Put An Herb In It: Lebanon's Fresh Approach To Beer And Cocktails : The Salt Herbs like za'atar and sumac have long been stars of Lebanese cuisine. Now they're moving out of the kitchen and into beers and cocktails, infusing them with a patriotic taste.
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Put An Herb In It: Lebanon's Fresh Approach To Beer And Cocktails

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

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

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This next story is about a bartending trend in Lebanon, where bartenders might dump a handful of oregano into the cocktail shaker. The country's mixologists and brewmasters are trying to re-imagine the herb-heavy national cuisine in drink form. NPR's Alice Fordham is at the bar.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The sun has very nearly set on Beirut, and at a bar called Anise, they're mixing the first cocktail of the evening. There's vodka, vermouth and iced glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCKTAIL SHAKER)

FORDHAM: But next to the bunches of mint for mojitos are sage, wild oregano, rosemary and the Lebanese favorite, zaatar, a kind of thyme.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cheers.

FORDHAM: Anise leads a trend for cocktails with herbs usually found in salads or breads. Co-owner Marwan Matar says since he opened a couple of years ago, he's been bringing trunkfuls of herbs from his family's village.

MARWAN MATAR: Because we want to do something fresh in our cocktail - to use herbs and fruits.

FORDHAM: Up on the chalkboard menu is a sage margarita, a rosemary whiskey sour and the wild gimlet - gin and zaatar together at last - which was a hit from the outset.

MATAR: No, really, they like that - like wild gimlet - people was going crazy about wild gimlet.

FORDHAM: Beirut's 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.

KAMAL MOUZAWAK: What? Parsley, a garnish? It's perfect to, you know, to put in the mouth of the fish - the big fish, right? Oh, my God.

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

MOUZAWAK: We do use a lot, a lot of herbs in our cuisine.

FORDHAM: And he sees their appearance in drinks as a hipster-ish yearning for traditional things updated for hedonists.

MOUZAWAK: I think the trend has been lately how to discover tradition and how to use tradition in a modern and contemporary way. It doesn't have to be, like, only grandma, boring, you know, dusty stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

FORDHAM: This patriotic herbal impulse is not limited to cocktails. I head up a mountain to visit with Omar Bekdash, CEO of a brewery which makes a beer called 961.

OMAR BEKDASH: It's actually the Lebanese dialing code, which is - it can't be more Lebanese than this.

FORDHAM: It's kind of hard brewing in Lebanon. They have to import everything from hops to bottle caps. Not that he doesn't want to buy local.

BEKDASH: I would really wish we can buy bottles in Lebanon. You know, there was two factories in Lebanon. One of them got destroyed during the July War. It got directly hit by the Israelis.

FORDHAM: That was a war in 2006. So they import everything, even the amber bottles, with the honorable exception of the herbs they put in the Lebanese pale ale - zaatar, of course, and a bunch of other things, like the lemony herb sumac.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLES RATTLING)

FORDHAM: Bekdash produces bottles of the brew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cheers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Cheers.

FORDHAM: Apparently, it's popular with ex-pat Lebanese far from home. Bekdash says no one could drink it without remembering Lebanon. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

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