Milk, Honey and Single Malt: How Israel's First Whiskey Distillery Came to Be

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In the Milk & Honey distillery. A dream come true.
In the Milk & Honey distillery. A dream come true. Credit: Yifat Zohar

Three years ago I met a group of young entrepreneurs who dreamed of starting a serious distillery in this country, one that would produce an authentic Israeli single malt and other distillates – and perhaps, while waiting for the whisky to age, a few liqueurs from native fruits as well. We recently met again, this time amid gleaming distillery tanks in a building on Hatehiya Street, not far from Bloomfield Stadium in south Tel Aviv. The Milk & Honey Distillery has been transformed from dream into reality, yet its journey has only just begun.

Gal Kalkshtein, Simon Fried and Amit Dror – friends, high-tech entrepreneurs and whisky-lovers – comprise the Milk & Honey team. At the end of the month, a most intriguing visitors center is due to open on Hatehiya Street in Tel Aviv. A place centered around a genuine whisky distillery, where single malt whisky, vodka and gin are being continuously distilled, each one surprising in its own way.

“We aspire to be a source of knowledge, a place for learning about the history of whisky, of different distillates, and all there is to know about this drink,” enthuses Nir Gilat, a consultant to the distillery. “The visitors center will be open to the general public, at first with specific hours, but ultimately we hope that people will just be able to come in off the street and take a tour to observe the unique process at work here, as the distilling is going on, to see the team at work, to smell the smells, to ask whatever they want, and then to finish the tour with organized tastings, accompanied by explanations. In the near future we’ll also have a whisky bar here with small food tastings that go well with the drink, and we’ll also have a room for workshops where Israelis will be able to widen their horizons on the subject of whisky.”

How do you even make whisky, a drink based on at least 60-percent water, in a country with such hard water as Israel has? For years it was thought there could never be a true quality whisky made here.

“Water is a very romantic thing,” says a smiling Tomer Goren, the chief distiller. “We’re all familiar with the picturesque tales about a river that flows through the middle of the distillery, or about the beautiful distillery that sits on the banks of Loch Ness or some other storied lake. In the past, it really was crucially important and the water had a very big influence on the quality of the whisky and its distinctive flavor. Just look at Japan – all the distilleries there are in these incredible locations and use wonderful water. But the technology has changed. Today’s technology allows us to achieve optimal water by using a laboratory in which reverse osmosis takes the minerals out of the water, and then other minerals are added that give us the desired result. Our master distiller and advisor is Dr. Jim Swan. He founded the highly regarded Welsh distillery Penderyn and specializes in building distilleries in warm climates, like the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan. He sent us the specifications and we manufacture this water. In fact, if you want to obtain water like the water in Glenfiddich or any other distillery, that would be possible too.”

Testing the water that goes into the whisky at Milk & Honey. Credit: Yifat Zohar

Gilat and Goren say that Swan fell in love with the idea of an Israeli whisky distillery and the thought of aging whisky in such a warm and humid climate fascinated him. In time, they discovered that aging in a humid place actually lends real character to the whisky and helps it mature quickly, giving it unique aromas and flavors.

Current offerings

We take a tour of the barrel room, where there’s no mistaking the sweet woody fragrance emanating from dozens of former bourbon barrels purchased by the distillery, along with barrels used for red wines and port wines from Israeli wineries. The first Israeli single malt whisky is still slumbering in wooden barrels; you won’t be able to taste it before 2018. But other products are ready and worth trying. In the future, a bourbon-style whisky and a rye-based whisky are planned. In the meantime, we sampled the current offerings. All bottles contain 500 milliliters, and for now are only available for purchase at the distillery.

Single Malt New Make – This is a clear distillate of grains, a “white” whisky that has not been aged in wooden barrels. New Make is a growing category around the world; numerous highly reputable distilleries like Highland Park, Haven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Hudson and Koval are producing their own clear whiskies, which until recently were mainly intended for collectors and true whisky mavens. New Make whisky has been gaining momentum mostly in America, and has spread out from there. Our advice is to keep an open mind and keep on tasting. Milk & Honey’s New Make is distilled from 100-percent British barley malt and bottled at 50 percent proof. The one we sampled was super clean and malty, with a prominent taste of grains. The finish was unexpectedly soft and slightly sweet. A certain oiliness makes it a splendid basis for creative cocktails. Price: 150 shekels.

Levantini Gin – This gin is a mirror image of whisky. It’s based on 100-percent barley malt and then is double-distilled in a vat. The seasonings that make their way inside and lend it character are selected by the master distiller at the spice shops of the Levinsky Market. Price: 179 shekels.

Milk & Honey Distillery, 16 Hatehiya Street, Tel Aviv, Tel. (03) 632-0491

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