From grain to glass: Israel is poised for a whisky revolution

Distillers in Israel say that the hot climate makes the whisky age faster, and are convinced they can be competitive in the market.

The tasting room at Milk and Honey (photo credit: Courtesy)
The tasting room at Milk and Honey
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the past 20 years, Israel has earned its place in the wine world, with more than 300 wineries that have won international prizes at various competitions. Now the Jewish state seems to be on the verge of a whisky revolution.
“Israelis like everything quick, and want new things,” Nitai Morgenstern of the Golan Heights Distillery said in an interview. “Whisky prices have gone down and people started getting to know it. The Israeli public is interested.”
To be called whisky, the spirit has to be aged for at least three years in a barrel. In Scotland, premium whiskys are aged for 15, 18, or even 20 years. Distillers in Israel say that the hot climate makes the whisky age faster, and are convinced they can be competitive in the market. They cite whisky from Taiwan and India, which both have a climate similar to that of Israel and both have been successful internationally.
The distillery is owned by David Zibell who made aliyah from Montreal in 2014 along with his wife and six children. They settled in Katzrin, on the southern Golan Heights.
“I had a strong passion for whisky and I felt that while I was making this big move it would be a real opportunity to realize a dream I had for making whisky,” he said. “I thought the Golan was an ideal place to start an Israeli distillery. I bought some equipment and two months after I arrived I started the Golan Heights distillery. Today we have a full line of whiskys, gin and arak.”
He says that one of the reasons he chose Katzrin, not far from Israel’s border with Syria is that the nearby slopes have many kinds of wild barley, and the area has a lot of rivers and waterfalls with pure water. So far his gamble is paying off and the distillery is expanding quickly.
Zibell says they will open a second distillery and a visitors center in Jerusalem, in April, where they will make rum and peated whisky. They will start with 15,000 liters per year, going up to 30,000 liters over the next few years. In their main distillery on the Golan they currently produce 25,000 liters per year and will increase to 100,000 liters after their new building is completed sometime next year.
The Golan Heights Distillery complies with the Scottish standards for whisky, meaning it must be aged at least three years. Higher end Scotch whiskys can be aged for 20 years or more.
Zibell says he makes a two-grain whisky with a mix of wheat and barley in different flavors. He says he uses products connected to the land of Israel.
“Two of the seven species of the Land of Israel are wheat and barley,” he said. “And some of our products like Golani Vino are aged in red wine casks from the Golan Heights winery so that [wine] is a third of the seven species.”
For the Golani Black, the most popular of the line, the two grain whisky is aged in new charred American oak barrels that are charred at the distillery. There is also a sweet version, Golani maple.
“All we do is add organic maple syrup, which makes it gently sweet for someone beginning in whisky who wants something a little sweet,” he said. “For Rosh Hashana we do a honey whisky that sold out immediately.”
The other major distillery in Israel, Milk and Honey, was established in downtown Tel Aviv in 2013 by a group of friends, hi-tech professionals and entrepreneurs.
There is a large visitors’ center that offers tours and tastings. They are schooled to release their first three-year barrel-aged single malt later this year.
They are marketing Milk and Honey (one of the Biblical names for the Land of Israel) as part of the Start-up nation story. They raised part of the money for the distillery via a crowd-funding campaign, and raised even more than they asked for.
“Once you hear the story and see the place you become a customer and a friend,” Eitan Attir, the CEO of Milk and Honey says. “We take people through the whole production line so they can see, smell and taste.”
They use 100 percent malted barley imported from the UK. One of their most popular offerings is the New Make, which is a clear double-distilled liquor that will eventually turn into Scotch. It is fruity and a little sweet, and, says Attir, a great base for cocktails. The visitors center also offers popular cocktail workshops.
There is also a young single malt.
“It’s called our cask series,” says Dana Baran, the VP of Marketing. “This young single malt is mixed from three different casks – an ex-bourbon, ex-red wine, and an ex-Islay cask with a little peaty finish.
She said this young single malt competed in Israel’s Whisky Live exhibition last year, and won second place.
Milk and Honey are also making a gin using unique Israeli ingredients like za’atar (local wild oregano) as well as juniper berries, lemon, orange peels, chamomile and cinnamon.
“It’s Israel in a glass,” said Eitan Attir, the CEO of Milk and Honey. “If you expect an 18-year-old single malt you will be disappointed. If you’re expecting what it is – a new distillery, which is four years old, you will be very impressed because what they are doing in four years is amazing. In 12 years they will be much better than any 12-year-old single malt that you’re getting now.”
Two other distilleries, Legends Distillery in the Elah Valley, and Edrei Distillry in Katzrin are set to open in the next year. Legends will produce a flagship bourbon called “Slingshot” alluding to the David and Goliath story, which reportedly took place in the Elah Valley.