La Baalbanaise arak bottle: Cairo, Egypt, 1994

This bottle of La Baalbanaise anis-flavored arak was purchased from a Greek-run shop in downtown Cairo in 1994, before economic liberalization led to the wide availability of international alcohol brands.  The name Baalbanaise is a play on Baalbek, the great Roman monument to wine and decadence in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, and the French word Libanaise.  However, this arak is Lebanese in style but not in production: it was made by Egyptian Vineyards Co., a state-owned company that was the only licensed distiller of spirits in Egypt.  The bottle itself is a marvel of shoddy craftsmanship: thick-glassed, full of air bubbles that diminish its strength, and with dimensions that are not uniform suggesting that it might have been hand blown.  The neck bears a label offering a guarantee of quality, in French and Arabic, that reads: “Toute bouteille ne portant pas ma signature sera considerée comme contrefaçon.”  The author of that signature worked for the foreign-owned distiller that made a similar product before the Nasser-era nationalization that followed the coup d’état in 1952 and, though his guarantee remained on the neck label, he had not been involved in its production for at least three decades.

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