First came wine, then boutique beers. Now Israelis are all about fermented fruits and the alcoholic beverages produced from their nectar.
Two of those artisanal efforts, Hollander Distillery and HaMatsesa, are located a short drive from one another in the Judean hills, with drinks that are just right for this apple-and-honey time of year.
Seasonal fruits are at the heart of Hollander’s hand-crafted schnaps, from the distillery founded by Roni Hollander, 32, a third-generation distiller.
“It’s schnaps with one ‘p,’ made from the sugar juice,” Hollander likes to say, reminding visitors that these are not the super-sweet schnapps familiar to Americans, but a far more sophisticated and potent drink made from the sugar of the fruit.
Following in the footsteps of her Czech paternal grandfather, whose family owned a winery and distillery in pre-war Czechoslovakia, and then carried on the tradition when he moved to Israel, followed by her father, Hollander is melding Mediterranean fruits in her 40% proof schnaps and lighter liqueurs, all created in a very European tradition.
Schnaps made in the German tradition — where Hollander studied — a clear, 40% proof alcoholic elixir, isn’t for the fainthearted, which is why she’s easing the path with liqueurs, lighter, 17% or 18% alcoholic spirits that are easy on the palate and completely delightful when mixed into cocktails (there are recipes on the Hollander website).
“It’s like a cocktail in a bottle,” said Hollander, who devised the most unusual combinations in order to convince people that this was not your ordinary liqueur. “Just pour the red grapefruit and hops over ice with a slice of orange, it’s like candy. Or I add mint leaves and extra mint to the lemon and ginger.”
This season, the distillery has liqueurs in coconut and pumpkin, (great for a pina colada), lemon and ginger, red grapefruit and hops and Pink Lady apple, passionfruit and rum on the shelf. That’s under the shelf of fig, apple, grape or apple and cinnamon schnaps, the colorless, fruit-infused spirits that pack a punch.
Hollander studied food engineering at Hebrew University, and worked for four years as a winemaker at the Tishbi Winery, all the while experimenting on spirits in her home kitchen, with her father’s encouragement.
She set up the distillery in 2018 with her uncle who is her partner and financial backer, and with help from her father and extended family, who help out bottling the liqueurs at high season or leading tours and tastings.
The distillery is located in Moshav Beit Meir, just up the winding road from Kibbutz Shoresh, and tucked at the end of a road, overlooking the vineyards and villages of the Judean Hills.
It’s easy enough to order the liqueurs and schnaps online in Israel, but an in-person visit offers the option of a guided tour of the distillery, seeing the enormous German machinery collected by Hollander’s father, used to seed, crush and juice the fruit into a pulp — “we make fruit smoothies,” said Hollander — before the fruit sugars are fermented and then distilled in a copper still, separating the alcohol from the fruit in the cooling room that functions as Hollander’s lab.
There are tastings as well at the enormous wooden table inside the distillery, or on the newly constructed porch overlooking the Judean Hills, where drinks and snacks are served most Fridays. Call for reservations.
It’s a 20-minute ride down the road to Givat Yearim, where HaMatsesa, the juicery, collects the apples and pears that farmers can’t sell to supermarkets, and ferments them into alcoholic ciders, fresh juices and sugar-free jams, as well as apple cider vinegar.
“It’s really zero waste,” said Tomer Zur, who founded the cider business. “We’re here to help the farmers, and it offers them some profits that they don’t anticipate having.”
There’s a potent scent of apples in the spacious shed used by HaMatsesa to create and bottle their ciders and juices.
“This is where it gets Gerberized,” said Zur, pointing out stainless steel barrels where the process of mashing, juicing and fermenting the cider takes place. The ciders sit for about four days in stainless steel stills before being pasteurized into 7% alcoholic spirits, with a shorter, fermentation-less process for the juices.
The shed is where Zur, a kibbutznik, has expanded his growing cider business, taking the fruits that farmers toss and turning it into his own version of a think global, act local business.
He first experimented on the ciders in his apartment kitchen, before successfully creating the recipe now used for all their products.
Hamatsesa is located down the road from Kibbutz Tzuba, which supplies much of the Granny Smith and Golden apples from the kibbutz orchards, augmented by a farm in the north that supplies more apples and pears.
Now they produce the popular, apple and pear ciders, a half-sweet cider, juices and apple cider vinegar as well as sugar-free jams, a new product.
“Cider is out there now,” said Zur, who likes to describe alcoholic ciders as a bubbly apple wine that’s reminiscent of champagne. “People like the idea of it, and they may drink it instead of wine or beer.”
Hamatsesa delivers for a fee, with their ciders available for purchase online and at certain liquor stores and fine food stores throughout Israel. They’re happy to have visitors, but ask that you call first.