To help celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, why not try Sabra-made spirit Tubi 60, an Israeli-made alcoholic drink with a secret mix of ingredients that was first made popular by Israeli hipsters.
While this honey-colored libation first became popular with the twentysomething crowd, it’s now going mainstream and will soon be found on liquor shelves in Texas, Brooklyn, Oslo and Berlin.
But don’t ask what’s in it because no one will tell you. They don’t actually know.
What Hilal Tubi — one-half of the Tubi brother pair who created the eponymous drink, named for their family and the 60-some herbs and fruit essences contained inside — will say, is that it’s an 80-proof spirit that packs quite a punch and is fully approved by Israel’s Health Ministry. He won’t say what it is distilled from, although according to one Brooklyn liquor store, the vegan drink is crafted from corn-neutral spirits macerated with lemons, ginger, turmeric, clove, cumin, saffron, anise and mint.
Fans of Tubi 60 like to say that it takes less Tubi 60 to achieve the same effect of other alcoholic drinks. It is incredibly potent, and even a few sips of a Tubi 60 cocktail creates that hazy feeling usually felt after more than one or two hard drinks.
Which may be why this lemony moonshine is not to everyone’s taste.
“The idea was that it would be a drink that would be smooth and easy to drink,” said Tubi. “Most alcoholic drinks don’t taste that good.”
Tubi, 34, with his younger brother, Yanai, 23, created the herbal spirit that is tangibly different from the drinks usually available at most bars and clubs. The brothers said they wanted something better, a spirit with flavor, and so they turned to higher-quality, more natural ingredients.
“We found that most of what you can find on the shelf doesn’t use the best ingredients,” said Tubi. “Most do the minimum, which is something you drink to get drunk.”
The two began working on their secret elixir in their family’s apartment. Neither of the brothers were bartenders or even particularly sophisticated drinkers. Hilal Tubi used to be a vodka and Arak drinker, and initially knew very little about the process of distilling ethanol produced by fermenting grain, fruit or vegetables. His younger brother, Yanai, was just out of the army when they began working together.
They learned about the distilling process, mostly through experimentation, testing their creation repeatedly and consulting with food technologists who readily shared their advice about how to maximize taste and the drink experience.
The Tubis won’t divulge the exact ingredients of their artisanal elixir, except to repeat what’s written on the label — that it is all-natural, gluten-free and vegan, crafted from spirits macerated with various herbs and spices, and intended to leave drinkers without a hangover the morning after.
“It looks weird compared to other drinks; you have to shake it up,” said Hilal Tubi, holding one of the new, individual 280-milliliter bottles. “But once you understand why, you get that it’s a good thing.”
Meanwhile, the Tubis’ friends began drinking it, and sharing it with their friends.
“More and more people started to ask for it,” said Hilal Tubi. who acts as the spokesman for the two brothers’ company. “I would bring it to whoever wanted it.”
From north to south, the Tubi brothers would drive their bottles around the country, corresponding with fans mostly via their active Tubi 60 Facebook page and finding fellow Tubi 60 drinkers in tiny moshav bars or town pubs.
It was actually the bar scene in Jerusalem that was the first to adopt Tubi 60. “People would call and ask bartenders for it,” Tubi said. “They figured out the quality of it, and how it upgrades drinks.”
Not everyone was excited about the mysterious spirit from the start. Haifa bartender Andrey Taki Frenkel said he was “very skeptical” about Tubi 60 when he first heard of it.
He had just come back from a year in Moscow, and all his friends were talking about it, said Taki Frenkel, who also owns Six O’Clock, a bar consulting company. Around the same time, there was a wave of negative publicity and press about the drink, questioning what it contained that it made it so potent.
“When you hear it’s made in some apartment in Haifa, you do get skeptical,” he said, adding that some of the major spirits suppliers in Israel were working against Tubi 60 and its initial success.
Bars stopped serving Tubi 60 for a period, said Taki Frenkel, asking more questions about its ingredients. Around the same time, the Tubi brothers moved out of their apartment distillery, and began producing their mysterious moonshine under proper conditions in a Haifa warehouse, publicizing their Ministry of Health food service license.
“It is 80 proof,” said Taki Frenkel, referring to the measure of alcohol in Tubi 60. “It does contain plenty of alcohol, the same as a shot of whisky [or Arak]. It has plenty of lemon juice too, and you can get lightheaded very quickly because it’s relatively easy to drink.”
That’s probably what made it so popular among the younger crowd that is often looking for drinks that get them drunk, fast.
The Tubis expanded into the Tel Aviv bar scene in 2014, and were selling Tubi 60 throughout Israel by the end of that year.
Jesse Hughs, the Eagles of Death Metal lead singer, was captured swigging some Tubi 60 during his September 2016 performance in Israel. Hughs memorably said that Tubi 60 is “like drinking gasoline, but gasoline that tastes incredibly good.”
The spirit experienced that first, initial wave of success because of good timing, said one Tel Aviv bartender, who preferred to remain anonymous. Taxes were high on imported alcohol at the time, and Tubi 60 was cheap and very available.
“It’s a local spirit,” said Taki Frenkel. “Wherever you go, you want to drink the local drink, and the only other local option is Arak. Tubi 60 is a local spirit. You can love it or not, but you can’t ignore it.”
Part of the charm of the artisanal drink was a certain sense of intimacy, of being the drink popular among young Israelis, known for its very dominant, light lemony flavor that didn’t taste quite like anything else.
“I never had to even introduce myself at bars,” said Hilal Tubi. “People would contact me on Facebook, and say, ‘I’m on vacation up north, where can I find some Tubi?’ And I’d tell them, making sure that the nearest pub or liquor shop had a few bottles.”
Kathryn Loeffler, a Tubi 60 fan and former Deloitte consultant from Austin, Texas, now heads the company’s US operations, through Tex Avivi Importers, working on exporting the spirit into the American market.
She ended up living in Israel on a whim, and stumbled upon Tubi, which became wrapped up in her love for Israel.
“Tubi has this rare and special ability to inspire an ambassadorial attitude in people that centers around sharing and that’s what happened to me,” said Loeffler.
After meeting with Hilal Tubi, Loeffler worked for a year getting the necessary permissions to sell Tubi 60 abroad; Tubi 60 is now sold online in Spec’s, a wine and spirits store and website based in Texas, and is now being sold in Brooklyn, as well.
Americans like it, said Loeffler, and in Austin, where she first imported it, creative bartenders introduced it to the craft cocktail scene, putting it on brunch menus, mixing it with Champagne, making drinks with mezcal and whiskey.
“I always tell people it’s a paintbrush and up to them where they take it,” said Loeffler, who likes to drink Tubi with Topo Chico, a Mexican sparkling water similar to club soda.
Exports to Oslo, Norway, will follow the US launch and then Berlin, home to many expat Israelis who often smuggle bottles of Tubi 60 in their suitcases.
“We got to where we are because of people,” Tubi said. “It’s all because of those people who whispered in bartenders’ ears.”
The fledgling spirit company wants to support the arts and its own patrons with the Tubi Pop Art Gala, an exhibit of local artists creating their own take on Tubi Spring for a Pop Art exhibition to be held in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Aspiring artists should go to the Tubi 60 Facebook page to apply and the opening evening of the event will be on May 18, with free Tubi 60 cocktails to celebrate, and a closing event on May 25.