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Riachi Winery & Distillery

Address

Ain Smaydieh
Khenchara, Mount Lebanon , Lebanon
Website
Riachi Winery & Distillery
  • Riachi Winery & Distillery
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Welcome to Whiskey Lore's Whiskey Flights, your weekly home for discovering great craft distillery experiences around the globe. I’m Drew Hannush, your travel guide and host of two best selling travel books Experiencing Irish Whiskey and Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon.

And for our inaugural weekend, we’re celebrating World Whisky Day 2024 by touching down in two locations you don’t usually associate with whisky. We just left South Africa and we’re just touching down in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. And it’s an 11 hour flight, with a connection through Addis Ababa (A-dis-Ah-bah-bah), Ethiopia’s capital city. As I check my phone messages, while we taxi on the runway of Lebanon’s only commercial airport, Beirut–Rafic (RAH-fic) Al Hariri (HA-ree-ree) International Airport, I’m checking my phone to see where I need to go to pick up my rental car before heading to the remote mountain village of Khenchara, were we will meet an 8th generation winemaker and distiller Roy Riachi will introduce us to the concept of Lebanese whisky. 

Of course, I planned in some extra time, since Lebanon requires a 30 day Visa for people entering the country. The good news is, they do provide a Visa on Arrival service, so they can handle you straight away. But its important to remember there is a conflict along the Lebanese / Israeli border to the south. And while the distillery and Beirut are not close to this action, the Lebanese airport authorities won’t let you into the country if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport, and that includes citizens of the US, UK and beyond. You don’t want to end up under arrest for making an honest mistake. Do your due diligence so you can enjoy the people and the culture without ending up in a precarious situation. If you’re not willing to go that extra mile, it is best to listen to this podcast with an eye on discovering Riachi’s spirits through your local retailer, rather than in person.

That said, the reason I’m such a proponent of travel is because it is the perfect cure to fear and narrowmindedness. We tend to get our attitudes about the people of certain countries from their governments or media. These organizations have to speak in generalities, stereotypes, and labels. Unfortunately this robs us of many potential friendships around the world. And sadly, in today’s world, those stereotypes and attitudes are only being reinforced by algorithms and evolution of journalism from fact finding and investigation to narratives. Travel is our greatest gift to combating these attitudes.

Since this is only our second journey together, I hope you don’t mind that I took a moment to let you know my deeper reasons for loving travel.

While I wait here for my 30 day travel visa to be processed, let’s take a moment to get to know a little bit more about the historic village of Khenchara, where the Riachi winery and distillery is located.

Khenchara, Lebanon

Known as “The Land of Heritage,” Khenchara sits within an area of Central Lebanon that is filled with culture and history. It’s the home to the beautiful St. Jean Monastery, built with beautiful stonework, which dates back to the 17th century and houses one of the oldest printing presses in the Middle East. This press has played a significant role in the preservation and dissemination of Lebanese literature and religious texts. Visitors can explore the beautiful churches in the area, experience traditional Lebanese architecture, and enjoy the scenic beauty of the surrounding hills and valleys. The area's lush greenery and tranquil atmosphere make it a popular destination for those looking to escape the bustling city life of Beirut.

Now, driving here might not be for everyone. The trip from the airport takes you through the center of Beirut, and to the European or American driver, the way people drive and park in the country might seem a little chaotic. But somehow it works for the locals. The best advice I heard was, act like you’re driving in the Grand Theft Auto videogame and know that your focus should be on protecting your car from people flying in from the left and right, especially in roundabouts. There are options to hire drivers at the airport.  

It’s not a long drive to the Riachi distillery and winery, but there are some twists and turns on the way. Watch for blind curves. People tend to pass aggressively, even into these corners.

https://www.escapeartistes.com/2012/06/13/driving-in-lebanon/ 

As we arrive in the beautiful mountain side town, we find the winery and distillery, right at the edge of the village. And we’re greeted by our host Roy Riachi, who, I think will do a much better job of painting a picture of the area and the country he grew up in. 

The Interview

Drew Hannush (00:02.211)
Roy, it is great to have you with us. Welcome to the show.

Roy Riachi (00:53.29)
Thank you for hosting me.

Drew Hannush (00:56.195)
Absolutely. Well, we kind of got to chatting a little bit on Instagram because I've been doing my bracketology craft distillery search and having people vote on their craft distilleries. And of course yours advanced to the next round, but we started chatting back and forth and it was like Lebanon. You know, I mean, I really thought about Lebanese whiskey before and apparently this is...

a fairly new concept too for Lebanon as well. So I want to dive in a little bit into your family history first and see what you were doing before you got into the whiskey business and then talk a little bit more about Lebanese distilling and kind of the history of it as we go along there. So paint us first a picture in our minds of what the area you live in is like.

Roy Riachi (01:53.706)
So Lebanon is mostly a mountainous region. We're on the eastern Mediterranean coast. So in theory, it looks a lot like, for example, the coasts of Turkey. So it's very green. There's a lot of forestry around. And there is a variation of altitudes. So we start off from sea level and we end up at around 3000.

and 88 meters above sea level, which is roughly 15 ,000 feet above sea level. So it's quite the mountainous country with multiple climates or microclimates. So the coastal is quite warm, typical of what you'd expect of a Mediterranean country. But as you climb the altitudes, you have different microclimates. So where we are at, which is about 1000 feet,

150 meters above sea level. If I were to convert them into feet, which is roughly three and a half thousand feet above sea level, it's a bit cooler than your average Mediterranean climate. Probably similar to the New England area of the US, like the upper East Coast.

Drew Hannush (03:14.147)
Okay, and very good for wine making. Are there a lot of vineyards around the area?

Roy Riachi (03:20.97)
So in Lebanon in general, there are a lot of vineyards, but Lebanon is quite a small country. So most of those vineyards, even if the wineries are outside of the Bekaa Valley, they're usually in the Bekaa Valley. So the valley is around, it's situated between two mountains and it's about 800 meters above sea level, so which is about two and a half or more, two and a half thousand feet or more above sea level.

But the climate is quite different than the mountainous region that we are in. There are two mountain ranges in Lebanon. The western mountain range is facing the sea and the eastern mountain range is parallel to our mountain range. So between those two mountains, it's actually quite dry.

and during the summer you can have quite the temperature difference between day and night so during the day you can reach very high temperatures of 40 degrees celsius which is basically i don't know almost 110 degrees fahrenheit is that during the day and during

Drew Hannush (04:35.779)
Wow, okay, yeah.

Roy Riachi (04:40.458)
and that night it can drop to around 10 degrees Celsius which is about 50 Fahrenheit.

Drew Hannush (04:47.715)
About 50. You need to learn my little Canadian trick that I learned. They say double it and add 30. That is the way to get census into Fahrenheit. Was it? Okay, yeah, there you go. You gotta do the quick math in your head. So, I grew up in the mountains. So it kind of, when you're talking about culture in the North Carolina mountains where I grew up, there's a distinctly different sort of character to the people.

Roy Riachi (04:53.898)
That's what I was doing.

Hahaha.

Drew Hannush (05:17.187)
that live there versus the ones that live down on the coast or in the cities. Do you get that kind of a feel there? And what are the people like around there?

Roy Riachi (05:25.706)
Well, of course, usually, so it's more like even on coastal cities, you might have similar towns. So usually the mountainous regions and the smaller towns that are by the coast are fairly similar when it comes to culture and lifestyle. You know, the small town lifestyle where everyone knows each other and everyone's friendly and all that kind of stuff. When it comes to the coast,

People are still friendly, though it's like any other city, it becomes fast -paced. So whenever you go to different cities in Lebanon, you will find the differences between them. Of course, the largest city in Lebanon is Beirut, which is roughly home to around two and a half million people. So it's quite a large metropolitan area.

Drew Hannush (06:02.339)
Hmm.

Drew Hannush (06:21.091)
Yeah, and if somebody's coming to your area, how do they usually tend to get up there? Rental car best way?

Roy Riachi (06:27.242)
Well, we're not that far off from the capital. So the capital, Beirut, is roughly 30 minutes away by car, by highway. So it's fairly close. Even though Lebanon is very mountainous and you have those different altitudes and microclimates and all that, I think the entire country is almost as large as Massachusetts, if not slightly smaller.

Drew Hannush (06:39.061)
Okay.

Drew Hannush (06:55.331)
Okay, all right, very good. So...

Roy Riachi (06:56.778)
So it's quite small, you can get basically anywhere fairly quickly.

Drew Hannush (07:03.875)
Yeah, we can say it's like Delaware. You can go from one end to the other with a very little effort, except you got to climb mountains. Delaware has no mountains.

Roy Riachi (07:14.186)
Yeah, you know the mountains make it, so make commuting a bit more difficult. So if you're traveling down the coast, it's quite easy. But if you're going different regions, like if I were to go to another town which is roughly in the mountains, if I just want to use the mountains, that is roughly, I don't know, in terms of miles.

let's say about 25 miles away from me. It can take up to two hours if the roads, if it's only mountainous roads and no highways. So yeah, it becomes different. And that's another reason why, so in terms of culture, Lebanon has a lot of different communities and different, you know, cultures and sects and whatnot. Historically, the main reason why most of those communities sought,

Drew Hannush (07:51.683)
Yeah.

Roy Riachi (08:10.986)
Lebanon as a refuge is because of its mountainous terrain, which is quite difficult to navigate and invade.

Drew Hannush (08:15.747)
Mm.

Drew Hannush (08:22.147)
It gets me thinking about the laws of making spirits there. Of course, in the United States, we can't just set up a still and go to work on making whiskey if we wanted to. And so we have up in the hills moonshiners who make illicit spirits. What is the culture there? Is it open for anybody if they wanted to distill or are there laws that pretty much stop that from happening?

Roy Riachi (08:54.57)
Well, home distillation is quite legal in Lebanon. Basically, every other home kind of has a still. And the national drink of Lebanon is Araq, or in English it's pronounced Araq. So, but if you want to basically commercial distilleries obviously have regulations and you have to abide by certain laws and protocols and procedures.

Drew Hannush (08:59.939)
Okay.

Roy Riachi (09:24.33)
And the oldest regulated spirit in Lebanon obviously is Ara, which I think the first regulatory round for Ara came into act 1930, something like that, between 1930 and 1932.

Drew Hannush (09:43.363)
Okay. And so describe that drink for us. What is Eric and how is it made?

Roy Riachi (09:50.762)
Alright, so Arak is mainly wine based, so we are fermenting grapes and it's usually triple distilled. The first distillation run is the stripping run, then the second distillation run is the spirit run, and on the third distillation run we add aniseed to the grape alcohol and we go for another spirit run. So in essence it has to be

batch distilled in copper stills, it has to be distilled from wine. And on the third distillation run, it has to be distilled with aniseed. Even though in other countries, they don't have this regulation when it comes to Iraq. Iraq, for example, in Iraq, in Baghdad, it's different. Mainly, they distill it from sugar, either sugar cane or dates or

figs and it doesn't have to have anise in it because the term Arak in itself means sweat so when you're distilling the vapor is rising and the still is technically sweating and this was one of the earliest terms for distilled spirits that basically even predate the eighth century so it's one of those early terms for distilled spirits so that's why it started off as a generic term and in the Levant region

in particular, especially in Lebanon, it became known as being distilled with aniseed. And the earliest record was for a Persian polymath called Al -Razi, which was during the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century. While he was visiting the Levant, mainly Lebanon and Syria, he saw or he recorded in his diaries that in the Levant, they distill it, they distill araq with aniseed. So the earliest record of

Ara, as we know it, dates back roughly 1200 years.

Drew Hannush (11:53.027)
Okay, and is this a social drink or is this something that you eat with meals or what is kind of the culture around it?

Roy Riachi (11:58.442)
So yes, it's an aperitif, so it's usually drank with meals. And it's mixed one part araq and two parts water. And the main reason why when we mix it is that when you water it down with aniseed, aniseed is quite oily. So it becomes cloudy white. And secondly, the aroma becomes very refreshing. Now, most people think that aniseed tastes like licorice.

It doesn't it has some licoricey notes when when you're tasting it, but on the nose, it's very herbal Very very different. It's actually one of the ways of how you can tell if an araq is proper is it's a proper araq or it's fake because even with araq you have Fakes fake stuff where basically they infuse vodka with essential oil to mimic the the the cloudiness of araq

But the taste is quite different. Now most people can't do the distinction because they don't know the distinction between aniseed and black licorice. Because the fake stuff smells like black licorice.

Drew Hannush (13:08.723)
Okay. okay. Nice. So should we be changing our tasting notes when we kind of give that as a tasting note when we actually mean black licorice? Yeah, that they are very distinctly different.

Roy Riachi (13:19.082)
Yes? Well, you should try this experiment. Get some anise and compare it with like black licorice candy. They smell nothing alike.

Drew Hannush (13:31.043)
Wow, okay. That's good to know, good to know. So this is the spirit that you and your family started distilling first, as I understand it. And so, first of all, how long has your family been in the winemaking business? And I also understand that there are branches of your family that are actually running separate wineries as well.

Roy Riachi (13:42.986)
Correct.

Roy Riachi (13:59.722)
Correct. So we've been in the wine and spirits business for 180 something years. So eight generations back and like any family business when you have the successions from one generation to the next, they open, like they spit up, open different wineries, distilleries, some close down, some continue.

Drew Hannush (14:10.051)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (14:28.874)
And currently there are two. There is ours and there is another distillery that mainly focuses on neutral spirits.

Drew Hannush (14:38.723)
Okay. So they're making it for industrial use or is it?

Roy Riachi (14:43.882)
Mainly, yes, they're the largest supplier for ethyl alcohol for hospitals in Lebanon. And also they sell neutral spirits to other distilleries.

Drew Hannush (14:51.555)
Okay.

Drew Hannush (14:57.891)
And so what prompted you and when did you get into distilling whiskey?

Roy Riachi (15:05.866)
Well, I started getting into whiskey in the late 2000s, around 2008, 2009, and I started reading up about whiskey then. And I saw that the still that is mainly being used for malt whiskeys in particular, the Copper Pot Gooseneck still, is extremely similar to the still that we are using for Adel.

and the still that we are using for Ara isn't a traditional Ara still it's more of an Armaniak still even though it doesn't have any plates in it because my grandfather bought it used from France I think in the 60s or early 70s and he has been doing Ara on it since then so I saw this

Drew Hannush (15:58.435)
Okay.

Roy Riachi (16:03.882)
So I thought to myself, since I already have distilled and we also do liqueurs, so we have some jacketed mixing tanks. So with minor modifications, I was able to use them as mash tins. So that's where basically I got my main drive to experiment with malt whiskey. Aside on top of that, I would be the first whiskey distillery.

Drew Hannush (16:19.235)
Okay.

Roy Riachi (16:32.266)
to do whiskey from grain to glass in Lebanon.

Drew Hannush (16:35.875)
Very nice, very nice. So when you go about getting grain for this, are you sourcing from local farms or Lebanon in particular?

Roy Riachi (16:48.298)
Yes, so we, I started off primarily with malts, imported malts. I started off experimenting with malts from breweries. And then after I got the largest chunk of the trial and error down, then I started thinking of what styles of whiskey I wanted to produce. So the primary whiskey that I wanted to make was one that might reflect the Lebanese terroir. Now I know...

The term terroir is a bit frowned upon in the whisky community for various reasons and mainly because the process is quite long and you have the flavor profiles are from vastly different parts of the process, mainly the wood and usually the wood isn't incorporated when it comes to the terroir. So, but with the first whisky,

I decided that I wanted to use both local barley from the Bekaa Valley and I wanted to use local wood, mainly Lebanese oak, Quercus libani. So there were obviously some challenges. The first is that I had to experiment with floor malting, which is the basic way to malt. And then we sun -dried the malt. So...

Basically, we borrowed from the ancient method of malting. I don't know if your listeners know, but malt was a food source. Before it was being used for beer and whiskey. And it dates back to the Neolithic period. Basically, someone discovered by accident malt. Probably his crop or her crop caught some humidity. They germinated.

And in order for them not to waste their harvest, they just dried them. But after drying them, they tried them out and they saw that they were able to eat them. They became soft. So it was a food source because you didn't need to cook the grains. That's why malt existed back in the day. So we do sun drying for the local malt. And then we...

Drew Hannush (19:01.315)
Right.

Roy Riachi (19:13.866)
after the fermentation so the wash is fairly fruity because the temperature that you're kilning at is fairly low, it's sun drying. We double distill it and the aging part we borrowed from the araq aging tradition. So araq is usually rested in clay amphoras for usually a few months up to a few years in order to

Drew Hannush (19:21.347)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (19:42.282)
for it to oxidize a bit, have the esters, you know, infuse with the alcohol and all that stuff. And also, most spirits historically weren't properly distilled, weren't properly cut. So probably they discovered by practice that if you let the spirit rest for a period of time, it becomes less toxic because...

As everyone knows, when you're distilling, distillation is a chemical process. So if you don't do proper distillation cuts, and you don't have proper thermometers on the still and all that stuff, you can have a toxic spirit. So probably that's why they were resting it. And it's a very ancient tradition. It's been around for, I don't know how long, but it's been around for a while. Probably since the inception of

or discovery of distillation in the region, because the main vessel that is used for storage in that region are claimed for us, whether it was for traditional wines or spirits. And this solved a major hurdle for me because local forestries are protected by law from basically cutting them down.

Drew Hannush (20:50.883)
Okay.

Roy Riachi (21:09.258)
So the main setback is that I cannot cut down local oak. And secondly, the last cooper in Lebanon died in the 80s. So we don't have local cooperages. So what we do is we just prune local. We get permit from the municipality. We just prune local oak. We debark them.

Drew Hannush (21:16.003)
Mm -hmm.

Drew Hannush (21:21.859)
Wow.

Roy Riachi (21:37.866)
We cure them and then we place them in the amphora with the whiskey. So in a sense, it's even the aging method is quite Lebanese. And the flavor profile is very contextualized to Lebanon because Lebanese oak is very distinctive in terms of flavor profile and taste. And even it imparts more color versus French oak or European oak or even American oak.

Drew Hannush (22:06.275)
This is what we don't really think of when we think about an area that doesn't have a whiskey distilling tradition. And if you're going to be the first, you, you, where are you getting your barrels from? Where, where are you getting your malted barley from? All of these things are concepts where you kind of shocked when you first jumped into this about how much you were actually going to have to supply your own source to, to be able to create a Lebanese, a true Lebanese whiskey.

Roy Riachi (22:35.306)
Well, exactly, and if you wanted to do a terroir whisky, this is one of our whiskeys, which is called Athir. So we have another whisky, which is the Vanthites. Basically, we're experimenting with different whisky styles. So we don't have as much barriers when it comes to the raw materials. So we can source the grains from all over the world and we can use barrels from all over the world.

We do use American oak barrels, we use European oak barrels, we use barrels that have been used in our winery as well. So it opens up a whole new world when you don't restrict yourself.

Drew Hannush (23:13.763)
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. But I have seen moonshiner techniques where what they'll do is they'll basically get even a plastic bin to put the liquid into, and then they'll put wood into the liquid.

with the idea of doing the aging that way and that opens up such a huge possibility in terms of what types of wood you can use because the reason everybody's using oak because oak isn't gonna leak whereas in Japan the Mizunara oak that has leaking issues and there's a lot of different wood types that would be fascinating to try in whiskey.

Roy Riachi (23:45.13)
100 %

Drew Hannush (24:02.115)
and yet we're kind of held back from it only because they're not great vessels and the rules here say that you have to store it in a vessel even if for just a moment but it has to sit sometime in a barrel.

Roy Riachi (24:16.618)
Certain styles, not all whiskeys.

Drew Hannush (24:20.387)
Yeah, so when you're doing this, yeah, so you don't have any rules. I think that's the other fun advantage for you in terms of what you're doing. Does that feel liberating in terms of what you're doing?

Roy Riachi (24:21.386)
Mainly...

Roy Riachi (24:35.338)
Both is a double -edged sword. So, well, you know, whomever sets the rules usually is the established industry. So we don't have an established whiskey industry. So once that is established, we can put some guidelines and rules. And, you know, even though we do have a big drinking culture in Lebanon and everyone drinks basically everything, we drink cara.

Whiskey is a big thing in Lebanon, but most people drink with whiskey and in particular blended scotch. But whiskey appreciation and the knowledge behind it isn't that established yet here. You do have some small circles, but still it's not as big as, let's say, in certain metropolitan areas in the US. So what I'm doing now is that I run educational programs.

Either we do workshops at the distillery or I'm even working on larger format courses when it comes to whiskey. So I want to introduce people into basically everything that is whiskey related. So developing those requires quite a bit of research. And so I'll give you an example. Today I was...

trying to figure out when was the pivotal point when they basically stopped using ushkaba or ushkaba and started using whiskey. For example, this is one of those areas where it becomes very murky. And when you start digging into different things like this, you will see that the rules and regulations are fairly very recent.

Drew Hannush (26:10.435)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (26:28.586)
So I went into the website of the British Parliament where basically everything is documented since the 1500s. And I just typed in whiskey in order to at least have a written source. So the oldest regulation in the UK that is related to whiskey, guess which year?

Drew Hannush (26:29.219)
Yeah.

Drew Hannush (26:51.683)
Probably in the 1800s.

Roy Riachi (26:56.522)
1988, the first time the government decided to regulate whiskey in the UK.

Drew Hannush (26:59.683)
Wow.

Drew Hannush (27:05.763)
That's crazy. Well, I mean, in my research, I have pulled back to,

Roy Riachi (27:08.106)
So the Bottled and Bond Act predates that by almost 100 years.

Drew Hannush (27:14.883)
Yeah, absolutely. Well, and in my research, I found that really the term whiskey wasn't used until I think the first mention was 1715 that's been found to this point. But the spelling is all over the road. So as a researcher, that's the other part of the problem is when you're searching in the database in those early years, it could have been spelled many different ways, although...

To the Scotts' credit, they have always stuck with spelling it since probably the early 1700s without an E, so that makes it a little bit easier.

Roy Riachi (27:51.306)
So.

Yeah, my hypothesis is that I think whiskey is probably not true. I didn't finish my research, but I think it's probably an American term that has been brought back into basically the UK because even as recent as, you know, 1910, I was looking into customs regulations and duties like the bills that have been passed by the British government.

There was no mention of whiskey. They used to use Aquavita or Uskeba. It wasn't whiskey. So probably it's a term that has been developed by the market and then it was adopted by the industry itself. This is most likely what happened.

Drew Hannush (28:30.179)
Mmm, yeah.

Drew Hannush (28:41.411)
Well, you, yeah, this is the fun of research and it's, and of course we'll not ever really probably know the definitive answer, but at least we can sort of get into the neighborhood. So if somebody is visiting the area and they come to do a workshop, do you do tours of the distillery as well?

Roy Riachi (28:51.722)
100 %

Roy Riachi (29:04.426)
Well, I haven't started to open it. So I do it to certain groups. I don't do it fairly often because I'm not set up for distillery visits yet. But yes, that's the plan. We're planning on opening up even the...

Drew Hannush (29:18.403)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (29:26.73)
facility all in its entirety for visitors, but mainly when we get we receive visitors they go into our cellar mainly and we do the workshop there and sometimes if we have larger format workshops or Let's say courses we can do them in the capital Beirut in like usually hotels and stuff like that

Drew Hannush (29:49.027)
Very nice, very nice. Well, let's kind of shift directions here and jump back in a little bit more detail on some of the things we've talked about. One thing I'm kind of interested in, because your family's been involved in the wine industry so long, what type of wines are usually developed in Lebanon?

Roy Riachi (30:13.098)
So we have two main traditional wines in Lebanon. One was fairly extinct. I revived that style commercially at least it was extinct. So you could go to villages and you could find it. It's called Faqsh. F -A -Q -C -H.

So this is a traditional wine, I'll describe it in a bit, and we have another traditional sweet wine. So this is the dry one, and we have another sweet wine. But most of the wine that is produced in Lebanon is mainly dry wines, similar to those that you find in Europe and in France. The grapes that we cultivate here, even though we do have indigenous varieties,

We do have a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, we have a lot of Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, you know, the top grapes that people, you know, demand. So the bulk of the wine that is produced in Lebanon currently is classical white and red wines. Whereas for the traditional wines, I will describe how they are usually different. So...

Drew Hannush (31:19.363)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (31:33.546)
Throughout history, most of the wines were quite foreign from the idea of the wines that we know right now, which is, you know, your Cabernets and Syrahs and whatnot. Most wines were actually sweet. They had some residual sugar in it in order to preserve it because, you know, wine is quite oxidizable and the residual sugar usually acts as a preservative, of course, in synergy with

Drew Hannush (31:54.819)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (32:01.034)
the alcohol content in it so it oxidizes slightly slower versus traditional wine so in Lebanon the traditional styles are cooked pre -fermentation so the grape must is boiled before it's fermented with the f 'esh, the dry style as it comes to a simmer so f 'esh means to basically pop so as it simmers it's removed off the heat the water

content is reduced a bit, but you have a fairly pasteurized, you know, juice, then when it cools down, they crush some fresh grapes on top and they let it ferment completely. So that's why it's dry. So it's mellow in acidity. It's not very acidic. It's not tannic. And also the microbiology is fairly stable because you don't have a lot of bacteria.

So it doesn't oxidize as fast as classical wines. Because we always have to think of when it comes to history, the vessels that were used, they were using amphoras. They were using, so there were aside from, so glass is fairly recent. Before that, they were also using something called, in Arabic they call it Darf, which is basically.

a bag made from sheepskin and goatskin.

Drew Hannush (33:29.571)
Hmm.

Roy Riachi (33:30.538)
So it's not that easy to preserve a wine in a vessel like that. The other style is a sweet wine. So basically the water content is reduced from 30 to 50 percent depending on how sweet you want it to be. And when it cools down, we crush fresh grapes on top of it and we allow wild yeast to ferment it. So usually the yeast will die off between 15 and

17 percent and hence you have residual sugar. So those are the methods of how traditional wines were made here in Lebanon.

Drew Hannush (34:13.059)
Okay, and I get a vision of a wine cellar having grown up in the United States of barrels and even the French tradition, but these clay amphoras, how big are they, first of all, and do they come in a variety of sizes for different reasons?

and I mean, are they, just all sitting open air or are they, capped somehow?

Roy Riachi (34:46.634)
So they're usually closed with leather. So usually with some sort of hide. And the sizes usually vary. So they can be as small as a few liters and as large as 200 liters. At least the amphoras that are made in Lebanon, traditionally. I'm not talking about more modern amphoras that are now being made in professional...

Drew Hannush (35:07.455)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (35:15.786)
I'm for making factories, I guess.

Drew Hannush (35:21.763)
Yeah, so I mean, but does it, I'm thinking of these different sizes and of course with barrels, we're trying to get wood contact and that will create a smaller barrel is gonna create a faster aging process. Is there any kind of an impact that these sizes have in terms of how they affect the wine?

Roy Riachi (35:45.13)
So obviously, most people think that the amphora doesn't impart flavor, but the idea is that it is a porous vessel, so it imparts some earthiness onto the wine, and it allows for oxidation. So usually, the amphoras that are currently in use aren't the traditional amphoras that were in use back in the day, because you want it to be as airtight as possible in order not to ruin the wine.

whereas the traditional amphoras are still in use in the Araq industry.

because you know, spirits aren't as oxidizable as wine.

Drew Hannush (36:20.099)
Okay.

Drew Hannush (36:25.507)
Right, right. Well, the other question would be on the climate that you have and its effect on wine. It stays fairly cool. And this is just my lack of knowledge on how wine is aged. Do you want temperature variation or do you want it to stay pretty consistent?

Roy Riachi (36:49.29)
Wine is very different than spirits. So in spirits you want temperature variations for the spirit to go in and out but wine has to be treated similar to foods. So that's why you usually have a wine fridge. But unlike food you don't want the temperature to be too cold because you want it to mature a bit, you know, or slowly the pace of maturation to be slow in order not to overcook the wine because think of

Drew Hannush (37:11.875)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (37:19.114)
So basically bottle aging for wine is kind of like slow cooking the wine until it reaches its peak maturity. So when you sell a wine, it's not only for it to appreciate in value, but also you want it to reach peak maturity for consumption. So most aged wine or vintage wine collectors collect for the resale value.

but in essence it has to be consumed because when it passes its peak it will either it becomes like a lottery ticket you might have a good bottle and you might have a ruined bottle irrelevant of your storage conditions because you know the microbiology in the wine has changed so much that eventually it's going to spoil you know that's why most foods have an expiration date wines have

Drew Hannush (37:57.219)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (38:15.85)
don't have an expiration date because probably you're not going to get poisoned. The worst that could happen probably would be that the wine became a vinegar, you know. So the idea is that and there are different, so the parameters are quite different because if you're storing them in fairly warm conditions, it's going to accelerate the aging. If it's fairly cool, it's going to be slow aging.

Drew Hannush (38:26.947)
Right.

Roy Riachi (38:45.802)
So that's why I guess wine storage is incorporated in wine culture a lot and they educate people a lot about wine culture because most people know that wine has to be matured for a certain period of time whereas with whiskeys for example, most people think that whisky doesn't go bad. So they just store it wherever.

which is also not the case. You have to store it away from direct sunlight. You have to keep the bottle completely closed. Don't keep those bottles that have like 10 % for a few years, you know?

Drew Hannush (39:14.627)
Yeah.

Drew Hannush (39:26.627)
Yeah, yeah, it's not as delicate probably as a wine, but it definitely will oxidize and change character in the bottle, yeah. So this idea of now we shift into spirits and we're talking about Erich and how it is aging in these vessels, does it need to have the wood?

Roy Riachi (39:36.234)
Definitely not.

Drew Hannush (39:55.203)
placed in it to really affect it or is it is it it's done without that.

Roy Riachi (39:59.37)
No.

Roy Riachi (40:04.202)
without the oak. So the idea of mainly it's it's mellows out the spirit and if there were some trace volatile compounds in the arach the idea is to have them evaporate. So you want to mellow out the spirit you want it to slightly oxidize. Now there are some aged arach usually no more than five years.

Drew Hannush (40:22.083)
Okay.

Roy Riachi (40:31.306)
because the more it oxidizes, the more it becomes savory and less fresh, you know? It goes towards more of an anise tea versus fresh anise. And when you're consuming something which is paired with food, with Mediterranean food in particular, you want this freshness. So usually the sweet spot is between six months and five years.

Drew Hannush (40:40.483)
Mm.

Roy Riachi (40:59.914)
Beyond that, you do have RX that have been aged for a long time, but those are novelty items, you know?

Drew Hannush (41:06.851)
Yeah. We talk about terroir and you mentioned, I love the term terroir and I love what's going on now here in the United States, what's going on at Waterford in Ireland where they're doing barley experiments and they're basically distilling barley from different parts of the island to and putting them under a control situation so that you can see.

how the earth impacts and the air impacts a barley and brings a different flavor even to the same strain of barley. And in the United States, they're doing work with corn and we're getting different varietals of corn, we're growing it in different regions and you're picking up all of these really interesting flavors and...

One of the things I heard an interview with you and I thought this was really telling is this idea that you have to be careful with terroir and wood because you can, the wood can, if it sits in there for too long, it can actually take away some of that characteristic terroir that you're trying to get from the spirit. Are you finding?

in terms of your aging of your whiskeys there, that there is a good point in terms of years for it to sit in a vessel.

Roy Riachi (42:38.25)
So if we're talking about athir, in particular our terroir whiskey, I think the sweet spot is usually between six and ten years. Ten years would be leaning on almost over -oaked, like the maximum that you could get with the wood because it starts to become a bit bitter, you know, especially at gas strength. Once you dilute it a bit, it's no longer bitter.

But the idea is that if you want to retain some of the malt characteristics, then yes, you don't want the oak to be overpowering. So if I were to describe the new make for Athir, when you're smelling it, even though it has no oak, if it's a new make, completely clear, it smells like salted caramels.

Drew Hannush (43:33.443)
Mm -hmm. Yeah.

Roy Riachi (43:36.874)
So it's very distinct. So yes, you do get a lot of those. So it does have a distinct flavor profile. And honestly, I'm thinking of doing a new make release, just releasing the new make because it is that good in itself or a very young whiskey. You know?

Drew Hannush (43:37.347)
Wow.

Drew Hannush (43:41.379)
You've got me already.

Heheheheh

Roy Riachi (44:04.042)
in order to show the malt character quite well because when you compare it with other malt whiskeys especially like in Scotland most people think that it's quite a diverse flavor profile and it is you do have a very large spectrum from unpeated to heavily peated but even in the unpeated the whiskies you do have some medicinal notes which are reminiscent

of peat. It might be from the terroir or from the distills that they are using. I'm not exactly certain where the aroma is coming from. But you do get it. So it would be a nice comparison to showcase different terroirs and how the flavor of the grain or the distillate is prior to aging.

Drew Hannush (45:03.331)
Yeah, it's a...

Roy Riachi (45:03.818)
Also with American whiskeys as well. I think I bought once a collection of new makes like bourbon mash, rye, corn, four or five different expressions. And you can see the, it was a very nice idea. I really liked it. You can see the variation and the difference between the different grains and grain blends.

And they're all Numix.

Drew Hannush (45:35.011)
Yeah, and that's an eye opener for me. When I went to Scotland, I got a chance to taste Newmake at Glenn's Scotia Distillery. And I already liked their whiskies, but then I tasted the Newmake and it was so fruity. It tasted like it would come from Speyside. It just had all these really nice fruit notes to it. And part of me thought, boy, you could really ruin this by putting it into a barrel. And so when I tried their 15,

Roy Riachi (46:02.538)
Hahaha

Drew Hannush (46:03.939)
I tried their 15 year and I thought, this is really not going to impress me, but it did. And it retained enough of that early Newmake flavor that I so enjoyed. But then it also pulled in the nice, it kind of mellowed it out and took brought in some of the barrel characteristics as well. So there really is a science in.

Roy Riachi (46:27.082)
That brings into question the condition of the barrel as well.

Drew Hannush (46:31.587)
Yeah, absolutely. How you, I mean, how long is it in the first fill barrel, second fill barrel? What types of barrels are they using? but it seems like you would want to, if you are making a distillate that's that good, you're going to want probably less impact from that wood. So if you're, in doing your technique of.

basically putting them in the clay amphora and then putting the wood into that vessel. How much wood do you put in and in your treating of it, is there something that you're doing that will maybe help hold on to that new make characteristic as it ages?

Roy Riachi (47:16.97)
So the idea is that if you want to retain more of the new make, you have to put less. So we experiment with how much. So we have plenty of amphoras to experiment with. So we don't put the same ratio of oak to new make in all of them. Even though the main styles that we think reflect the brand and its character, we have that pinned down.

but we are still experimenting with different ratios and still we're in our first decade of maturation, so still a fairly young whiskey. So that's, but I think if we want to retain more of the, of the, the new make and have the expression of the oak also quite present, I think around six years is quite nice.

Drew Hannush (48:10.019)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (48:14.986)
which is basically the age of the whiskeys that we have in the US. So we have two different expressions, one in New York and one which is available all over the US that is aged with Lebanese oak. Their age is around six years and they do still show the spirits character.

Drew Hannush (48:28.931)
Mm -hmm.

Drew Hannush (48:36.675)
Are you also distributing through Europe as well?

Roy Riachi (48:41.386)
In Europe we are available in a couple of countries. We haven't distributed quite much yet. We are available in Norway and we are available in Italy as well.

Drew Hannush (48:52.259)
Okay, okay. And you actually, and would that be your single malt or is that also the experimental line that you're doing?

Roy Riachi (49:00.33)
So those are our single malts and with aether we also have a double aged expression aged with Lebanese oak and finished with cedar wood. Cedar wood is quite interesting and tricky to work with. It's a very, very potent wood.

Drew Hannush (49:10.435)
Okay.

Drew Hannush (49:14.979)
Yeah, what kind of flavors, what kind of flavors do you kind of pull in through Cedarwood? Because we haven't worked with that much.

Roy Riachi (49:20.074)
So cedarwood... So the flavor profile is quite usually fresh and spicy. So you do get a lot of baking spices. So cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, licorice root, and some curing spices like black pepper and even green peppers. It's quite a spicy flavor profile. Obviously you do get a lot of cigar box aromas because...

Drew Hannush (49:30.883)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (49:49.161)
of the cedar. It's a very bold whiskey, so it's a very intense whiskey. I think the closest whiskey that I've tasted similar to our cedarwood whiskey would be the 291 Distilleries Rye Whiskey that also has Aspen Staves in the barrel.

Drew Hannush (50:14.499)
Very nice. One of my favorite distilleries you're talking about there.

Drew Hannush (50:21.027)
So,

Roy Riachi (50:22.282)
So this might give you an idea of the cedarwood, but it's still quite a distinctive flavor profile. And we do have a cedarwood Finnish release available in the US.

Drew Hannush (50:38.147)
Very nice, very nice. We got a little delay here going on. So it's, I think you're starting to notice that on your end as well. But let's talk about some of your experiments in terms of this experimental line. What are you trying out there?

Roy Riachi (50:44.682)
Yes.

Yeah.

Roy Riachi (50:59.946)
So I've experimented with a few Scottish styles, basically lightly peated and heavily peated. I've experimented with stout, basically black beer. I've experimented with the Irish style of the botstil whiskies. And I've experimented with the corn mash build. So basically the corn is inspired by bourbon, but it's 100 %

corn So I guess I'll start describing the first whiskey, which is the the malted mace so the idea behind that whiskey is that It's made from 100 % corn the corn is sourced from Lebanon from the southern part of the valley which which which is called Marja Ion and It's double H

So it's aged for three years with American oak barrels. And then we age it in Cabernet Sauvignon casks, which adds a layer of fruitiness and like dried fruit notes. So it's quite the intense and woody, woody and fruity whiskey. It's a very nice whiskey. It's kind of like bridging or a hybrid between the...

the Scottish -Irish method of finishing whiskeys in different barrels and the American tradition of using corn. The other whiskeys, the stout whiskeys are actually quite interesting and they receive, I guess, the most surprised facial expressions because they're very nutty and toasty. You know, stouts are known for their nuttiness and toastiness.

Drew Hannush (52:36.227)
Nice.

Roy Riachi (52:56.65)
So on the nose you get plenty of peanuts, pecans, sesame. But on the palate you get a lot of dark chocolate notes, a lot of roasted coffee beans. And we do have two different expressions of the dark malt, one of which is available in the US and the cask strength is still for now available only in Lebanon. With the Italian, with the Irish style,

We have two different expressions. The first expression, instead of having a mash bill of 50 % malt and 50 % unmalted grain, it's basically 60 % malt and 40 % wheat, which makes it quite the floral whiskey. The exact same whiskey, we've double aged it in American oak and finished it in an Italian cask, which adds a layer of woodiness and

Drew Hannush (53:46.627)
Mm -hmm.

Roy Riachi (53:56.682)
yellow fruits to it. The first expression that is not double -aged is available in the US.

and when it comes to the Scottish style, the lightly peated whiskey is actually blended with a bit of our cedarwood whiskey. So you get some of the smoky notes that are reminiscent of scotch, but also you get those very distinctive Lebanese notes of cedar basically.

And we have two other heavily -peated whiskeys. One of them is called Black Peak Bonfires and the other is called Scorched Earth. So they're very, very smoky whiskies. So the idea is that they're inspired by Isla Scotch, but we've infused our influence into it by having them more leaning towards the smoky side versus the...

Drew Hannush (54:46.467)
Wow.

Roy Riachi (55:05.098)
briny medicinal side which is very dominant and prevalent in Isla Malts.

Drew Hannush (55:12.419)
So where do you end up getting your peat from for that?

Roy Riachi (55:16.906)
So we do import some peated malt from the UK, but we also cold smoke the mash tun with Lebanese peat. In the Bekaa Valley, there is a part of it called Ammi, which is basically swamps and wetlands. So we get some peat moss from there to cold smoke the mash tun, not for the peat. The peat is just bought already.

the maltes but already peated.

Drew Hannush (55:51.683)
It sounds like you have such a diversity of different things that you have at your fingertips now that you could get into blending of these different styles and come up with some really interesting whiskies.

Roy Riachi (56:07.818)
So part of our workshop is exactly that. So by the end of the session, which is around three hours, people get to blend their own whiskey using our, the whiskeys that are available for like retail and some barrel picks that aren't commercialized. So yes, there is like a whole world of experimentation and exploration.

Drew Hannush (56:35.907)
Very nice, very nice. Well, if people want to learn more about your distillery and winery and really dig in a bit more and maybe search for some bottles to try, how can they keep up with you?

Roy Riachi (56:52.746)
So they can either check out our Instagram at riashi .com or they can check out our websites. Our online store is shopriashi .com and our official website is riashi .com

Drew Hannush (57:17.059)
Fantastic. Well, Roy, it has been a great pleasure talking to you and learning a bit more about Lebanese whiskey, a category that you are developing yourself, which has got to be a lot of fun and creating a legacy for the country, which is fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Roy Riachi (57:33.002)
Thank you very much.

Roy Riachi (57:37.322)
Thank you, Drew.

Closing Details

As we close out the interview with Roy, if the information provided, piques your interest, then just head to Whiskey-Lore.com/flights and click on the Riachi link for more information about the distillery, to get its social media links, and to add it to your Wish List of distilleries. 

In just a few moments, I’ll have some closing travel tips if you plan on visiting Riachi, but first, it’s time for The Week in Whiskey Lore. 

This Week in Whiskey Lore

A huge congratulations Hunter Laing and the staff at the Ardnahoe Distillery on Islay. On May 10th, the announced the release of their very first age stated whisky - sitting at 50% abv, and aged in Oloroso and Ex-Bourbon casks for 5 years.

If you’re expecting some of that famous Islay smoke in this whisky from this, the youngest distillery on the island, you would be correct. The barley comes from nearby Port Ellen Maltings. And while you might suspect this whisky will have the medicinal notes found in some Islay whiskies, Ardnahoe sits on the Sound of Islay along with its neighbors Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, who don’t tend to have that medicinal note. 

What what will set this whisky apart? Well, visitors to the distillery will note two things not present at other Islay distilleries. First are the worm tubs, the only ones on the island. Worm tubs tend to create a heavier, oilier, but also a cleaner spirit than those run through standard condensers. This is thanks to the extended time the spirit spends with copper contact. Add to this the extra long copper lyne arms on the stills that pull even more impurities out, and you might find this 5 year whisky to be more devoid of youth than you might expect. Look for the streamlined bottle with the black and gold labels. It retails at 70p per bottle. 

The Wrap Up

As we prepare to leave for our next destination, I wanted to give you three reasons why I put the Riachi distillery on my Whiskey Lore Wish List. 

  • Hearing Roy’s passion for spirits and his focus on creating uniquely Lebanese flavors has made my palate curious. I’m definitely keeping my eyes out for bottles of his Athyr single malt and those experimental whiskies.
  • Second, I’ve never traveled in the Middle East. And my trip to Prague in the Czech Republic was an eye opener to places that don’t necessarily remind you of home, or the places in Europe you’ve seen in pictures all your life. There is a different vibe. And meeting someone welcoming like Roy only makes me more interested in getting to know the region's food, spirits, people and culture.
  • I’ll definitely keep my eye out for Roy’s workshops. He mentioned he might take them into Beirut, which would mean less need to get a car hire, but then, I would miss the mountains, so there is that.

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. It’s time to reach for the clouds and make our way from Beirut to Edinburgh, Scotland for our next round of distilleries. Join me there a week from Monday. And to guarantee your seat, make sure you’re subscribed to the Whiskey Lore podcast. Until we meet again, cheers and Slainte mhath. 

For transcripts and travel information including maps, distillery planning information and more, head to whiskey-lore.com/flights 

About Riachi Winery & Distillery

Roy Riachi, an eighth-generation Lebanese distiller and winemaker, is transforming his family's long-standing tradition into the world of whisky at Riachi Winery and Distillery. Building on his extensive experience in distilling Lebanon's national spirit, Araq, Roy uses local barley and Lebanese oak to craft whiskies that embody the unique terroir of Lebanon. His innovative approach includes experimenting with various styles, such as malted corn, Irish-style, and peated whiskies. Committed to education, Riachi offers blending workshops and courses to share his knowledge and passion for whisky.

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