here in Lebanon, mixologists and brewmasters are taking a national cuisine and reimagining it in liquid form.

Anise is one leader in this trend for cocktails with herbs usually found in salads or breads. Co-owner Marwan Matar says that since the bar opened a couple of years ago, he's been bringing trunkfuls of herbs from his family's village.

"Because we want to do something fresh in our cocktails," he says. "To use herbs and fruits."

Up on the chalkboard menu is a sage margarita, a rosemary whiskey sour and the wild gimlet — gin and za'atar, together at last — which was a hit from the outset.

"No, really, they like it a lot," says Matar. "People were going crazy about wild gimlet." The sage margarita, he concedes, is more of an acquired taste.

Beirut is pretty big on cocktails, and these herby drinks are now popping up all over. To understand why they're a hit, perhaps it helps to know many Lebanese people are extremely proud of their cuisine, and their local fruit, vegetables and herbs.

I meet Lebanese food expert Kamal Mouzawak in his restaurant, Tawleh, and make the mistake of mentioning I grew up thinking of parsley as a garnish.

"What!? Parsley a garnish?" he sputters.

Of course, here in Lebanon, parsley isn't merely for garnishing, it's a star in its own right, proudly piled up in tabbouleh salad, which Mouzawak says is his favorite food ever.

"We do use a lot — a lot! — of herbs in our cuisine," he says. He sees their appearance in drinks as a hipsterish yearning for traditional things, updated for hedonists.

"I think the trend has been lately how to rediscover tradition and how to use tradition in a modern and contemporary way. It doesn't have to be like, only grandma, boring dusty stuff," he says.

This patriotic herbal impulse is not limited to cocktails. I head up a mountain to visit with Omar Bekdache, CEO of a brewery that makes a beer called 961 — the Lebanese dialing code.

It's difficult brewing in Lebanon. Brewers have to import everything from hops to bottlecaps. Bekdache says he does want to buy local, but even getting bottles here is tough.

"You know, there were two factories in Lebanon. One of them got destroyed in the July [2006] war — it was directly hit by the Israelis," he says. The other factory doesn't make amber bottles. So he imports everything, with one honorable exception: the herbs the brewery puts in its Lebanese pale ale — za'atar, of course, and a bunch of other things like the lemony herb sumac.

Bekdache produces bottles of the pale ale from a fridge radiant with amber light and also containing 961's craft porters and witbier. He pours us out drinks. Apparently, the pale ale is especially popular with expat Lebanese far from home. We clink and say cheers.

"I can't see someone drinking it and not remembering Lebanon," Bekdache says.

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