Distillery Focus

L’Chaim to the dream!

Behind the scenes at Israel’s first whisky distillery
By Simon Roser
Israel might seem an unlikely place to make whisky, but that didn’t stop a group of whisky-loving entrepreneurs from realising their dream – an Israeli single malt. The dream began when tech supremo Gal Kalkshtein, who used to make beer at home, decided he would up the stakes and try making whisky. Recalling the moment he told me: “I started to learn about the whisky world and culture. It is so amazing and full of tastes. I fell in love and decided to open a distillery.”

Construction began in June 2014 and less than a year later they were distilling, and Milk & Honey (known colloquially as M&H) became Israel’s first whisky distillery. You can find them in Tel Aviv in what used to be a bakery. Visiting a few months ago I was impressed by their vision and ambition. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future they find a way of turning the sea of Galilee into whisky, such is their mindset. When you get to know the team at M&H, you realise anything is possible!

It isn’t so much what M&H are doing, the science of whisky making now relatively well understood the world over, it’s how they are doing it. Although young in age and experience they are flourishing in a hot climate, a challenge in itself where average temperatures fluctuate between 16 and 40 degrees Celsius with simultaneously high humidity. Thanks in part to the late Dr Jim Swan (an expert at distilling and wood management in hot climates who consulted to M&H until his untimely death in 2017); they are mastering maturation in a challenging physical environment, and well on their way to their first commercial whisky release later this year.

If anything they are going too fast with the heat of the sun turbocharging flavours after only 18 months. While co-founder and head distiller Tomer Goren acknowledges high temperatures aren’t ideal to produce whisky, he points out: “We use weather to our advantage” and buys and tries casks from around the world to challenge or stress test his numerous experiments, currently finding second fill to be a good balance in the heat.

Since their first bottling of spirit in February 2016 they’ve released two editions of single malt whisky under their ‘experimental series’, distilled during a phase which began before M&H was operational in its present location; a first edition of 391 bottles in August 2017 (Israel’s first single malt whisky), and a second edition of 324 bottles in March 2018 – both now sold out). Currently in a second phase they are releasing a variety of spirits as part their ‘cask series’ that invites us all to join their journey and be part of their spirit’s ageing process.

They now have around 1500 casks maturing on site in three warehouses, including ex-sherry from Spain, ex-Bourbon from the USA, ex-Scotch obviously from Scotland, and ex-wine from Israel along with some local ex-craft beer casks. The experiments that captured my imagination were from a cask that previously contained wine made from pomegranates (sourced from the Israeli Rimon winery who use an indigenous pomegranate variety that only grows in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel), and from another aged by the salty Dead Sea. As most will know this is the lowest place on Earth (-430 metres below sea level) and one of the driest and hottest locations in the world where temperatures skyrocket to 51 degrees Celsius. These cask samples were captivating in their flavour profile, and enabled me to better understand the evolving M&H taste, brand identity and unique sales proposition.

While all their casks are kosher, the company points out kosher isn’t a differentiator for them. Dana Baran, VP of Marketing, informed me that although M&H products are and will remain kosher so they can be enjoyed without any halachic concerns, they want their whisky to be enjoyed by a much wider audience. Indeed only 10 per cent of what they make is destined for their home market in Israel with 90 per cent intended for export to countries such as Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Austria, Canada, Australia and soon the USA.

Tal Chotiner, VP International Sales, tells me the consumers he meets around the world at whisky events are interested in an Israeli whisky. And it’s easy to see why. Not only are consumers ever more open to different categories of whisky, such as single grain and rye, they are seeking out whiskies to try from around the world with the more passionate planning holidays around visits to their favourite distilleries, more than 12,000 have made the pilgrimage to M&H since the opening of their visitor centre in April 2016. M&H has the added advantage of only being 20 minutes walk from the beach. If you like to sunbathe, guess what, you can pick up M&H branded sun tan lotion and a beach bag from their visitor centre; a must, given Tel Aviv has more than 300 days of sunshine annually.

Tel Aviv itself is fascinating, familiar if you’ve been to Southern Europe and the Middle East, but completely unexpected in other ways. The city is a mix of the old and new, the modern and the classic. It is easy to forget this area was mostly desert only 110 years ago. This being my first trip, it was illuminating to discover how liberal, friendly and hospitable the people are, all exuding that classic Mediterranean warmth. Most arresting was the pursuit people have of high quality and perfection, explained by ‘tikkun olam’: a signature theme of Jewish tradition that means ‘to do something with the world that will not only fix any damage, but also improve upon it.’
Not surprisingly ‘no compromise’ is in the M&H mission statement.

Tomer who has a master distiller certificate from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling holds the view that “whisky is a very old industry and everything can be improved.” While he respects the knowledge-based art of distillation, he believes his real task is blending, citing Richard Paterson of Dalmore and David Stewart of The Balvenie as influences. He devotes many hours per day practising with different casks to perfect his flavour because “that’s me, and it is what will bring people to buy the next bottle.” Tomer rises with the sun at 5am, is at work by 6am but can still find time to helm a tour of Tel Aviv’s choice eateries and exotic nightlife just as the sun goes down. This dedication to craft and the pursuit of perfection, shared with the rest of M&H’s team who often use terms such as ‘no shortcuts’, seems certain to put their whisky and M&H on the map. From the variety of cask samples we tried together I can see a direction taking shape - oily, full bodied, a juicy citric fruitiness with an attractive pepper spice, a touch of dryness, along with a slight saltiness and a light oak influence, a whisky he describes as being like himself because “it’s just what I like, what I think good whisky should be and just drinkable!” Gal goes further to imply that if his whisky were a person it would be superman because “I want my whisky to be perfect.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Gal’s tech background, and Tel Aviv’s vibrant entrepreneurial culture, the M&H distillery feels a little like a tech start up, unique from other distilleries I’ve visited around the world. Their new make and the various cask experiments they’ve tried could be the equivalent of the tech scene’s MVP (minimal viable product) as they iterate to tweak their approach to whisky making and house style. They are careful with their spend and agile with their attention and ideas, enabling them to pivot quickly if something isn’t working. M&H’s CEO Eitan Attir points out flexibility is therefore something they look for in all the staff they hire. This agility is perhaps the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the traditional time mannered, structured approach to whisky making, which gives M&H an advantage over some other distilleries.

Both Eitan, Tomer and Gal share the mindset of not taking no for an answer, with Gal stating “we can do anything, but just don’t know how yet.” This is demonstrated by their approach to enhancing even the simplest of operations. For example, Tomer needed a way of easily monitoring the volume of spirit in each cask, so Gal invented a sonar-based device he intends to fit into each cask bung.

While their water source, being city based, is hard, rich in calcium and generally unsuitable for whisky making let alone cooling, no problem, they just installed a water lab for reverse osmosis before adding in the salts and minerals they desire, and use refrigerators to keep their fermentation tanks at the right temperature. Currently their barley is imported from the UK and the Czech Republic so they can better control quality, but I would imagine a local solution is not far off. No matter what resistance they meet they are able to find a way around it with ease, ingenuity and panache in the time it takes a tech company to release a new app update.

This isn’t a company driving towards an IPO or trade sale, they are in it for the long run. The team, still in their 30s, are ambitious and want to share the stage and shelf space with world renowned brands such as The Balvenie and Glenfiddich. They are already setting their sights on expansion of the distillery and operations, while we still wait for their first commercial whisky to come out.

This vision and global ambition, which they sometimes refer to as ‘the Israeli dream’, is in their DNA. In years to come we could be looking to the M&H team for what they will try next, thanking them for the likely innovation they will drive in whisky making.

Will their whisky be in the top five globally by 2030? Given the current economic climate, and competition from multiple brands fighting for our attention, it is too early to say. But with their strategic vision and agile approach, if anybody can achieve such a goal, they can.

Whisky making has always been interesting but now, as a result of distilleries like M&H who are testing perceptions of what is possible in home terroir, whisky making is exciting! L’Chaim to their Israeli dream!