Israel Boasts Two Top-Notch Distilleries | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Israel Boasts Two Top-Notch Distilleries

Israel Boasts Two Top-Notch Distilleries

Located in Different Regions of the Country, Each is Unique

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Over the last decade, Israel has become well known internationally for its wine.  In a sense, the Israeli wine industry represents some of the best attributes of Israel today: the energy, the vibrancy, the technology, the agricultural genius, the start-up nation ethic.

“After all,” as Adam Montefiore, formerly of Carmel Winery and arguably still the Israeli wine industry’s best known unofficial brand ambassador, once told me, “30 some-odd years ago Israel was known for Jaffa oranges and the kibbutz, and now it is known for high-tech and wine, but you can’t give a bottle of high-tech as a present.”

David Zibell of the Golan Heights Distillery. Joshua London/JW

Until now, however, Israel has not been known for its distilled spirits. There have been plenty of folks in Israel who’ve produced brandy, vodka, Arack, and various liqueurs, but nothing that really commanded the attention, much less the respect, of distilled spirits aficionados. Until now there has never been an Israeli whiskey distillery. There are now two active Israeli whiskey producers. On a recent trip to Israel, visited both the Milk & Honey Distillery  and the Golan Heights Distillery. These are the first two whiskey distilleries in the country, and while very different from each other, they are both doing good work.

The Milk and Honey Distillery (M&H) is a sleek, compact, urban distillery located amongst the nondescript warehouses in the small, strip-mall-like industrial zone on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, near the Bloomfield Soccer Stadium. The Golan Heights Distillery (GHD), by contrast, is a rough-n-ready micro-distillery currently housed in a warehouse in the Katzrin Industrial park in the Golan Heights. The former feels like a well-funded, corporate enterprise, while the latter feels more like a passionate and personal effort by one man to turn his avocation into a vocation.

M&H is the dream project of a group of six whiskey-loving Israeli entrepreneurs, and is focused on producing malt whiskey that can stand proud with any Scotch malt whisky, releasing new-make spirit and gin just to generate some revenue and buzz until they’ve got enough aged product to release a “proper” whiskey. As there is no whiskey regulation in Israel, there is nothing barring them from calling their still maturing spirit “whiskey” right now. They have chosen, however, to adopt the Scotch whisky regulation that requires at least 3 years of oak ageing.

M&H has also solicited the close consultation of the legendary Dr. Jim Swan, arguably the leading independent industry expert in malt whiskey distillation, maturation, blending and product quality. Dr. Swan has become especially well known for his work with small, hot-climate whiskey distilleries like the Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan. None of their releases are available yet in the US, but once they launch their first whiskey, they intend to sell to both the US and Europe.

M&H began building their 10,000-square-foot facility in June 2014, started distilling in March 2015, and by April 2016 they opened their chic visitor’s center, which offers tours, tastings, and private events. Anybody visiting Tel Aviv-Jaffa should absolutely check them out. Their current releases of gin, new make spirit, and not-yet mature whiskies suggest some truly great things to come.

The Golan Heights Distillery is no less promising, but has a dramatically less corporate, less sleek, less coifed vibe. Rather than a dream-project of a group of whiskey-loving high-tech entrepreneurs, the GHD is the dream of one man, David Zibell (pronounced Zee-bell).

Born in France and raised in Canada, Israel, and the US, Zibell abandoned his real estate career in Montreal, Canada, took his family to Israel, and made aliya so that he could pursue his dream of “distilling a new style of whiskey in a place I truly can call home.” As David explained to me, “in the spring of 2014 during a family trip here, we arrived in [the town of] Katzrin [in the Golan Heights] and fell in love with the place.” Having made up his mind about what he wanted to do, and discovering that the area was both “beautiful and affordable,” they made aliya, moved in, and “immediately ordered a copper pot still, and a couple of fermentation tanks.”

By that summer, Zibell was in the Golan Heights distilling his first single malt spirit. Unlike M&H, Zibell’s GHD is much more like the artisanal craft-distillers here in the US who are tinkering with different grains and processes, and generally experimenting with an open mind.

Needing to generate both profit and consumer market, Zibell began producing gin and had a real hit with his production of absinthe. “We named it the ‘Holy Spirit’,” he said of his absinthe, “because the absinthe plant is known in France as the ‘holy herb,’ and we distill it in the Holy Land and it truly is a ‘holy spirit’.” He has also released some whiskies – not a slave to Scotch whisky regulatory codes, Zibell ultimately had no qualms about releasing to market some of his young spirit as “whiskey” before it had aged for three years. He thus got his whiskey to market before M&H and can rightly claim to be the first Israeli whiskey. Imported to the US by The River, a limited quantity of Zibell’s Golani Sour Mash Two Grain Israeli Whisky made it to the US, but quickly sold out.

These two producers approach their craft very differently but they both produce honest and, so far, quite interesting and wonderfully promising products. L’Chaim

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