Let us raise our glasses to toast the New Year 5783 – a prime number, divisible only by 1. May this New Year be as whole, indivisible and perfect as its integer. May all Israelis and the entire Jewish people be as unified and indivisible at the year. (The next prime number year won’t occur until 5791!).
Let us fill our glasses with Israeli whisky – Israeli bourbon or single malt.
Please, take your choice. Single malt? Try Milk & Honey, launched in 2014 in south Tel Aviv by Gal Kalkshtein and partners – the first whisky distillery in Israel! Israel’s warm climate is said to help the whisky become smooth and well-matured.
Kentucky-style whisky? Try Slingshot, by Legends Distillery, producers of Israel’s first bourbon-style whisky in Eila Valley, near Jerusalem.
I spoke with Noam Cohen and Alan Cohl, Legends co-founders. Noam has been a finance professional since the 1990s and is a graduate in economics from Yeshiva University. Alan Cohl is a Harvard-educated architect, owner of a studio, also a professor of architecture at Ariel University – and a master distiller. Here is their story.
For a recent book, I interviewed 100 Technion innovators, and they revealed the secret sauce of their amazing innovations, which rhymes: aspiration (aim high), inspiration (out-of-the-box thinking), and perspiration (long hours of hard work). [See The Jerusalem Report, March 21, 2022].
Noam and Alan, have you used those three ingredients in your whisky venture? And if so, how?
Noam Cohen: If we had to break it up into those three things – we really stumbled across this idea. It’s something that I had always been interested in, but I had never researched it in the States.
Alan and I are both olim – Alan’s been in this country for almost 30 years, I’ve been in this country for almost 10. But when you pick up and change your life by moving to Israel, and you turn everything in your life upside down, you’re already predisposed to the idea of reinventing yourself to a certain degree, and doing something that you never thought possible, and doing what you love. Not only doing what you love, but doing it here in Israel, and doing it better, in our opinion anyway, than any of them back there in the old country.
I guess that’s really the aspiration. The inspiration came one evening many years ago, about eight years ago, when Alan and I were sitting in his backyard at about 1 a.m. looking up at the stars.
We were sitting and having a drink and discussing the various nuances of the bourbon that we were drinking. Of course, with a cigar, that’s the best way to do it. And we looked at each other at the same time and said, ‘Why not us?’ And one thing led to another, and here we are.
There is considerable chutzpah in two Israelis deciding to produce quality, Kentucky-style bourbon whisky. The best-selling book Start-Up Nation attributes Israeli start-ups to chutzpah. Is this simply a Jewish quality? Challenging conventional ideas, as the rabbis do in the Talmud?
Alan Cohl: I don’t think we have any “real” chutzpah. I think in our particular case, the dream was to create something that has not been done before. I mean, if you want to call that chutzpah, that’s great, but we encourage competition. We encourage other distillers and other people within the trade. I think we are looking more to educate the culture here – maybe that’s our chutzpah. We want to introduce a different approach to, I would say, the libation that exists within bourbon, within whisky in general. We want to introduce as well as educate some of the aspects of Israeli culture to something that we are familiar with. And I think the same way that there was a wine revolution in Israel and a craft beer revolution in Israel, now is the time for the whisky revolution, and it is happening, and we’re part of it.
Noam Cohen: Yes, I would agree. I think they refer to Israelis as having chutzpah. I think Israelis are the ones who are normal. The rest of the world just basically sinks into a comfortable reality, and they just do what they’ve always been doing. They don’t change anything, and they live a routine for their entire lives. And then, maybe on their deathbeds at age 85 or 90, they look back and say, “Oh, why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” I don’t think it’s chutzpah to go ahead and try to make sure that your dreams are materialized. In the beginning of the process, we started by saying, “Why not us?” And it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. I don’t know how serious we were that evening. But as we researched, and we went through the process, and we met so many people in this country who had done similar types of things with their lives, armed with nothing more than knowledge and a few shekels, and a “why not me” attitude, we realized, “Yeah, why not us?” I think that’s actually normal.
Alan Cohl: I want to stress one thing here, and this is super important. We are the first, and at the moment, the only, true bourbon distillers in Israel. As olim, it’s the Americana that is merging with the Israeli know-how. And if you want to join that with any hi-tech sentence that you want, that’s great. But at the end of the day, it’s a grassroots product, and it comes from America, and that’s why we are pursuing it. Not like other distillers.
One thing we know about innovation is that diversity of background and thought among teams is productive for new ideas. Israel is not a melting pot but a polyglot of cultures, each of which brings key qualities to Israeli creativity. You told a reporter that “we are bringing our American tradition” to Israel and to Slingshot, just as the Germans, Scots and Irish brought to Bourbon County, Kentucky. What is that American tradition that you bring?
Noam Cohen: Well, I will illustrate this with a conversation that I had with a friend a few years back who had been here already for about 15 or 20 years. And he said to me, “I’ve been here about 15, 20 years, and I still don’t feel like I fit in.” And I said to him, “You know what? You’re looking at this the wrong way, I think nobody here fits in.” Because we have a tendency to say, about a 60- or 70-year-old who’s walking down the street, “Oh, that’s an Israeli,” because we have a certain perception of what an Israeli is.
But if you were to ask that person what he is, he’d probably say, “I’m Iraqi,” “I’m Lebanese,” “I’m Algerian.” And somehow, over the last few generations, what they do has become Israeli, the individual who drinks arak, because he’s originally from Lebanon or Syria or Jordan, the individual who makes slivovitz or vodka, because he’s Romanian, or he’s Polish. There’s no difference. We come from a country that is the birthplace of bourbon. So why shouldn’t we bring our tradition here? We understand the aesthetic. We understand the story. We understand the tastes. We understand the culture of the old country. We understand what people are looking for. And that’s what we bring.
Many Israeli start-ups fail, in part because young entrepreneurs have little knowledge of business or management. How has your background in finance and in architectural design, in business in general, helped you succeed?
Alan Cohl: We have organizational skills. We have a sense of business, because we’re running our own businesses. But at the same time, you have to know that we actually went to the States to train. We understood the [whisky-making] process, but we had to actually physically experience it. And so we brought back hands-on know-how with regard to how we’re going start, set up and expand.
We took tours as well as trained in Denver. Regarding distillation, Denver is the boutique bourbon capital of the world. What comes out of Denver is outrageous, very high-quality products are being developed.
Wait – Denver is the bourbon capital of the world? Not Bardstown, Kentucky, which claims the title?
Alan Cohl: Yes, Denver is the “boutique” bourbon capital of the world. They’re producing at a much higher quality, regarding the grain, water, and technology, the real know-how. So that was a huge attraction, that then spurred us on to understand what we need to do. We purchased elements of our equipment from all over the world, as well as we manufactured some of it here in Israel.
Noam Cohen: Yes, I think Alan’s right. We’re both business owners for plus or minus 30 years. And obviously, business is all about the numbers when you break it down. But at the same time, you have to have something that gets people excited, and people want to connect to the past. They want to connect to their heritage. If you have a story that speaks to people, and you tickle them where you scratch them where they itch, so to speak, it gets people excited. At the end of the day, if you don’t love what you do, you’re probably doomed to fail. And we love what we do!
Slingshot’s corn mash Israeli whisky is kosher; you age it in Cabernet Sauvignon oak barrels. Has the constraint of kashrut been a problem in making great bourbon whisky?
Noam Cohen: Originally, when we came up with our business plan, we thought that the exorbitant cost of sourcing new oak barrels from the US would somewhat hinder our ability to get things moving along. We knew new white oak barrels, American oak, would be expensive.
We decided, because of the lower cost, to take a shot with American oak that was previously used for Cabernet at several local kosher wineries. But it turned out to be a blessing because what we ended up with was something that is definitely a bourbon profile. It’s recognizable as a bourbon profile, but it has added new flavors of sugars, of fruitiness, that people simply have not tasted before in a bourbon.
The other thing that we worked hard to come up with was a recipe that is palatable for Scotch drinkers. We’re very aware that most of the whisky drinkers in this country have been conditioned to drink Scotch. So, how to grab a portion of that market? And we worked very, very hard to come up with a recipe and a method of treating our barrels to arrive at a flavor that is palatable for Scotch drinkers.
Alan Cohl: I want to go back to the essence of the question. Kashrut is not a problem whatsoever, because we are sourcing the barrels from very high-end, acceptable kashrut kosher sources. That was important to us from the beginning. In addition to that, we actually activate the barrels with a more than the typical charring process, which is not traditional, but we have found the exact correct proportion between the grain mash and fire needed to get this amazing product to be palatable to most tastes.
Noam Cohen: The reason we called our first product Slingshot is because we are located in Eila Valley, where David killed Goliath with a slingshot – but we have called our distillery “Legends” because all of our future products, some of which are already in production or planning stages, will each be named for a well-known legend in our history.
Primer on whisky
The word “whisky” derives originally from a Gaelic term, uisge beatha, or usquebaugh, meaning “water of life.”
All Scotch whisky was originally made from malted barley. In the late 18th century, distilleries began making whisky made from wheat and barley.
All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. There are well over 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland. The five distinct categories of Scotch whisky are: single malt (made by a single distillery), single grain Scotch; blended malt (combining single malts); blended grain whisky; and blended Scotch whisky (combinations of Scotch). Whisky must have a minimum bottling strength of 40% alcohol by volume.
Bourbon is a type of American whisky. Its name derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, and it was first used in the 1850s, in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bourbon whisky is legally defined and protected by US law. To be legally sold as bourbon, the Kentucky whisky’s mash requires a minimum of 51% corn, with the remainder being any cereal grain. It must be made from grains cooked, fermented and distilled in Kentucky and aged in new charred American oak barrels for at least a year. US distillers earn over $4 billion in revenue from bourbon and the closely related spirit made in Tennessee.
And spelling? American and Irish liquor producers tend to favor “whiskey,” while Scottish, Canadian, and Japanese producers favor “whisky.” ■
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com