Saad Hussein, a 42-year-old Yazidi Iraqi, is one of the last winemakers in the northern region of Nineveh who are producing the anise-flavoured spirit, arak, from local dates.
Forced to flee his home town of Bashiqa, close to Mosul, when it fell to ISIS terror in 2014, he returned after the defeat and expulsion of ISIS militants to reopen his small distillery.
“This is part of our heritage, but it’s almost extinct. There is almost no one here in the area that does it,” he said.
“I have always loved the craft, and used to work in it previously. So I wanted to revive this craft,”
He hopes to introduce the drink to a new generation, after most of the Christian and Yazidi Iraqis with whom it was popular fled the area.
The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority who combine Zoroastrian, Christian, Manichean, Jewish and Muslim beliefs. The group was brutally persecuted by ISIS extremists who viewed the Yazidis as devil worshippers.
It slaughtered more than 3,000 Yazidis, enslaved 7,000 women and girls and displaced most of the 550,000-strong community from its traditional home in northern Iraq.
Hussein fills vast blue vats with dates, adds water and pulps the sweet fruit. He then places the mixture in a sealed pot and heats it to distil the alcohol.
This is an old method that has been used exclusively in the city for decades, he explained.
“Our Christian brothers were our main clients for this product. But immigration is part of the reason [our business suffered],” he said.
Imported spirits also crushed the market, which was once so large it sustained numerous small local distilleries.
Ghazwan Khairi is a customer of Hussein’s.
“I know that work is great, I know what materials he uses and where he gets them. Also the flavour is great,” he said, as he departed Hussein’s workshop with a bottle.