Whisky and the Holy Land: A budding romance?

A whisky aficionado attends a Tel Aviv expo devoted to the elixir.

A WORLD of whisky – international and Israeli. (photo credit: WHISKY LIFE)
A WORLD of whisky – international and Israeli.
(photo credit: WHISKY LIFE)
This is an article about whisky, but it begins by getting personal.
Whisky and I have a deep but somewhat complicated relationship, and it goes back a long, long time. My late father was fond of it, drank a healthy amount of it every day until his death at age 92 – somehow without ever getting intoxicated – and introduced me, in turn, to Scotch, Canadian and bourbon varieties.
Growing up in Boston, I was intrigued by the tongue-in-cheek magazine ads for Jack Daniels sour mash whisky, and resolved to someday visit their quaint-looking distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. So far, that hasn’t happened.
But later in college, their product was my drink of preference at a Greenwich Village tavern in New York. At graduate school in Philadelphia, no conference with my faculty dissertation adviser was ever complete without numerous straight shots of Old Overholt rye whisky, either in his office or around the corner at a nearby university watering hole. And then there were was that now legendary two-week vacation in Ireland years ago, during which I tried to sample literally every variety of whiskey produced in the Emerald Isle, before finally being served an 8:00 a.m. breakfast of a teacup full of Black Bushmills at the home of an elderly parish priest on my way to Shannon airport and my flight home.
Whisky, however, was certainly not among my many reasons for making aliya to Israel more than 20 years ago. Let’s face it, the words “Israel” and “whisky” are rarely if ever uttered in the same breath; this is a country in which chocolate milk is for all practical purposes an adult beverage. Local stores here in my hometown of Ra’anana have offered me disappointingly few choices in my desire to conclude my article writing with a celebratory double shot of single malt Irish whisky.
Israelis – accustomed to imbibing wine on Shabbatot, festivals, weddings and bar mitzvahs – have long been notorious for not drinking whisky. Foreign diplomatic embassies in Israel have long joked about bringing out the same barely-touched bottles of whisky for party after party, while struggling to keep up with the demand for orange juice at every social event.
But all that is beginning to change. Something that one might call a “whisky culture” is beginning to emerge here, with local entrepreneurs importing more brands of whisky, bars in Tel Aviv and Haifa now offering over 150 varieties of whisky from all over the world and local distilleries springing up all over Israel, making their own often creative varieties of Israeli whisky. Perhaps most significantly is the fact that Tel Aviv has become an annual port of call for Whisky Live, the world’s largest international exhibition of whisky, making Israel one of the dozen-or-so venues for this event around the world.
Making its fourth visit to Tel Aviv, Whiskey Live 2018, sponsored by the UK’s Whiskey Magazine, welcomed both devotees and curious newcomers to whisky from all over Israel to the roof of the Azrieli Mall last week, on March 14 and 15. Not only were several well-known and venerable brands represented, like Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Aberlour and Ballantine’s, but also Israeli distilleries like Milk and Honey, Golan Heights and the soon-to-open Jerusalem Distillery. As more or less fledgling producers of whisky, not confined to the often strict conventions observed by distillers in the US, Canada, Ireland and particularly Scotland, these Israeli companies were able to demonstrate products that are both creative and occasionally mischievous. Milk and Honey, for example, has a variety of whisky flavored with their own variety of gin, and Golan Heights offered two types of whiskey made from Israeli craft beer.
Visitors to the exhibition were not only able sample these and numerous other varieties of whisky, but were also schooled about whisky – and even the proper way to drink it – by the friendly and knowledgeable hosts at each table. The truly curious could also attend workshops throughout the day on such subjects as the production of single malt and the “world of whisky barrels.”
So what is behind this sudden stampede to this spirit here in Israel? I sat down recently with both the CEO and the chief distiller of Milk and Honey, Israel’s oldest (founded in 2012) and largest whisky distillery, to find out. These guys are 34 and 35 years old respectively, and as the conversation begins we quickly establish that neither of them has ever heard of Old Overholt Rye Whisky, that staple of my graduate school years in Philadelphia. That, as it turns out, is about the only thing they don’t know about whisky.
Asked how he found himself the CEO of Israel’s first distillery, Eitan Attir explains, “I got into whisky not because of whisky but because of the project. This is something so amazing, so entrepreneurial, so Zionist; to build a whisky distillery for the first time in Israel. I love whisky as a consumer, but the project of distilling whisky here in Israel is what got me into this. And today, I’m very enthusiastic about making an amazing single malt whisky and selling it all over the world. We want to build a well-known, internationally consumed Israeli brand.”
Goren notes that he is Milk and Honey’s second CEO, and that the distillery was established by six young entrepreneurs, all from startups.
I offer my observation that Israel has never been known as much of a market for whisky, and Attir promptly replies, “Like any other place in the world, during the past five years there has been an enormous growth of whisky consumption, both worldwide and here in Israel. We are seeing a 25% growth every year. The market here is growing.”
Asked who and where that burgeoning market is, Attir says, “The market here is people from 35 to 50. They need to be a bit more adult, and the product is a bit more expensive than beer or vodka. We can see that more brands are being imported here every year. We see more consumption. We opened a visitor center at our distillery in Tel Aviv, and we got around 4,500 visitors last year. This year we’re expecting around 8,000 people. And these are not just longtime whisky drinkers. Eighty percent of these people are having an experience with whisky for the first time. They want to see how the production line works. They want to taste. They want to explore.”
Although many types of whisky are in evidence, with one local distillery bravely offering a “bourbon-type” whisky made, like all good bourbons, from corn mash, the Whisky Live exhibition unapologetically showcases single malt whiskies. These whiskies also claim a definite pride of place in any local bar. I ask Milk and Honey’s chief distiller Tomer Goren why single malts are so prestigious, and he says, “I think single malt is a name, a brand. But I think you can find non-single malt – blended whisky, young spirit – that are really good to drink. People should judge a whisky by what they taste and feel in the mouth, and not what they read on the label. What you read on the label is primarily marketing.”
Goren goes on to explain that a “young spirit” is less than three years old, bottled before it has aged.
Goren also corrects me when I note that he is the distillery’s “master distiller.” He deftly explains that there is a hierarchy of positions in whisky production, and that he will not be able to assume that exalted title until he has functioned as “chief distiller” for several more years.
Neither of my interlocutors are old enough to remember a period in the 1970s and 1980s when people turned heavily to spirits like vodka, gin and tequila – a time in which it was definitely “uncool” to drink anything brown. They are aware, however, that whisky is enjoying an upsurge. Why?
Says Attir: “Two reasons. One is that it has become more accessible, different prices for different audiences. More people can buy whisky now. The second thing is that it’s being made and being consumed all around the world. More distilleries, more brands.”
The future for local Israeli distilleries and indeed for whisky in general appears to be bright.
“Whisky is exploding around the world. Not just in the ‘four countries’: Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US, but now in seven other countries with at least one single malt distillery. The audience is getting more sophisticated. And this is a wave that we will also be riding in the next couple of years,” says Attir, a very confident and optimistic Israeli distiller.