Israeli distillery gains new aromas in whisky through aging and beer

A new phenomenon: Whisky aged in beer barrels, which held beer aged in whisky barrels.

 FOUR WHISKIES from the M&H Art & Craft series.  (photo credit: THE MILK & HONEY DISTILLERY)
FOUR WHISKIES from the M&H Art & Craft series.
(photo credit: THE MILK & HONEY DISTILLERY)

You read that right. Here’s what it means.

Some four years ago, the Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv, Israel’s first craft distillery, decided on a long-range project to produce a series of whiskies aged in ex-beer barrels. The aim was to see what different aromas and flavors the whiskies would absorb from the wooden barrels – which had themselves earlier absorbed the beer.

Stay with me.

So they gave six Israeli craft breweries empty barrels that once held Milk & Honey whisky

Then they said, basically: “You guys use these barrels to age one of your stronger beers. After six months or a year or so, bottle the contents and sell it as a premium barrel-aged beer, or whatever you want, and then let us have the empty barrels back. We will then mature our single-malt spirit in these barrels for three years.”

“You guys use these barrels to age one of your stronger beers. After six months or a year or so, bottle the contents and sell it as a premium barrel-aged beer, or whatever you want, and then let us have the empty barrels back. We will then mature our single-malt spirit in these barrels for three years.”

What Milk & Honey Distillery basically said
 WHISKY BARRELS (Illustrative; Kilbeggan Distillery Museum, Ireland). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) WHISKY BARRELS (Illustrative; Kilbeggan Distillery Museum, Ireland). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Milk & Honey got the barrels back, they filled them with the same single-malt spirit. “The whisky then matured in the barrels for a full three years,” explains Sigal Tweig, brand manager at Milk & Honey. “Our head distiller, Tomer Goren, decided that in order to give these whiskies the best aromas and flavors, they should have a very high alcoholic content. In fact, they are all overproof, above 50% alcohol. These are part of our M&H Art & Craft series of whisky, aged in unique barrels.”

I got together with some fellow tasters to try the first four of these whiskies. (The remaining two will be released shortly.) Writing about whisky is out of my comfort zone, since I am a beer writer after all, but I was hoping to make the connection with the beer-barrel aging. Here’s how it worked out:

How is this Israeli craft whisky?

The first whisky we tried is called Ex-Islay IPA Cask. The beer that was aged in the barrels was made by The Dictator Brewery, which closed around four years ago. It was a peated (that is, smoky) IPA, which was never released to the Israeli market. 

As expected, this whisky has aromas of smoke, though quite light, along with some citrus scents. There is more smoke in the taste, full roastiness and ash. The alcohol by volume (ABV) is 53.2%, high enough for us to feel the alcoholic fumes and, yes, experience the throat burn that comes with whisky that is this strong. Adding a few drops of water to your glass, just a few, will enhance the flavor without diluting the whisky.

The second bottle was Chocolate Porter Beer Cask (56.2% ABV). These barrels were used to mature the famous Imperial Chocolate Barrel Aged-Porter, released by the Shapiro Brewery (Beit Shemesh) in 2018. It was among the richest and most flavorful Israeli beers I’ve ever had. 

The whisky maintains the chocolate aroma, vanilla, caramel, nuts and booziness. The taste brings milk chocolate – think of those whisky-filled chocolate candies – and oak. The finish is very smooth with a candy sweetness.

Next was the Belgian Ale Beer Cask. The beer aged in these barrels was the 8.8 Belgian strong ale from Jem’s Beer Factory in Petah Tikva. This beer was offered to the public only at the 2019 BEERS Exhibit in Tel Aviv by Jem’s partner, Jeremy Welfeld. I was lucky enough to have tried some.

The whisky that came out of this barrel is light, less boozy than the others, with aromas of spice and citrus. The taste has a delicate fruit, spice and licorice flavor. A very pleasant drink, and if I can say this quite amateurishly, the most whiskyish of the whiskies. ABV is 55.1%.

Last was the Doppelbock Beer Cask, aged in barrels that held the 2019 OMG (Oh My Goodness) beer from the BeerBazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat – a barrel-aged Doppelbock lager. BeerBazaar has been producing annual OMG barrel-aged beers, each one based on a different style. Doppelbock (Double Bock) is a strong, German-style lager, low in hops but distinguished by malty and nutty flavors. 

The whisky is the strongest in the series, 58.3% alcohol. It brought tears to my eyes but was the most flavorful. The aroma has hints of fruit and chocolate, while on the palate you have a real malt backbone, with banana, citrus, vanilla and more chocolate.

WITHIN THE next few weeks, two more whiskies in this series will be released by Milk & Honey.

  • Barley Wine Cask – These barrels held the first Israeli Barley Wine (2019) from the Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer. Barley Wine is one of the strongest beer styles in the world, reaching alcoholic volume of 13%, full-bodied and very bitter. The whisky is 55.7% ABV.
  • Stout Cask – The beer aged here was Stout from the Malka Brewery in the Tefen Industrial Park. After maturing for six months in the barrel, it wasn’t released on the market but was “privately used” by the brewery workers – which probably means that they drank it all themselves! The Milk & Honey whisky that continued to be matured in these barrels has an ABV of 54%.

The first four beer barrel-aged whiskies are available now in bottle shops throughout Israel, and the final two soon will be.

As you can imagine, the entire four-year process was very time-consuming and costly for Milk & Honey, and this is reflected in the price: These Art & Craft whiskies cost NIS 355 for a 700 ml. bottle.

Israel is in this case picking up on a trend that has been going on for several years in the craft beer world: utilizing the synergy between breweries and distilleries to produce new and exciting beverages. Using each other’s barrels for maturing is perhaps the most obvious example. We are fortunate that we have forward-thinking breweries and distilleries that can do this well.■

The writer is the owner of MediawiSe, an advertising and direct marketing agency in Jerusalem. He writes a web log on Israeli craft beers at www.IsraelBrewsAndViews.blogspot.co.il