Wine Talk: History in a bottle

Reflecting the melting pot of Israel, each alcoholic beverage produced here has its own story that goes hand in hand with the story of aliya.

Israeli alcoholic beverages 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli alcoholic beverages 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Carmel, Gold, Elite, Stock, Sabra and Goldstar are familiar names to students of Israel’s wines, spirits and beers. These brands have each had a part to play in the unfolding history of Israeli alcoholic beverages over the years.
Reflecting the melting pot of Israel, each has its own story. Involved in their beginnings were two Rothschilds from France, a Bronfman from Canada, an Italian and a family from Russia.
Carmel was founded in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris. It is the oldest commercial winery in Israel and arguably the most famous Jewish brand in the world. Carmel was Israel’s first brand and was also its first exporter. The country’s first electricity and telephone were at Carmel and no less than three future prime ministers, including David Ben- Gurion, once worked there. The story of Carmel really matches the story of Israel. Carmel remains Israel’s largest winery.
Israeli wines have received international acclaim. Many may be considered genuinely world class and they are undoubtedly the most successful of our alcoholic beverages, bringing nothing but credit to Israel.
The largest-selling spirit in Israel is vodka. The Gold family came to Safed from Russia in 1824, having been distillers in Russia in the 18th century. After 1918 they began to build their distillery into a commercial concern. Joseph Gold & Sons is now situated at Tirat Hacarmel. Gold is the best-selling Israeli vodka.
The vodka market is growing, but the importance of Israeli-produced vodkas has become marginalized with all the cheap imports and the strong presence of the global mega brands.
The indigenous spirit of Israel is arak. It is the ethnic spirit for most Mediterranean countries and is similar to the French pastis, Turkish raki, Greek ouzo, Egyptian zabib, North African mahia, Spanish ojen and Armenian oghi. The Lebanese also call it arak.
The Alouf (50%) and Elite (40%) araks are produced by what is incongruously called Yekev Hagalil (Galilee Winery), which is also owned by Gold & Sons. Elite arak is to still to be found in most kiosks and bars in the country.
Arak is undergoing a revival. There are new quality araks produced in Israel such as El Namroud and Kawar, but arak is unlikely either to achieve the sales potential of Greek ouzo or to reach the status here that it has in Lebanon.
Stock 84 brandy has a special story. Stock was founded in 1884 by the 18-year-old Lionello Stock in Italy. The Jewish-owned company settled in Trieste and was a great success until the rise of Mussolini. Then the distilleries were pillaged, closed or nationalized. Because of this, Lionello Stock had to rebuild his company towards the end of his life and chose to make a start in other countries like America … and Israel. In 1938 he began to produce brandy in Ramat Gan and it became the largest-selling brandy in Israel. Its Stock 84, still a major international brand, is made under license in Israel by Barkan Winery, which is owned by Tempo.
Israeli brandies are very good, if somewhat forgotten. Both Jonathan Tishbi and Carmel 100 won the Trophy for Best Brandy Worldwide at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London. These were tremendous achievements for Israel. However, the brandy market is declining. Young adults prefer vodka or whiskey.
The first Sabra liqueur was developed in 1963 by Canadian Charles Bronfman, one of the owners of drinks giant Seagram. The unique bottle was a copy of a Phoenician wine flask found in a Tel Aviv museum. Sabra Chocolate Orange was followed by Sabra Coffee, and Grand Sabra is the latest addition to the range. This is an orange brandy liqueur made from kumquat oranges macerated in three-year-old 777 Brandy. Sabra liqueurs are mainly popular as gifts from Israel but also used for cooking, making cocktails or as after dinner drinks.
Sabra liqueurs won three gold medals at the IWSC in London, which showed they are liqueurs of the highest international quality.
The oldest beer brand in Israel is Nesher, which was first produced in 1934 by a company called Palestine Breweries, situated in the Rishon Lezion wine cellars! This was a joint venture involving Frenchman Gaston Dreyfus and James Rothschild. There was a wall separating the winery from the brewery and the workers used to meet there to barter wine for beer and vice versa. Palestine Breweries was successful during the British Mandate because the British knew how to drink beer. When the British left, the industry declined.
Arguably the finest Israeli beer is Goldstar. This was originally produced in 1950 at the brewery situated at Rishon Lezion cellars. Now owned by Tempo, it remains the national beer of Israel and is of international quality, but is unknown outside Israel.
So wine is the alcoholic beverage that has proved the best ambassador for Israel overseas. Until today, Carmel wines, Gold vodka, Elite arak, Stock brandy, Sabra liqueurs and Goldstar beer remain the largest-selling Israeli brands within their categories.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes on wine in Israeli and international publications.