Israeli Whiskey Makers Hope to Revive the Spirit of Zionism

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If Israelis can produce award-winning wines and distinctive craft beers, as they have done in recent years, why can’t they distill a world-class, kosher whiskey, too?

That is the attitude that the founders of the new Milk & Honey Distillery –the first artisan whiskey distillery in Israel – are bringing to their project, which is still in its early stages. They say they are well aware of the challenges, such as the hot climate and the huge overhead to properly equip the distillery, but believe they can overcome these challenges with a bit of chutzpah and lots of advice from the experts.

“The barrier to entry, or the amount of craziness that you have to have to want to get involved in this, is on a different level,” says co-founder Simon Fried (pronounced “freed”), a business consultant who was born in Sweden and immigrated to Israel in 1994. “You’ve got to be passionate about this, and we are.”

Fried, 39, and his Israeli-born partners – Naama Agmon, Amit Dror, Nir Gilat, Roee Licht and entrepreneur Gal Kalkshtein, who put up NIS 1 million to get the project off the ground – all share a deep appreciation for whiskey yet have no experience in the distilling field. So they recruited a master distiller from Scotland to help them with every decision, beginning with choosing the right location for the distillery – they have not yet announced the location of their new enterprise.

“I’ve been telling them to go to the north and get it as cool as possible,” says Jim Swan, who has served as a consultant to distilleries in other exotic locales, such as Taiwan and India. Speaking by phone from Australia, he notes that there are technological methods for neutralizing the Israeli heat and humidity. “I’ve been involved in enough projects around the world to know that this one can work, but there’s a long way to go,” he says. “They’ve got to do everything absolutely correctly, otherwise it can lead to failure.”

In addition to Swan’s help, the partners believe they have also benefited from a bit of divine intervention. After scouring web forums for weeks, they finally found a used wash still – the massive copper pot used to heat the beer and turn it into whiskey – in Romania. “It was the last place in the world you would imagine that you would find a Scottish whiskey still,” says Gilat, the distillery’s CEO. “It makes me think that God saw we were going to make whiskey in Israel.”

The novice distillers began their enterprise in 2012. They hope to begin producing their signature whiskey blend –“not particularly smoky or peaty, but still quite rich,” in Fried’s words – in early 2014, using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Then it will be at least four years before the whiskey, which will be aged in kosher casks, is bottled. In order to cover their costs during that time, Fried says they will experiment with a variety of other products that age faster, including rum.

“I think it’s a pretty dreamy project, almost a Zionist project,” says Golan Tishbi, who has distilled brandy for the past 20 years. “As far as I know it hasn’t been tried. I hope they will do well.”

Asked about the drinking culture in Israel, Fried says that it has evolved over the years and that, as a result of the recent tax increase on non-premium brands of liquor, Israelis will be willing to pay a little more for higher-quality alcohol.

“If you go back not too long ago, it was really a market where people drank arak only, and then vodka if you’re Russian, or Sabra if you’re in dire straights,” he says. “But that’s changing. People are beginning to drink higher quality things, and they’ve done that with beer, they’ve done that with wine, and they’re proud to drink something local if it’s good enough.”

He adds that the potential market for Milk & Honey Distillery’s products includes not only Israelis and Jews in the United States, but also Evangelical Christians. “When we close our eyes and imagine where the whiskey’s going to be popular, we can imagine there are many places all over the world,” he says.

Local whiskey connoisseurs say they are eager to try the first hand-crafted Israeli whiskey.

“When, please God, the whiskey is bottled in another five years time, I am extremely confident that we would at least try it and buy a few bottles,” says Mordechai Bendon, a British immigrant who lives in Jerusalem and travels to Scotland frequently to tour distilleries. “And if it’s any good, I’m sure it would become a staple within our shul.”

Simon Fried (left) and Nir Gilat, co-founders of the Milk & Honey Distillery. Credit: David Bachar

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