Israel’s first whisky distillery
Tours and tastings of Milk and Honey distillery can be booked on certain days. (photo by Ariel Fields)
Is a Bronfman family saga about to begin again? While it has a ways to go before reaching the heights of the once-mighty Seagram empire, Milk and Honey, Israel’s first whisky distillery, may one day have the last laugh. In the meantime, its young investors and workers seem to be having a good time.
I was raised to believe Jews don’t drink anything stronger than wine or the occasional beer. There were, of course, notable unexplained exceptions, as on Shabbat and holidays, when men drank schnapps or Slivovitz at the synagogue’s kiddush. My tasting and tour of Milk and Honey has forced me to change my thinking.
About four years ago, a small group of friends, all Israeli high-techies and entrepreneurs, got together to create Israel’s first whisky distillery. While it is a bit hard for me to comprehend people actually “dreaming” about starting a whisky business, don’t we attribute Herzl to saying, in 1902, “If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay”? And this group did pick a pretty Zionist name for its company.
Located in south Tel Aviv, about a 15-minute walk from Old Jaffa, the physical plant is less than a half-block long. The building is basically divided into two sections, the liquor-making facility and the visitors centre. One section looks out on the other from a full-length no-secrets-here glass divider. Six people currently work at Milk and Honey.
As a newbie to whisky-making, I did not know that basically just three ingredients go into single malt whisky: malting barley, water and yeast. Milk and Honey uses Israeli-sourced water. The barley is imported from England’s Muntons company and then mashed at Milk and Honey. The rest of the process – the fermentation, distillation and maturing – also take place on-site.
Milk and Honey has an Israeli-made fermentation tank. One of its two stills is new, but the other was constructed in 1983. It has a capacity of 9,000 litres. To my way of thinking, copper would give the whisky a funny taste, but our guide said they purposely built the still from copper, in order to give the whisky a more delicate taste.
The whisky maturation room has an elaborate alarm system, especially against fires, as the whisky is stored in combustible, wooden barrels.
In big whisky-producing countries such as the United States, Ireland, Scotland and Japan, single malt whisky needs to sit in its cask (barrel) for three years. While lots of people complain about Tel Aviv’s high humidity and temperatures, these factors might ultimately be advantageous to this type of business. Estimates are that the heat and humidity will speed up Milk and Honey’s whisky maturation process, making it two to 2.5 times faster than the above countries’ products.
Still, it will be awhile before Milk and Honey single malt whisky is sold en masse in bottles. The company does plan, however, to market some kind of limited series, which will be periodically released over the next three years.
In the meantime, Milk and Honey has started selling a few types of other liquor, including one called New Make and another called Levantine Gin.
As its name implies, the New Make does not go through barrel aging; its chief use is apparently for cocktail-making. The Levantine Gin is noteworthy for its Middle East quality – it is made with za’atar, a Middle East plant with a thyme-like taste, and other botanicals purchased locally at Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Shuk (Market). While not mentioned by our in-house guide, the use of za’atar ties this liquor to ancient Jewish roots (no pun intended). Za’atar (or “eizov,” in Hebrew) is mentioned in the Torah: in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, and references are also made in Kings I and Psalms. Moreover, although he did not prescribe za’atar specifically for hangovers, 12th-century philosopher, astronomer and physician Maimonides (aka Rambam) prescribed za’atar for headaches.
Impressively, these two products have already won awards. Just the day before I visited Milk and Honey, the Levantine Gin had won a gold medal and the New Make a silver at the 2016 Terravino Mediterranean International Wine and Spirit Challenge. Not a bad start for a new company.
All of Milk and Honey’s liquor is certified kosher. Tours and tastings are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays by prior arrangement. See mh-distillery.com/visit-our-distillery.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.