Israel is now the land of milk and whiskey

David Zibell is busy testing the alcohol level of the liquid flowing out of his outdoor copper still. Then, touching his head to ensure his kippah is in place, he heads inside to carefully place labels on the whiskey bottles lined up inside his distillery.

The small warehouse in an industrial zone in the Golan Heights town of Katzrin may not look like much from the outside, where his makeshift whiskey still is essentially a large metal pot connected to a blue plastic garbage pail. But Zibell — a bearded, bespectacled French Canadian who made aliyah in 2014 — is the first person to bottle and sell whiskey in Israel, where it hit the market earlier this month.

The Jewish state may be known for many things, but whiskey isn’t one of them. Until recently, Israel-made alcohol was basically confined to the likes of Goldstar and Maccabee — beer that few Israelis are proud of — and arak, a potent, clear liquor that even Israelis admit is a bit of an acquired taste.

Over the past decade, however, Israel’s alcohol industry has blossomed. It now boasts award-winning wineries that have become world-renowned, and Israeli micro-breweries have proven their prowess as well.

Now, with a total of three distilleries that have opened in Israel over the past four years, it may be whiskey’s turn.

“Whiskey was always my passion, but now there’s a bigger demand for it,” said Zibell, founder of Golan Heights Distillery. “Whiskey sales in Israel went up 45 percent in the last three years. This happened elsewhere years ago, but here things take a little longer.”

This new crop of Israeli whiskey-makers are capitalizing upon the spirit’s rising popularity around the world, said Jonathan Ishai, the founder of the Israeli Whisky Society. When Ishai founded his group back in 2003, he said he had few comrades. But today the group boasts 5,000 members who gather at whiskey tasting events, lectures and occasional trips to Scotland.

For now, the whiskey scene in Israel is a fledgling one, with all three distillers in a bit of a friendly competition to lay claim to the country’s “firsts” when it comes to this particularly evocative — and fetishized — spirit.

Pelter, a well-known winery in the northern Golan Heights, was the first operation in Israel to begin distilling whiskey in November 2013.

Inspired by other boutique wineries that have edged into the whiskey-distilling biz, Pelter’s founder Tal Pelter found himself buying a still from Cognac, France, that was once used by Remy Martin. “There was zero production in Israel so it was like diving into a deep blue ocean,” said Pelter, whose grandfather hawked homemade whiskey in the U.S. during Prohibition.

Milk & Honey was the first to build a whiskey distillery in Israel. They began construction on their 10,000-square-foot facility in Jaffa in June 2014 and started distilling in March 2015. Last month they opened a sleek visitor’s center, which offers tours, tastings and private events. With its poured-concrete floors and shared wooden tables, its industrial-chic atmosphere could easily be mistaken for something in Brooklyn.

“Six whiskey-loving friends decided they wanted to turn a dream into a reality,” said Eitan Attir, Milk & Honey’s new CEO. “Most of them are from hi-tech and have startups, and this is a bit like a startup.”

Meanwhile, the Golan Heights Distillery is a tiny, one-man operation. Zibell — a 36-year-old who was born in Paris and raised in Montreal — is founder, CEO and master distiller, as well as sole investor. His love of whiskey and his dream of making his own began innocently, inspired by many “l’chaims” at Shulounge, the Montreal synagogue where he drank whiskey with friends after Shabbat services every Saturday.

When Zibell moved to Israel with his wife and three of his six children, he intended to continue working in real estate but make whiskey as a hobby. He found romance in the idea of distilling in the picturesque Golan Heights, near his Katzrin home. Once Zibell bought a still,“I started distilling and haven’t stopped,” he said.

That Zibell succeeded in being first to market hinges on a technicality: There are no whiskey regulations in Israel, as there are in Scotland or the United States. In Scotland, the birthplace of whiskey (or whisky, as it is known there), laws mandate, among other things, that whiskey age a minimum of three years in oak barrels. In the U.S., federal law regulates the percentage of grains and alcohol in labeling various spirits. So while Zibell’s spirit may be considered whiskey in Israel, it wouldn’t necessarily be labeled as such elsewhere. (A previous attempt to distill whiskey in Israel, in the 1970s, failed when the Scotch Whisky Association successfully sued the makers of the Israeli brand, Ascot, for calling its  product “Scotch.”)

By contrast, Pelter and Milk & Honey are following the Scotch regulations. As their whiskey ages, both distilleries are producing and selling a variety of other tasty spirits. Milk & Honey is selling “new make” — a potent alcohol produced during the distillation process. (Aging in oak barrels is what gives whiskey its color and up to 70 percent of its flavor.) They’re also hawking “Levantine gin,” which featured spices from Tel Aviv’s Levinski market. Pelter’s non-wine offerings include gin, arak and mahjoul, a date brandy.

Fortunately for Zibell and his young spirit, whiskey matures much faster and more intensely in Israel due to the hot and humid climate, according to Ishai.

In September last year, after aging his two-grain sour-mash whiskey for one year, Zibell began selling a limited run at select stores in Jerusalem in order to test the response to such a young whiskey. The feedback was favorable and Zibell formally launched on Israeli Independence Day on May 12.

Calling his spirit “Golani Whiskey” — both for its geographic origin as well as the IDF infantry brigade whose logo inspired the bottle’s green label — Zibell is releasing 100 bottles each week of the 900-bottle run. An additional 600 bottles will soon be available in the U.S. through kosher wine distributor The River. Milk & Honey and Golan Heights and both kosher certified.

“People are eager to see an Israeli whiskey,” says Zibell. “I’m going to keep it as a young whiskey, because the Israeli personality is all about not wanting to wait for things.”

For those with patience, Zibell is also distilling single malt, rye and corn-mash whiskeys, all of which he plans to release between late 2017 and mid-2018. Golan Heights Distillery is producing other spirits as well, including an absinthe inspired by his great-grandmother, who owned an absinthe bar in France.

If further proof — pun intended — of Israel’s whiskey bonafides is needed, in June, Whisky Live, “the world’s premier whisky tasting show,” will come to Tel Aviv for its third year. And this year, for the first time, visitors will be able to sample locally made whiskeys.

Unlike Israel’s blossoming craft-beer and wine industries, home-grown whiskey has taken longer to catch on partly because high-end spirits were once too expensive for the average Israeli. That changed in June 2013, when former Finance Minister Yair Lapid issued controversial tax reforms. Though the new taxes were bad news for fans of cheap arak — bottles that once cost as little as $5 now start at $15 — they were celebrated by Israeli whiskey lovers, who could now pay $40 for a bottle of 12-year-old Glenlivet that previously cost $70.

And as Israelis’ palette grows more accustomed to this high-end spirit, the pioneers of Israel’s whiskey industry expect more of their fellow countrymen to join them in opening distilleries.

“If 30 years ago I told you Israel would have great wines, you’d have laughed at me, but today there are so many great Israeli wines,” said Ishai. “Whiskey will take a little longer, but it will get there, too.”

Of Worms and Greatness


A teacher wanted to demonstrate the evils of liquor to his fifth-grade class. He conducted an experiment with a glass of water, a glass of whiskey and two worms. The teacher put the first worm in the glass of water. The worm wiggled about, happy as can be. Then he put the second worm in the whiskey. It writhed painfully, sank to the bottom and died.

“Now, what lesson can we learn from this experiment?” he asked the class.

One bright student responded, “Drink whiskey and you won’t get worms.”

One often sees the world through the lenses of his or her own leanings. Our powerful intellects can serve to justify and spin most anything. Ultimate truth, goodness and our essential purpose can become casualties of our own bias. But what are we to do, how can we possibly escape our very humanity?

A simple answer emerges from our Torah portion, Tazria. In it, the Torah states that if one has a white blotch on one’s skin, he may have tzaraat, a dreaded metaphysical disease (often poorly translated as leprosy) which our tradition links to seven social sins, most prominent among them being lashon hara (malicious speech). The expert Kohen (priest) is empowered as the ultimate arbiter to determine whether one possesses tzaraat. Forced isolation, among a host of other consequences, awaited the confirmed tzaraat recipient’s fate. The consequent fiscal repercussions, coupled with the social shame, made this disease anathema at worst — and simply very unwelcome at best.

But what if a Kohen has the symptoms of tzaarat himself? Can he self-diagnose?

“All blemishes may one assess,” the Mishnah proclaims unequivocally, “save for his own.”

Thus, the law cautions that the expert in parsing and evaluating the minutiae of tzaraat may not examine himself; rather, even he must seek another expert’s authority.

Perhaps the simple but critical point that the Torah is teaching us is that to emerge from our own natural biases, we must never be too big to consult — the teacher, the sage, the friend; we must be humble enough to seek out that unvarnished opinion.

And, yet, a troubling question arises. Does Judaism not trust its adherents? Is it not the case that any Jew sufficiently familiar with ritual law may deem his or her chicken kosher — and then eat it too? One may even decide personal questions of family purity. Incredibly, one may even determine that his money is “kosher.” Apparently, even in the face of fiscal, physical or material bias, Judaism optimistically asserts that we can be true to ourselves, assess our biases and compensate accordingly. Why then may the expert Kohen not decide his fate?

Perhaps the solution lies in the following story.

In the court of the Beit Halevi, (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1820-1892), two litigants shouted and cursed each other. Even as the litigation ended, the degree of enmity and vehemence did not dissipate, nor did it seem commensurate to the relatively small disputed amount. The losing party left with a few choice words for the members of the court. Beit Halevi’s son, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, was stunned: How is it that this very same loser, just a few weeks earlier, had accepted with much greater equanimity the declaration that his animal was nonkosher, resulting in a far greater fiscal loss?

The sagacious Beit Halevi turned to his son and responded: “A decision about the kosher status of an animal does not reflect personally upon the inquirer. If the animal is not kosher, the questioner is not offended nor insulted. In a litigated monetary dispute, the inference of a rendered decision is an implication of misbehavior.”

In other words, as long as I’m not wrong, I don’t mind paying!

In our service to God, it’s never really about the money; we can and often do transcend our material selves. However, the moment that our character, our foibles, our very selves are thrust under the microscope, we begin to weave a complex web of defense mechanisms to avert the painful truths that necessitate real personal introspection. It is in this realm that we are paralyzed by personal bias and must rely upon the insight of others.

Which leads us to one of the great and humbling truths of the spiritual seeker: If we are not ready to face introspectional pain, there will be no spiritual gain.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.