Whisky Live: Israel whisky community celebrates industry gathering

This is the 7th edition of Israel’s premier whisky-themed gathering when distillers, tasters, and blenders from here and around the world get to meet each other and their customers.

 THE M&H distillery rolls out the barrels. (photo credit: Eran Paz)
THE M&H distillery rolls out the barrels.
(photo credit: Eran Paz)

Fancy a swig, snort, or even a belt? All of the above – in fact one and the same, vernacular nuances regardless – can be had over at the Expo Tel Aviv, International Convention Center September 6-7 when this year’s Whisky Live event takes place. This is the 7th edition of the country’s premier whisky-themed gathering when distillers, tasters, and blenders from across the country and from elsewhere around the world get to meet each other and the people that keep them in business – the local whisky consumers.

It seems there are more of the latter around than ever before. Tomer Goren didn’t have the exact figures at his fingertips, but he is in no doubt about the incremental expansion of the Israeli market.

“We have thousands of visitors every year at Whisky Live,” he notes. “This year we are expecting around 8,000 people.”

And that, he says, doesn’t take into account many of the mavens. “The event is mostly tailored to drawing new people into the world of whisky. The ones that have already drunk from all the whiskies that are available in Israel are less interested in the event.”

Then again, there is the social factor which, Goren believes, is core to the whole whisky culture. “They come to the fair for the gathering, to get together with others who love whisky, and to soak up some of the ambiance.”

 CANADIAN-BORN David Zibell seeks to define Israeli whiskey. (credit: Golani Distillery)
CANADIAN-BORN David Zibell seeks to define Israeli whiskey. (credit: Golani Distillery)

GOREN SHOULD know. For the past close to 10 years he has earned his crust as the master distiller of the M&H – aka Milk and Honey – Distillery. The company was founded in 2013 by Gal Kalkshtein, who still serves as CEO. It was the first distillery in this part of the world and, in the interim, it has come on in leaps and bounds. The facts on the ground vouch for that. Earlier this year, Kalkshtein won the prestigious Icons of Whisky Distillery Manager of the Year award in the Rest of the World category, which pertains to anywhere around the world other than the four original whisky-producing countries – Scotland, Ireland, the US, and Canada. That’s quite a feather in the M&H cap, and Goren added another to the company’s honor’s board when he placed first in the Master Distiller/Master Blender of the Year classification.

Presumably, that helped get the word out about Israeli whisky.

“Our success certainly helped boost the international reputation of the whisky we make in this country – ours and the other distillers here,” says Goren.

He has the street-level evidence to back that up: “About a week after we won, we passed through duty free, and all our whisky was sold out, and they had run out of all the bottles of all the other Israeli whiskies.” That’s not bad going for a country that has only been in the business for nigh on a decade.

And, while we’re on the matter of words, in the context of whisky – spelled sans “e” everywhere except for the US and Ireland – the name of the beverage derives from usquebaugh, an Anglicized version of the term uisge beatha, or uisce beatha – pronounced “ishka baha,” from Middle Irish and Scottish Gaelic, which literally means “water of life.” Sounds like a pretty good advertisement for the amber nectar. Who wouldn’t want to imbibe an apparently life-sustaining liquid?

When I was in Ireland in 2016, I visited a whisky center – I forget exactly where – and we were told that the popular beverage was manufactured all over the world, including in unexpected places such as Germany and Australia. That notion gained credence for me when a year or so ago, I popped into a shop in Bochum, Germany, and came across a Norwegian brew. So, perhaps it is not so surprising that the biblical land of milk and honey – hence our first distiller’s moniker – now flows with excellent whisky, too.

Who are the members of the Israeli whisky community?

M&H is no longer on its distilling lonesome here. There is, for example, the Yerushalmi brand, which originates from the religious moshav of Zanoach in the environs of Beit Shemesh. And up in the North, the Golani Distillery, founded in 2014 by Canadian olim David and Alona Zibell, utilizes the special environmental conditions of their hilltop surroundings to the max.

Many of the folks who pop along to Expo Tel Aviv next week will presumably be interested in what some of the big guns from overseas have to offer, particularly the likes of Chivas Regal from Scotland. A representative of the International Beverage global powerhouse will also be in attendance, pushing some of the acclaimed brews it markets, such as Old Pulteney from Wick in northeast Scotland; Speyburn, a hop, skip and jump to the south; and Balblair, down the east coast towards Inverness.

But the plain fact of the matter is that we have plenty to crow about over here, in this little war-torn, internally fractious speck in the Middle East, too. In addition to the aforementioned distillers, there is the delightfully named Drunken Owl distillery at moshav Srigim, just south of the wine-rich Ella Valley region, a new brewing kid on the block. No doubt, the feinschmeckers and more left-field thinking among the Whisky Live patrons will be on the lookout for the smaller players on the global scene.

EYAL APPELBAUM pertains to the latter ilk. In fact, he operates in an even more diminutive minor league of the whisky universe and prefers the epithet “indie bottler” rather than the grander “independent bottler.” That infers individuals who purchase casks of whisky from distilleries and bottle them under their own label. They may buy the raw material, but they take control over the epicurean bottom line by developing the flavor, deciding on the length of the maturing process, and can also stick their personal oar in even deeper, by selecting the cask itself, with particular reference to the type of wood used and the alcohol the cask contained in a previous life. Additional ingredients can also be introduced to tweak the end product.

Appelbaum is, unsurprisingly, a strong supporter of the annual industry gathering which, by the way, takes place for the first time at the International Convention Center – after several years at the Azrieli Center. The location should help to prevent visitors from having to drive home “under the influence,” with the university train station just a short stroll away.

“Whisky Live makes a significant contribution to the Israeli whisky community,” Appelbaum notes. “It draws attention to the industry, both from here and from abroad. Every year, more professionals come here from abroad to give workshops.”

That is a mark of the rising profile of the Israeli market on the global stage, partly fueled by the recent M&H awards. The Israeli whisky word is getting out and about, and spreading. Appelbaum, who also runs workshops up and down the country, has already had bottles from four casks produced and sold, and there are a couple more at the gestating stage.

The Jerusalemite whisky connoisseur and his small-scale bottling counterparts are very much a burgeoning fact on the ground here. In some quarters, it is becoming the in thing.

“There are people who supply casks to various businesses,” he says. “That has become a growing trend in recent years.”

While many often refer to whisky simply as “scotch,” as we know only too well, the beverage is anything but just Scottish. In fact, use the term in the company of a Scot, and you are likely – at best – to get away with a glare of disapproval.

As whisky is now produced in different regions around the globe; the matter of climatic conditions comes significantly into the crafting equation. That is certainly the case here. Israel, of course, experiences much higher temperatures throughout the year than, for example, Scotland. That has an advantageous knock-on effect on the aging process.

“The Israeli style [of distilling] tries, on the one hand, to emulate the Scottish approach while attempting to tailor it to the Israeli palate. Then there is the Israeli climate, which contributes to the aggressiveness of the product,” Appelbaum explains.

“That accelerates part of the processes, but there are other stages which you can’t hurry with. But the weather here greatly accelerates things in terms of the effect on the cask.”

THAT IS something that consumers need to take into account when scouting the shelves of the Duty Free store at Ben-Gurion Airport or their local alcohol store. We are brought up on the idea of a 30-year-old brew costing a lot more than the 12-year-old variety. That, as I had it explained to me on a visit to the Red Breast distillery at Middleton in southern Ireland a few years back, is due to the tendency of alcohol to evaporate. The dissipated volume is known as “the angels’ share” and, as that leaves the distiller with less liquid to sell, the price climbs accordingly. A propos, there are rumors currently circulating about Red Breast setting up an operation in Israel in the near future. That is good news.

Appelbaum says that in terms of Israeli whiskies produced under local meteorological conditions, there is little point in checking out the vintage.

“I don’t have any official scientific proof, but the accepted wisdom is that three years here in Israel is the equivalent of 15-18 years aging in Scotland. It may only be like 12 years.” Either way, that is an appreciable discrepancy and a boon for local brews.

“The oldest whisky sold in Israel is from the Pelter distillery [in the Golan Heights], which is seven years old,” Appelbaum adds. If that is the equivalent of 30-40 years of its Scottish counterpart, that is quite a vintage.

Producing whisky has been called the ideal fusion of art and science. There is all the technology, precise calculations of temperature, the quality and ratio of raw materials, and so on, but there are important factors of the process that no machine, however technologically advanced, can replace. Even in the era of ever-encroaching AI, there is – as yet – no substitute for the olfactory sensibilities and palate of the master distiller or blender.

That brings to mind another walk of life where Israelis excel – jazz. That, too, requires technical adroitness and a fine-tuned sense of when to take flight and which direction to follow. In short, improvisation.

DAVID ZIBELL gets the extemporization vibe, too. He feels that may go some way toward explaining the remarkable growth of the whisky scene here, on both sides of the distiller-consumer tracks. I suggested the meteoric trajectory may have something to do with the Israeli tendency to search for solutions to seeming impasses.

“I think Israelis are pretty good at adapting to new products and, as consumers, they want the best and they develop quickly,” says the Canadian-born entrepreneur who made aliyah with his wife, Alona, nine years ago.

Zibell should know. Since making his home here, he has founded two distilleries. The Yerushalmi outfit, which began life on Moshav Zanoach near Beit Shemesh, is the only local distillery exclusively devoted to peated whiskey. And there is the larger Golani Distillery in the Golan Heights which produces around 250 casks a year.

“Israelis develop their palate, or ears, quickly,” he observes. Our penchant for the sunny side of the street may also play a part.

“Once they have a taste of a good thing, they really know how to get into it. I see it with the whisky and with jazz, and the kitchen, and everything else. People here are passionate, and witty, and open to trying new things.” All of which augurs well for whisky pioneers in these parts.

Zibell also feels we can teach others a thing or two about venturing out of our comfort zone.

“I travel all over the world, and whether it’s Scotland or any other alcohol-consuming nation, a lot of times people are very closed with their palate and what they’re used to. Here, you get that very open mind that lets you really explore and try, and then eventually it spills over to the rest of the world. At the end of the day, people are starting to taste world whiskies, and Israeli whiskies have taken a front seat in the whisky world.”

The Zibells came here with no previous experience in the industry. David was in real estate and management but enjoyed the odd tipple or two.

“We started from scratch,” he chuckles. He went the whole hog. “The idea was to make aliyah and to produce whisky in Israel.” He has scored well on both fronts. Yerushalmi and Golani are doing nicely.

“Yes, it was a leap of faith. We’ve been working hard, but people have done much harder things,” Zibell adds with more than a modicum of modesty. “I believe that anyone can do anything they want.”

Zibell not only makes topnotch whisky, he is also looking to leave his singular mark on the local and global scene.

“Our focus, from day one, has been not to make whisky in Israel but to define Israeli whisky. People forget about that sometimes because everyone is just happy drinking their whisky, and not everybody knows what they’re drinking.”

He has great plans for Golani and the Israeli whisky community. He also wants us to bond with where we live, and drink. “Our first whisky [Rishon] is a single-grain whisky. Malt is probably more popular, but we wanted to incorporate local grain. The only grain available at the time was wheat. But that is one of the seven [biblical] fruits of the land [of Israel].”

According to Zibell, all the raw ingredients and core elements for making quality whisky are right here at our fingertips.

“Of course, there is the climate, which accelerates the aging process,” he notes.

Presumably, the Red Breast folk from Ireland will be looking to make good use of that.

“The water on the Golan is great, and you don’t need to treat it. We are also looking to eventually develop our own barley that grows in Israel, in this climate, and gives us what we need to make whisky.”

With the third barley crop due in, which Zibell reckons will suffice for 30 barrels, things seem to be moving along well. “We had a nice yield this year, and we are looking forward to launching our first barley whisky in about six months from now.”

No doubt that will star in next year’s Whisky Live. For now, it’s bottoms up all round. 

For more information: www.go-out.co/event/whiskey-live-tlv2023