Rolling a cedar branch in his hand, Yuval “Joov” Hargil, owner of the Jullius Distillery in the Galilee, happily inhales the scent of its silver-green needles. “This is just the aroma I want for my gin,” he says. “An aroma that makes you think of walking in a Mediterranean forest in winter, when the world around you is damp and fresh. When you step on grasses and needles, you get this wonderful aroma that comes from the essential oils in them.”
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Lebanon cedars are not a common sight in Israel, but in a small hidden area of wild woodland near the Lebanese border – close to the fence, steps away from that adjacent but forbidden land – you can find a few such trees that naturally migrated here despite the man-made barriers. Needles from Cedars of Lebanon, with their fragrant aroma, are one of 12 botanicals in the Jullius Distillery’s new gin, named Akko.
On the border road, just below the slice of heaven where the distiller forages for his ingredients, a military jeep zips by, as if to illustrate the unbearable ease with which this quiet pastoral area could ignite. “I only pick on private land, not in nature reserves, and in a way that preserves the plants for the coming seasons,” says Hargil. Amid the arbutus trees, pines with bare branches that are heavy with cones, and carpets of purple crocuses, Hargil also finds laurel shrubs, which yield another of the ingredients in the new beverage.
“I’ve loved botany since I was a kid,” says Hargil, as he fills his backpack with aromatic leaves. In that same backpack is the field guide he has carried with him for many years. Bits of dried leaves collected over the years crumble from its yellowed, moth-eaten pages, but Hargil insists on holding onto it. “When I became an adult, I got away from botany and went in different directions, but suddenly it’s become a wonderful natural source for what I’m doing with the distillery. It began with eau de vie of some local grapes and fruit liqueurs made from local fruit, and now in focusing on the botanicals in gin, including some wild indigenous plants, it’s like the closing of a circle.”
Reviving a vintage drink
Three years ago, in this column, we told the story of the Jullius Distillery, the first Israeli craft distillery. Hargil, a former journalist and restaurant critic, opened the distillery together with Dan Jullius (Yoeli). When Jullius passed away in 2010, Hargil continued on the path the two had laid out: quality distilling of classic drinks, produced in limited editions from fine local ingredients. In the past three years, Hargil has quintupled the distillery’s production capacity, with new distilling equipment that is larger and built exactly to his specifications.
“A boutique artisanal distillery isn’t something you buy off the assembly line. It was designed especially for me by an expert German engineer, built by copper craftsman over a year and a half, shipped to Israel disassembled, and reassembled here.”
The smaller distillery with which the Jullius adventure began was like a magic time machine that could transport you to a world filled with the soothing sound of gently burbling alcohol. Now it sits unused in a corner of the new distillery, situated on the edge of Kibbutz Beit HaEmek. The new machine offers a magnificent vision of steam pipes, gleaming helmet-shaped flasks and pressure gauges. Besides an eau de vie based on white grappa and barrel-aged brown grappa, in recent years Hargil has also been producing a distillate of native herbs and a series of distillates based on seasonal fruits like tangerines, citron, arbutus and peach (soon to go on the market) that show off his great skill as a distiller.
And in the last few months, these have been joined by his new gin, Akko, which he spent four years perfecting. “I love gin,” says Hargil. “And some of the drinks, like the citron or herb distillates, were studies on the way to making this gin. It’s hard not to fall for the romance of this fascinating beverage, which has been part of European history for 500 years and has seen some wild ups and downs.
“Gin is closely entwined with Holland and England, two countries that played a major part in the spice trade in the New World, a productive and destructive force in human history. Different types of gin are customarily named for the port city closest to the place where they are distilled. I called this gin Akko after the port city close to the distillery; in olden times it was a gateway for the import and export of various spices and fine alcohol.”
Gin, which originated in 17th-century Holland, has been experiencing a revival in the past decade. For a long time, gin was considered a classic, slightly old-fashioned drink that wasn’t to be fiddled with. But in recent years, hundreds of small distillers around the world have started producing all kinds of interesting gins, not necessarily following the classic recipes.
With its varied local flora, the land of Israel is a natural place to produce gin, because basic botanicals (plant parts, roots, and tree bark) play a dominant role in the drink’s flavor and identity. The Jullius Distillery product is not the first Israeli gin; the first was made by the Pelter Winery in the Golan Heights, and the Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv also makes gin. But Jullius Distillery was the first to use fresh, local botanicals exclusively.
“There is no clear standard or definition for gin,” says Hargil, “except for the juniper. Gin must contain juniper, and all the rest of the botanicals are up to the distiller’s imagination. In my mind, I compare most of the distillates I make to a sculpture. I have the raw material and then I start to work with it so as to be left with a certain form. You have this process with gin, of sculpting the primitive material, and then to the blank sculpture, the basic alcohol. I start to paint with a whole palette of colors, which are the botanicals.”
Most gins in the world are based on grains. “I make local alcohol, and in Israel there is no serious cultivation of grains. I’m trying to go with what is most suited to the time and place in which I live, and this area is blessed with grapes and grapevines. The basic alcohol of gin is a grape distillate that is relatively clean and neutral in taste. It’s my canvas, on which I start to add the botanical ingredients.
“Each one of the ingredients is separately distilled, and the challenge I’ve given myself is to find fresh local counterparts to the classic gin ingredients. It’s more common around the world to use only dried botanicals, because it’s easier to ship dry seasonings. Even the bergamot orange peel, a common ingredient in many gins, is used in dried form. When you use fresh plant parts in the same recipe, the molecules responsible for the flavors and aromas are totally different.”
The perfect concoction
Hargil’s gin combines juniper (the basic ingredient that gave gin its name) from Mount Meron, needles from Cedars of Lebanon and leaves of the mastic tree, among other things. “A good gin covers the whole wheel of aromas,” says Hargil. “There are the resin aromas – from peels, needles and tree resin, floral aromas, green aromas, citrus aromas, earthy aromas. The distiller’s art is to create harmony among all the components. An interesting and complex gin contains a little bit of everything. I used citron peels from Kfar Chabad and tangerines from the Western Galilee in place of bergamot orange; wild carrot in place of angelica; and the gin also contains fresh, locally grown coriander seeds, and bay leaves, holy bramble and myrtle.” Like a master perfumer, vintner or blender of whiskey, the distiller’s task is to create the most perfect concoction.
“Coming up with the formula for the finished product took four years,” says Hargil. “I have tanks full of distillates from just about every type of local plant you could think of. I thought that sticky fleabane, for example, which is one of the most dominant plants in the Galilee region, had to be part of a local gin. I also tried hyssop, but I discovered that the flavor of both was too dominant. Ultimately, I used 12 botanicals in our gin – there are some gins that have as many as 40 – as I came to understand that taking ingredients out can be as important as adding them. It’s a long process of trial and error, and everything has to be very carefully documented so that it can be replicated.”
The result of Hargil’s dedicated endeavor is a gin that is very different from the mass-produced gins to which we’ve grown accustomed. It is probably more like the pre-industrial gins that were made in small quantities in different localities in countries with a rich gin culture, like Holland, England and Spain. The use of fresh ingredients enhances the flavors – it has a splendid citrus aroma in particular – though a drinker might feel that the mastic flavor is a tad overpowering (Hargil uses the leaves rather than the resin, which has become closely associated with the flavors of the region’s cuisine, but I found the taste and aroma a bit strong).
Jullius Distillery’s gin, in stores as of January 1, sells for 199 shekels. I’d recommend drinking it either straight or on the rocks. Tonic, especially the commercial version that is rich in sugar, blurs the interesting flavors. And one more little tip: This gin can be put to splendid use in the kitchen; in recent weeks we’ve used it to make pickled amberjack with coriander seeds and citrus zest, and a wonderful fish soup as well. The possibilities are endless.