A ‘Kiddish’ Hashem: Whisky Made in Israel For First Time

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Dave Gordon at the Milk & Honey Whiskey Distillery

Israeli wineries, be it artisan or commercial, have always been a “thing” in Israel. Vineyards and winemaking have been a staple industry as far back as there have been people living on the land. Today, the range of products has won accolades globally.

And lately, another alcoholic beverage has seen a boom, the Israeli craft beer scene. More than a fad, it has given rise to popular niche watering holes as Biratenu in Jerusalem, and Beer Bazaar in Mahane Yehuda (Jerusalem) and Carmel shuqs (Tel Aviv).

But it hasn’t stopped there. A third wave of spirits has begun to take hold: a blossoming whisky culture in Israel. And spurring it, the Milk and Honey Distillery, as Israel’s first whisky manufacturer.

Milk and Honey Distillery Beverages

Though the bottles are only just now beginning to be filled from the 2015 casks, the visitor’s centre has been open since 2016, welcoming ten thousand tasters and tourists.

Sampling a few varieties of fresh-made whisky was among the “super cool” moments of my recent trip to Israel (another one, was that I was staying at the fashionable Tel Aviv boutique hotel called “Dave”. It’s on “Gordon Street.” Fun moments arose from watching the concierge’s jaw drop as I introduced myself as “Dave Gordon”.)

Back to Milk and Honey: with current output at a million bottles, their products will appear in 150 locations across Israel, as well as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Plans are in the works to bring the product to North America.

Even though for decades, four countries ruled the industry of whisky – Ireland, Scotland, United States, and Canada – there’s a shift in consumption, says Milk and Honey CEO Eitan Attir, because customers have sought the uniqueness of new country drinks, made in unique ways.

“It’s what we call a New World whiskey. So, now you can find more and more countries that never had a history of whiskey, doing it.”

Up until recently, some five percent of the industry was “New World Whisky”, though it has grown of late to around eight percent, said Attir.

“The customers want small batches; they want quality in the product and not just big companies or corporations. We can now see distilleries from Italy, Sweden, Finland, Taiwan, and other places that for years were not recognized as whiskey distilling countries, but are now doing it. The same as beer, people want more small batches, craft, stories, ingredients.”

Proof of that New World whisky popularity became evident even before the first ounce was available as an official product. In 2017, the company filled 391 bottles of its initial three-year-old whisky single malt. (Head Distiller Tomer Goren created the batch in his workshop, and it was aged in the distillery.)  

Bottles numbered 1 to 100 were sold at Whiskey Auctioneer, a whiskey auction website. More than 30,000 people bid on the bottles.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the “number one” bottle was won for US$3,000, and number two, about US$2,500. The rest were sold for about US$750 each. Stock sold out in three months. “That was a huge surprise, not only business wise, but also the attention it got,” Attir said. Several media took notice: New York Times, Boston Herald, CNBC, and NBC, among others.

Fast forward a year to 2018, and their “Triple Cask” – a combination of ex-red wine, ex-bourbon and ex-Islay barreled whisky – recently won Best in Show and Second Place at Whiskey Life Tel Aviv. Its competitors were 15, 18, and 20 years-old top-notch beverages from many different familiar brands.

They appear to be onto something. How they got there was as much a blend of perfect ingredients as a premiere blended whisky.

OPENING A DISTILLERY

In 2012, the company was started by Gal Kalkshtein, Milk and Honey’s founder and owner, and five friends, all previously in the Israeli tech and startup industry.

With their million dollar investment, the friends turned a former bakery into a distillery in 2014. (An interesting coincidence that the connection to grain has carried over.)

“We were the first ones here, so there really was no one to ask about how to build a distillery. So, they traveled all around Scotland and studied a lot,” said Gal Levin, manager of the visitor center, and who oversees Business Development.

Then came the parts: a tailor-made whisky pot still, and a vintage still, each constructed in accordance with Scottish coppersmith tradition.

The wash drum was found online, in of all places, on a German website. It was sitting in Romania – Transylvania to be exact – in a barn.

“The guys traveled all the way there to see it and buy it,” noted Levin. “They weren’t sure it was going to work. They bought it, brought it here, and fixed it. We still don’t know who made it and for what. It’s mysterious. It’s working, and that’s the most important thing.”

During renovations, they already began tinkering with what recipes to use. Meanwhile, in 2013, they hired two professionals. One was Scottish Master Distiller Dr. James Swan, who guided the company on research and development. His experience ranged in advising distilleries and brands all over the world, from Jim Beam to Chivas. As well, he had expertise in ageing and distilling in other hot climates like Taiwan and India. “He was very excited about working with Israel and advising us,” said Levin.

The second person hired was the head distiller, Tomer Goren, studying for his Master’s Distiller Degree in Scotland. (He also happens to be a judge at international whiskey competitions.)

“We chose to adopt very strict regulations of the Scottish method, that allows us to connect with the Scottish tradition, and also so our whiskey will be considered ‘whiskey’ in many places around the world,” said Levin. Whisky, by definition, is made with four ingredients: malted barley, yeast, water and the barrel. Milk and Honey stays pure to the tradition, with no added ingredients. Barrel selection included ex-bourbon casks, a collection of new oak barrels, and ex-wine barrels (all kosher).

Milk and Honey Whiskey Distillery Stock

“We are aging for a minimum of three years before we call the product ‘whiskey’. That’s an important rule. Of course, in Scotland, the whisky is called ‘Scotch’. We don’t do that,” said Levin.

CLIMATE FACTORS

As an added plus, Israel’s hot climate allows for relatively quicker fermentation, up to two and a half times faster than Scotland, according to Milk and Honey. That means an Israeli three-year bottle might taste like a six year bottle from the Highlands.

But, there are disadvantages to hotter climes, noted Levin. “The angel’s share (evaporation) is very high. At this point, we are not using climate control at all, but we are keeping a close eye on our barrels. We don’t want to just leave a barrel for 10 years and forget about it, and then find it empty. So, we open some barrels – control barrels – once in a while and are checking on them.”

In addition, the distillery is utilizing other geographical areas with which to age the whisky, including barrels in the Dead Sea area, a dry and low altitude climate, that may very well add new tones to the flavoring.

“We will be able to take our product, experiment, and let it experience the Israeli climate. Truly, make it a very Israeli whisky, affected by the different climate zones that we naturally have here. That’s one of the great things we have,” said Levin.

Though technically, they’re not just about whisky – they also happen produce gin and liquors, from much of the same ingredients. Products offered include New Make (an unaged single malt), Young Single Malt, Levantine Gin and Roots Herbal Liquor.

ISRAELI FLAVOURS

The gin liquors are spiced and inspired by Israeli ingredients. The Levantine, for example, is spiced with zaatar, orange slices, lemon peels, black pepper, cinnamon, chamomile and lemon verbena.

The Roots, fittingly, was made in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday, and the distillery solicited seven different dominant figures in several different realms of Israeli culture to each pick an ingredient that, for them, represents Israel, and what is Israeli:

Karen Leibovitch, a Paralympics champion, chose almonds. Chef Eretz Komarovsky chose savory. Industrialist Eli Mizrachi – who renovated the Machane Yehuda market after a period of terror – chose coriander. Writer Ronny Someck chose Jasmine. Chef Avivit Priel, of the Levinsky Market (where some distillery ingredients are bought) chose tarragon. Botanist Dr. Elyashiv Drori chose thyme. And Tomer Goren, head distiller, chose cardamom.

And it is in this spirit that the spirits have been made: unabashedly, unflinchingly, and prideful as an Israeli product.

“From day one, we said we are not going to be shy about being a distillery from Israel. One thing we did was call the distillery ‘Milk and Honey Distillery’ because of the significance of Israel as the land of Milk and Honey in the Bible. Second thing, on any bottle we write ‘Made in Tel Aviv,’ because we are proud that we are making this in Tel Aviv,” noted Attir.

“Our mission is to show people around the world our different side – adventure, courage, and producing great spirits.”

The Holy Land is, indeed, taking L’Chaim to new heights.