Sweet drams of whisky flow in the land of milk and honey

As Israel enters the distillery era, a batch of entrepreneurs is creating a new kind of Holy Land spirit

In the beginning there was wine and beer, and then the Holy Land was awash with whisky (and gin and arak and brandy).

It’s taken a few decades for Israelis to get around to distilling single malt whisky. But now a handful of local distilleries are creating their own sabra spirits, suffused with local flavor and aged slightly more quickly in this warmer clime than in Scotland. (Just to clarify, the Scots spell it whisky, while the Irish and Americans spell it whiskey.)

There are currently three boutique distilleries around Israel — Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey, the Golan Heights Distillery in Katzrin in the Golan Heights, and Pelter, also in the Golan Heights — and there are crowdfunding plans to open The Jerusalem Distilling Company, an offshoot of the Golan Heights Distillery.

Another, a “brewstiller”’ in Pardes Hanna, recently announced plans to combine a brewery and distillery in the northern community, although nothing’s being brewed or distilled just yet.

That’s a lot of amber spirits for a country that didn’t have any plans for distilleries just five years ago. But it was the very obvious success of the boutique wine industry and then the microbreweries here that led whisky lovers to take the risk.

Gal Granov, an Israeli whisky blogger and enthusiast, only has good things to say about the advent of local whiskies (Courtesy Gal Granov)

“We’ve got a lot of good boutique breweries and that brings the demand for whiskey, too,” said Gal Granov, a local whisky enthusiast who writes Whisky Israel, a local blog. “People want to buy local and they want whisky with local influences.”

These Israeli spirits are chock full of native flavors.

Milk & Honey’s experimental series has notes of orange, oak and marzipan, said Eitan Atir, the distillery’s CEO. It was created by Tomer Goren, the head distiller, with Dr. Jim Swan, a master distiller and consultant who died last year. Swan had brought his experience from India, another warm country with whisky distilleries, to Tel Aviv.

Milk & Honey also distills New Make, an unaged single malt; Levantine Gin with notes of juniper berries, lemon and hyssop; and four editions in its Cask Series of young single malts.

For the new Jerusalem Distillery, co-owner David Zibell (who also owns the Golan Heights Distillery) distilled gin with angelica root, sumac, olive leaves, citron and almonds, as well as boukha, a Tunisian spirit made from dried figs.

At Pelter, brother winemakers Tal and Nir Pelter partnered with alcohol experts Yossi Boznah and Tal Chotiner, distilling fresh dates in their brandy (and Pink Lady apples in their gin). They have been using the mash from Israeli brewery Alexander to distill their single malt, which just turned three.

Part of the Pelter selection of spirits available from the Golan winery (Courtesy Pelter)

Pelter is a small distillery with a capacity of 20,000 liters and, for now, only minimal whisky production, most of which was pre-sold as part of a crowdfunding project.

“I usually am quite sceptic when it comes to young 3 year old whiskies, as you never know what you’re going to get, and often the liquid is still young and quite rough – clearly not the case here,” wrote Granov about Pelter in his blog.

Just as clearly, it’s an adventure for whisky distillers to make (and drink) these Israeli spirits, and their main drive seems to be simple love of the quaff.

The Milk & Honey distillery in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Milk & Honey, the Tel Aviv distillery and so far the largest of the bunch, was established by six friends in 2013 and began to distill two years later. The six, who say they earned their money in technology startups, invested $1 million in the endeavor.

The distillery includes fermentation tanks with the capacity to produce 700,000 liters a year, or around a million bottles. But for now, they’ll be filling around 200,000 liters a year and will be ready with their single malt in 2019, said Atir.

They also have a visitor’s center, where they offer tours and tastes.

Milk & Honey is the biggest endeavor of all the boutique distilleries, followed by the Golan Heights Distillery, set up in 2014 by Zibell, a Montreal native who moved with his wife and children to Katzrin, thus fulfilling a whole slew of dreams in one fell swoop. Zibell put all his retirement money into the distillery and currently has an inventory worth about NIS 4 million ($1.15 million).

“You have to be a little bit crazy to do this,” he said.

Zibell’s love of whisky came from drinking shots of blended and single malts at kiddush — refreshments served after synagogue services on Shabbat. He decided to make his own after reading a how-to book gifted to him by a friend.

The Golan Heights Distillery currently produces two whiskys: the two-grain Golani, with “a soft gentle spirit that’s just right for beginner drinkers,” said Zibell, and, for the initiated, a single malt that is heavier, with more grain, sweetness and wood.

The array of Golan Heights Distillery’s whiskys (Courtesy Golan Heights Distillery)

He compared local Israeli whiskys to Indian whiskys, saying the hotter weather changes the aging process of the drink.

Zibell is currently selling about 5,000 bottles each month with a capacity of about 54,000 liters in the Golan.

He has also partnered with Lazar Berman, a New Hampshire native who works as a civilian analyst for an IDF think tank and previously wrote for The Times of Israel news desk.

Lazar Berman has a love of all things Scottish, including the bagpipes (Courtesy Lazar Berman)

Berman also wanted to distill whisky, one of his passions and dreams (after studying Gaelic and playing bagpipe during a stint as a visiting undergrad at the University of Glasgow). He and Zibell met and drank — whisky, naturally — and eventually talked about opening a larger distillery in Jerusalem, Berman’s adopted hometown.

The capital, he said, is as logical a place as any to offer a new whisky — one that will be true to the city, including its water, air and humidity.

“There’s demand for this all over the world,” said Berman. “Not just from Scotland, but from all over the world — Oregon, Japan. People always want something new and interesting. Whisky has taken off, and people have started looking elsewhere for the next quality thing.”

The two partners have reached the goal of their crowdfunding project and think they’ll be able to sell 200 barrels locally, with a planned capacity of 150,000 liters, in Jerusalem.

“The demand abroad is just so big,” said Zibell. “Whatever we can’t sell here, we can sell there.”

Lazar Berman (left) and David Zibell describe the crowdfunding process of their Jerusalem Distillery on Headstart (Courtesy Headstart)

They need another NIS 6 million ($1.7 million) to get the Jerusalem distillery up and running, and plan to obtain a government loan, sell 25 percent of the company for NIS 5 million ($1.42 million), and start distilling in January 2019.

“This is an industry where you need a big amount of cash flow and patience, because the return on investment is in more than ten years,” said Milk & Honey’s Atir, who’s proud of the buzz his company’s single malt is generating, as well as its sales in Europe and the US at the end of 2018. “You need to think big from day one.”

He said he’s happy about the wealth of distilleries cropping up, because together they can create the category of Israeli whisky.

Granov, the whisky enthusiast, said he loved having local options to choose from.

“They’re in different places from one another,” he said. “M&H are really big and they’re building stock, and Pelter is small but works hard and does different things; their whisky is something they do on the side. Golan Heights is also doing interesting things, and their crowdfunding was just for publicity, and less to support the actual distillery.”

Eitan Atir, Milk & Honey’s CEO. February 20, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Still, Atir from Milk & Honey wants more regulation for whisky makers, including the designation of certain ingredients as prerequisites for the right to be called whisky and a minimum length for the aging process. But he knows that it’s all still a work in progress.

“We want top-quality whiskey all around Israel, not just for M&H,” he said. “Israeli whisky needs to be well known for its quality, it doesn’t matter which brand. But there’s enough room in the market for everyone.”

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