Whiskey Made in Israel: The Rise of the Israeli Single-malt

Four decades after a failed attempt to produce local Scotch, a group of connoisseurs are trying their hand at producing a high-quality Israeli single-malt.

Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

Will the group of connoisseurs trying to launch a locally made whiskey, for only the second time in the history of the country, enjoy more success than those who produced Ascot Special Deluxe Blended Scotch back in the 1970s? The story of the first attempt to make whiskey here reminds one of a terrible audition for a reality TV show. It was short and pathetic, based on pretention and imitation, as campy as it gets, and slaughtered by the judges.

The first effort began in 1971, when National Distillers started a Scotch whisky plant in Carmiel, where it produced bottles under the label Ascot Special Deluxe Blended Scotch. They were sold domestically and also exported.

“To the list of luxury drinks produced in Israel, we have recently added an aristocratic drink which will refresh the palate of all gourmets: Scotch whisky made in Israel” – thus read an article in the daily Maariv (February 3, 1972). And the beverage did indeed soon find itself together with the world’s leading brands – not on the shelf but in a lawsuit.

Meanwhile the Ackerman company, which marketed alcoholic drinks, paid for a complimentary ad: “To National Distillers, our warm congratulations on the launching of your pioneering plant for producing whiskey in Israel, and best wishes for success in the markets in Israel and worldwide.”

The investment for starting the original Carmiel plant was 750,000 Israeli liras (roughly $178,600 at the time). The alcohol concentrates and raw ingredients were imported from the Scottish company Reid Ride and Holiby, which also provided the know-how. Wooden casks were flown to Israel and their contents mixed with the softened water from one of the Galilee springs “at a special facility, and under the supervision of Dr. Rosenblatt, a chemist who immigrated from Egypt,” according to the article. “The idea of producing Scotch whisky in Israel originated in the minds of the owners of the plant ... after local market research, which proved that there would be a demand for Israeli-made Scotch whisky,” it added.

At first, the Scotch whisky made a good impression on locals who considered themselves to have discerning tastes. The cost to the plant of the Scotch whisky concentrate was 33 cents, and a bottle was sold for 23.5 Israeli liras. Abroad, the product made a good impression and there was high demand for it. But a year later, the Scotch Whisky Association – in cooperation with Johnnie Walker and other Scottish manufacturers – sued the Israeli company for trying to mislead the public into believing that its product was Scotch whisky (by virtue of the name and text on the bottles’ labels) and demanded compensation.

The plant was closed and a bottle of Ascot is today a collectors’ item, even though the product wasn’t very Scottish and some say it also deviated from the usual definition of Scotch whisky.

‘Hebrew’ whiskey

Since that attempt, there have been independent bottlers, brandy distillers in wineries and home experimenters, but for 40 years nobody dared go for whiskey-making in a big way and to open a “Hebrew” distillery. Meanwhile, whiskey has taken its place in the country in people’s bars at home, experienced a revival and success, and become the official drink of nouveau riche startup moguls.

After an intrepid investor, Gal Kalkshtein, was found, all the conditions had become ripe for another attempt. And so, in coming months, a group of connoisseurs of fine alcohol will launch the only whiskey distillery in Israel: The Milk & Honey Distillery (http://www.mh-distillery.com/).

They promise it will produce a fine, double-distilled, single-malt whiskey – that’s kosher to boot. M&H’s founders – Simon Fried, Amit Dror, Naama Agmon and Roee Licht – hired a young CEO, Nir Gilat, and also Tomer Goren, the distiller. The company bills itself as the first artisan distillery in the land of Israel.

Are Israelis ready for locally produced whiskey, or will it remind them of Ascot?

Gilat: “We did a market survey, and found that Israelis, as is their wont, are strongly opposed to cheap local alcohol. And due to the flourishing of boutique breweries, they’re also afraid of the price of fine and overpriced local alcohol. But some were enthusiastic about a fine Zionist single-malt whiskey.”

Is the world waiting for this Zionist whiskey?

Fried: “In the early part of this decade, there were only 50 distilleries in the United States, and now there are almost 300. After a wave of interest in winemaking and of brewing boutique beers, we’ve arrived at the wave of distilling.

“Every state in the United States wants to boast of its own whiskey brand and its own distillery, and the same is true in Sweden, Australia, Argentina, Belgium, France, India and Pakistan. If it can be done in those places, there’s no reason why it can’t be done here. We’re avoiding shortcuts and want to produce a serious product.”

“We’re about to establish a whiskey empire,” declares Gilat. “We’re not a group of people who got up one morning and decided to start a distillery; we’ve been working for the past two years and have conducted detailed and precise planning. We’re good people, we have good equipment, and we will not compromise. A bottle of single malt costs at least 300 shekels [$86] today in a store. We intend to produce very high-quality whiskey at a more accessible price than the imported ones. Soon, we will begin renovations in a building we found in the center of the country, with a space of 1,000-square meters, where we will set up a distillery area, a beer brewery, a visitors’ center and bar. The distillery will be opened around April.”

Kashrut complications

The Scot Dr. Jim Swan, a renowned British chemist and scientific consultant for the whisky/whiskey industries, will be the “master distiller” at the new enterprise, due to his professional expertise in advising distilleries located in hot climates, some of which have won prizes in recent years. He will be responsible for the recipe and distilling process, and will oversee the conditions in the M&H plant during the aging period. Thanks to him, the ambitious Israelis were able to obtain all the equipment necessary to open the distillery.

Fried: “He chose American oak casks for us, and also told them from exactly which forest they had to come. There aren’t enough good casks in the world, especially not good used ones, and only thanks to his connections did we get the good ones. He is both well connected and a guru – not a bad combination.”

You decided to produce kosher whiskey. What does that involve?

“Many people told us that, in any case, we’re producing whiskey for [secular] Tel Avivans, so why bother? But we decided that since this is a blue-and-white product, it should suit everyone and should be kosher. There are several foreign distilleries that have received kosher certification, but they don’t have badatz [the seal of approval of the strict ultra-Orthodox authorities]. Some people told us in confidence that they’re willing to drink whiskey without the badatz certification at home, but don’t dare to bring it to kiddush in the synagogue, or as a gift. And that’s our intention: to produce whiskey with a high level of kashrut supervision.

“Fortunately, it’s a simple product. It contains no meat or milk, and the ingredients are basic, the equipment is not complicated and it’s easy to clean. If we were Scots, we could ensure our kashrut as long as the Scotch isn’t aged in sherry casks. In Israel, there are other kashrut issues – there’s the shmitta year [the sabbatical year when there is a prohibition against planting or harvesting in Israel], the prohibition against production on Shabbat, and selling chametz [leavened products] on Passover.

“Our master distiller knows nothing at all about that, so we found something we can teach him. We’re establishing the distillery with the Scotsman on one shoulder, and the rabbis on the other. In the final analysis we’ll produce a fine whiskey that makes both happy.”

The main reason why whiskey has not been produced in Israel is the problem of meeting the international standard demanding that, in order for distilled alcohol to be called Scotch or whiskey, it must be aged in a cask for at least three years, during which it acquires its unique taste.

‘Soul and tradition’

These are three years during which the plant is involved in production, pays salaries and bills, orders equipment and raw ingredients, and doesn’t generate any income. This requires strong financial backing and endless patience. That’s why they’ll be producing other alcoholic drinks at Milk & Honey, too. “We dreamed about whiskey, but in the coming years we’ll produce gin, rum, bourbon and local liqueur,” says Goren. “Until the time for whiskey arrives, things will be interesting for us.”

“In Scotland, banks offer a loan to businesses based on what’s in the barrels. In Israel, the banks say that if you have whiskey – drink and enjoy it, but you won’t get a loan,” says Fried.

“Whiskey production is a matter of soul and tradition, and not only fast money. In the high-tech business, you sit and wait for an exit. With whiskey, you know there won’t be an exit. It’s a different scene – a world of patience, nostalgia and closeness to the soil. We hope it will be a financial success, but if we establish a distillery that puts the Israeli flag on foreign shelves, we’ve done our job. We want Israelis to be proud of the local whiskey and not only of Israeli wine.”

Tomer, you were appointed to be the acting distiller – where did you learn the profession?

Goren: “I worked for a while in a veteran distillery in Scotland.”

Did you volunteer?

“They did me a favor by agreeing to let me work there. I learned a great deal from them, and since then I’ve been experimenting at home. Mainly on myself. Whiskey is actually produced from an ale called wash, similar to beer. The interesting stage is the distilling process, where a distillate with a higher alcoholic content is produced from the wash.

“The process is based on the principle that the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water. The wash is poured into the pot still, which begins to heat up. At the boiling point of 78 degrees Celsius, alcohol begins to evaporate and rises to the neck of the pot still, and makes its way into the condenser, which cools the alcohol vapors and turns them back into a liquid.

‘The tasty stage’

“The art is to know when to cut out the heart of the distillate and to separate it from the head and the tail. In those parts there are other substances, some of which are toxic, and we don’t want to drink them. Due to all the stories in the press, people are afraid to try some of the alcohol I’ve brewed. I was also afraid at first. But it’s science. If you do what’s necessary, everything will be fine.”

Fried: “I’ve tasted his whiskey. He’s passed the dangerous stage and arrived at the tasty stage.”

Gilat: “You can count on one hand the Israelis who know how to distill alcohol. It’s a very special niche. It’s an art without any means to measure it – only your nose and your palate. Four years ago, I wanted to make whiskey at home. I started reading about the process and discovered that it can cause blindness. I stopped there, although I do own a Labrador.”

Where do you buy the equipment necessary for building a distillery?

Fried: “We pot still used in the second distillation process we bought in Germany ... it’s made of pure, handmade copper and was produced in a traditional factory ... The first distillation will take place in the 30-year-old wash still, secondhand but unused, which we found in Romania after a long search; after assembly it will be seven-meters tall and weighs four tons.

“It was originally made by hand in Scotland, sent to France to a distillery that never opened, and finally ended up in a warehouse in Romania, where it wasn’t used. After Dr. Swan examined it and approved its purchase, we transported it to Israel in a special container that was open on the sides and roof, and therefore was placed on top of all the other merchandise on the ship.

“It turns out that the worldwide production of pot stills doesn’t meet the demand. There are long waiting lists; the production process is slow and traditional; and the Scots sell mainly to their own distilleries. It’s rare to find a secondhand still in such good condition.”

How will you deal with the government plan to stop the advertising of alcohol on the Internet?

Goren: “It’s very easy to blame the alcohol companies for all the bad things that happen to us, but in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of education about the culture of drinking. People who come to the distillery to taste and to learn about whiskey production will also learn about responsible drinking. It’s better to concentrate on education about drinking than to raise taxes and pass laws.”

The Milk and Honey Distillery's Tomer Goren, Simon Fried and Nir Gilat.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Whiskey distillery.Credit: Getty Images
A whiskey still in Japan.Credit: Bloomberg

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