In Jerusalem’s shuk, a brainiac distillery rethinks spirit-making

Thinkers Distillery in the Mahane Yehuda market plans to make everything from vodka and gin to rum, bourbon and tequila — just better

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The Thinkers Distillery still and visitors center in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Thinkers)
The Thinkers Distillery still and visitors center in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Thinkers)

Once upon a time, distilleries focused on a single kind of spirit, often using a recipe passed down through the generations. So you’re unlikely to find Absolut tequila, or gin made by Jim Beam, in liquor stores anytime soon.

But in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Thinkers Distillery is turning that tradition on its head. Unencumbered by hallowed family recipes, the distillers are rolling out an array of liquor choices to quench the thirst of pretty much any kind of tippler.

Thinkers started with two vodkas as well as two kinds of gin, one a classic London dry gin and the other distilled with rose petals and strawberries. Now, there’s bourbon, too, and whiskey on the way, followed by rum and even tequila.

“As far as I know, we’re the only distillery in Israel that is creating spirits across the board like this,” said master distiller Bennett Kaplan. Kaplan’s wife, Yael Kaplan, co-founded Thinkers with Avi Ingber. Both are co-CEOs.

The drinks come in show-stopping glass-carved bottles, several of which have won design awards. The spirits themselves have also won plaudits.

The distillery opened in October 2021 with $5 million in seed money from private investors.

A handsome copper still and wood barrels are housed at Thinkers’ urban distillery site on Agrippas Street, where a modest glass entranceway opens into the 450-square-meter (4,850-square-foot) distillery and visitors center.

Avi Ingber, Bennett Kaplan, and Yael Kaplan of Thinkers Distillery in Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Thinkers)

Guests can sidle up to the long wooden bar or sit at plank tables, sipping their drinks while peering through the wall-sized glass window at the shiny copper still set against exposed brick and cement.

The distillery also offers group tours, private tours with a Mahane Yehuda-sourced menu, and deep-dive tours for those who want to understand everything there is to know about the process.

But while it’s located in the heart of the shuk, the site doesn’t bring anything particularly Israeli to the Thinkers offerings. Rather, it’s the startup nation attitude that’s behind this set of spirits.

“Israel was just a distilling company waiting to happen because we’re the startup nation and we go into things that are hot,” said Bennett Kaplan.

Thinkers isn’t the first distillery in Jerusalem or Israel. Yerushalmi Distillery produces single malt whiskeys. Hollander, in the Jerusalem Hills, makes alcoholic nectars. Jullius Distillery in the Galilee makes its gin from grapes layered with juniper berries, and there are at least half a dozen other whiskey distilleries around the country.

Thinkers Distillery’s vodka and two gins, part of their line of premier spirits. (Courtesy: Thinkers Distillery)

At Thinkers, it was Kaplan’s wife, Yael, who got the ball rolling, studying with some of Europe’s top gin masters.

Bennett Kaplan, a former New Yorker and self-described autodidact who once owned the CineMax chain of movie theaters in Israel, learned vodka making in Chicago. He called it the hardest spirit to master.

Part of the label of Jerusalem’s Thinkers Distillery bottles includes a quote from Proverbs. (Courtesy: Thinkers)

“Distilling is all about chemistry,” he said. “All the distilleries in the old days were run by farmers. Now they’re run by PhDs.”

As Thinkers brands itself as a premium spirits company, its plan is to take what everybody else knows and figure out how to make it better — or in company parlance, furthering. (They call their spirits “Furthered.”)

“The idea is that Thinkers is going to run in its lane in the spirits industry,” said Bennett Kaplan. “We’ll go into every spirits category that we feel we can be the best.”

The gin is made with a delicate, soft wheat from France that brings a resonant sweetness combined with distilled water.

Jerusalem Dry Gin, served over a slice of blood-red orange with a healthy splash of tonic water and a fistful of ice, is smooth and crisp, with the expected flavor of juniper berries and citrus.

Sunset Gin is sweeter, the flavor of berries and rose petals offering a subtle fruitiness on the tongue.

“These are the hardest recipes in the world to make,” said Kaplan. “Nothing’s harder than making a good gin recipe.”

Thinkers sells directly to consumers, and is available online. Bottles run between NIS 149 ($45) and NIS 185 ($56).

The first delivery is free and includes two free admissions to the distillery’s visitor’s center at 88 Agrippas Street.

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