Distillery at the source

A whiskey producer is hoping to be the first to distill the beverage commercially in the place the craft was conceived

Barrels of Whiskey 521 (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
Barrels of Whiskey 521
(photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
Modeled on the extraordinary success of the craft beer movement – which has revolutionized the beer industry in the United States by emphasizing small-scale specialty production – the micro-distilling revolution has similarly reshaped the landscape of American whiskey production with its emphasis on local authenticity and character.
A British-born Israeli and his Sabra partner are teaming up to bring this phenomenon to Israel by becoming the country’s first-ever artisanal whiskey producer, the Milk and Honey Distillery.
“We intend to make a whiskey that can stand on its own two feet,” says Simon Fried, one of the founders of Milk and Honey. “Not only to make a whiskey from Israel for the first time, but a good whiskey that will be respected around the world.”
At first glance, it may seem out of place to produce whiskey in the Middle East. But many may not realize that the science behind whiskey production – distillation – originated in the region thousands of years ago as alchemy, a sort of mythical pseudoscience that attempted to produce gold from other elements.
Evidence points to numerous ancient Middle Eastern civilizations – such as the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and even Jewish alchemists – experimenting with distillation. Even the Bible alludes to King David as being an expert alchemist as well as several prophets, including Elijah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. Another famous Jewish alchemist was a woman known as Mary the Jewess who lived in the first century CE in Alexandria and experimented with boiling and distilling, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
It is based on this rich Middle Eastern tradition that whiskey was born.
According to legend, Irish monks and soldiers traveling to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades (some say even earlier) first learned of the process of distillation from Middle Eastern alchemists and began producing whiskey when they returned. (In fact, this reporter’s own Irish ancestors may have also played a role in this legend. It is told that in 1276, an Irish landlord named Sir Robert Savage – who reportedly traveled to the Middle East on a Crusade decades earlier – would serve his soldiers whiskey before going into battle, a sort of early liquid courage.) Aside from the legend, it is known that the process of distillation, like beer and wine production before it, originated in the Middle East and then spread to Europe. This is seen in the language and equipment we use to produce alcohol today. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, a powder used as eyeliner, and alembic, the predecessor to the pot still used in whiskey and brandy production. This history can also be traced back through the word whiskey itself, which comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha or Latin aqua vitae – “water of life,” as it was known in antiquity.
Today, in a region not known for alcohol production, Israel has seen a boom in its alcohol industry. The country’s wines have become world-renowned for their quality and taste, redefining what it means to be a kosher wine, while beers such as Goldstar and Maccabee have become popular everyday drinks.
Israel has also seen the craft beer phenomenon come to its shores with the opening of numerous brew pubs throughout the country.
As a result, the country seems primed for the latest alcohol trend, micro-distilling.
That’s where the Milk and Honey Distillery comes into play, seeking to grow the legacy of the “water of life” and connect with its Middle Eastern roots. Despite that history, Milk and Honey’s Fried said that to be taken seriously, whiskey producers must look outside the Middle East and learn from the best in the world in places like Ireland, Scotland and the US.
“I have experience in the Scottish whisky industry and have been in touch with Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey consultants to help to produce a proper whiskey,” Fried says.
But despite tapping into Scottish and Irish know-how, Fried is determined to incorporate as much from Israel as he can, such as using Israeli and Jewish themes for branding and marketing, using as many local ingredients as possible and even taking advantage of the country’s topography and climate.
Fried said that producing whiskey in warmer climates might bring advantages.
“The Indian-produced whiskey, Amrut, which has won numerous awards for its single malts, produces its whiskey quicker while maintaining high quality because the warmer climate helps to speed the aging process,” he says.
Additionally, Fried says he might consider aging some of his barrels down by the Dead Sea – the lowest place in the world.
While Israel is famous for its frustrating bureaucracy, Fried says it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a distillery running soon.
“There isn’t much red tape in Israel when it comes to producing whiskey,” he says. “Israel doesn’t have much of a history in alcohol and as a result doesn’t have a legacy of laws left over from Prohibition, like in America, that stunted the growth of American craft beer and whiskey until recently.”
But Fried’s biggest challenge may be Israelis themselves. While beer and wine are popular in the Jewish state, vodka is very popular within the country’s large Russian community and Arabs consume moonshine-like arak, there isn’t much of an appreciation for whiskey in Israel.
“There will be a lot of educating to do,” he says.
With some strong investors already in place, however, Fried says he fully expects to begin whiskey production by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
“We eventually plan on having a fully functioning distillery with a visitors’ center to educate and allow people to experience the whiskey culture,” he says.