Over the last decade, Israel has become well known internationally for its wine. In a sense, the Israeli wine industry represents some of the best attributes of Israel today: the energy, the vibrancy, the technology, the agricultural genius, the start-up nation ethic.
“After all,” as Adam Montefiore, formerly of Carmel Winery and arguably still the Israeli wine industry’s best known unofficial brand ambassador, once told me, “Thirty-some years ago Israel was known for Jaffa oranges and the kibbutz, and now it is known for high tech and wine, but you can’t give a bottle of high tech as a present.”
Israel, however, has not been known for its distilled spirits. There have been plenty of folks in Israel who’ve produced brandy, vodka, Arak and various liqueurs, but nothing that really commands the attention, much less the respect, of distilled spirits aficionados.
Now there are now two active Israeli whisky producers. On my recent trip to Israel, I had the good fortune of visiting both the Milk & Honey Distillery and the Golan Heights Distillery.
The Milk and Honey Distillery (M&H) is a sleek, compact urban distillery in the small, strip-mall-like industrial zone on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The Golan Heights Distillery (GHD), by contrast, is a rough-and-ready micro distillery housed in the Katzrin Industrial Park in the Golan Heights. The former feels like a well-funded, corporate enterprise, while the latter feels more like a passionate and personal effort by one man to turn his avocation into a vocation.
The M&H is the dream project of six whisky-loving Israeli entrepreneurs, and is focused on producing malt whisky that can stand proud with any Scotch malt whisky, releasing new-make spirit and gin just to generate some revenue and buzz until they’ve got enough aged product to release a “proper” whisky.
As there is no whisky regulation in Israel, there is nothing barring them from calling their still maturing spirit “whisky” right now. They have chosen, however, to adopt the Scotch whisky regulation that requires at least three years of oak aging.
The GHD is no less promising, but has a dramatically less corporate, less sleek, less coifed vibe. It is the dream of one man, David Zibell.
Born in France and raised in Canada, Israel and the United States, Zibell abandoned his real estate career in Montreal, took his family to Israel in 2014 so that he could pursue his dream of “distilling a new style of whisky in a place I truly can call home.”
That summer, Zibell was in the Golan Heights distilling his first single malt spirit. Unlike M&H, Zibell’s GHD is much more like the artisanal craft-distillers here in the United States who are tinkering with different grains and processes, and generally experimenting with an open mind.
Needing to generate both profit and consumer market, Zibell began producing gin and had a real hit with his production of absinthe. “We named it the ‘Holy Spirit,’” he said, “because the absinthe plant is known in France as the ‘holy herb,’ and we distill it in the Holy Land and it truly is a ‘holy spirit’.”
He has also released some whiskies. Not a slave to Scotch whisky regulatory codes, Zibell ultimately had no qualms about releasing to market some of his young spirit as “whisky” before it had aged for three years. He thus got his product to market before M&H and can rightly claim to be the first Israeli whisky. L’chaim!