The world’s largest whisky exhibition finally reached Tel Aviv last week. For the first time, Whisky Live, a two-day showcase of 300 bottles from countries like Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and India, set up shop in the Holy Land.
One of the most popular stands at the fair, though, had yet to make one bottle. The Milk and Honey Distillery, Israel’s first-ever whisky distillery, started in 2012 as an idea between six friends. They raised more than $70,000 in late 2013, enough to buy barrels and copper stills for their distillery in northern Jaffa. Master distiller Jim Swan, who has advised whisky operations in other New World countries like Taiwan and India, is overseeing their production. I spoke with Milk and Honey co-founder Simon Fried at Whisky Live to learn more about the project.
How important is it that Whisky Live has come to Israel for the first time?
For us it’s a huge deal. Whisky is booming everywhere, and now it’s booming in Israel too. You see advertising here you didn’t see before, for great quality single malts which just a few years ago people couldn’t afford to buy. Taxes have come down on expensive alcohol, and that’s opened the doors to quality alcohols entering Israeli homes.
What’s the vision for the Milk and Honey distillery?
I’ve been a whisky buff for a long time. I saw distilleries coming up in all kinds of different places, and they are kind of flagbearers for the countries they come from. And in the same way people are proud of Israeli wine doing quite well, and get great satisfaction from drinking good Israeli microbrewed beer, it seemed logical someone would put an Israeli whisky on shelves.
How did you think of the name?
We wanted a name that would represent the whole country and the produce found in the country. We figured Milk and Honey is not too Jewish and not too Christian.
Also, it turned out that in Scotland, milk and honey were things they used to drink with whisky traditionally, because until about 100 years ago, Scottish whisky was disgusting. They drank to get drunk and they put whisky in barrels because they didn’t have anywhere else to put it. And they would mix it with milk and honey to make it more palatable.
Doesn’t that curdle?
Depends on how you mix and stir. It’s not a million miles away from Baileys.
What was the inspiration for raising your initial investment through crowd funding?
Setting up a distillery is a tough business because you have to have a lot of money going out on day one before you can sell anything. So the idea of turning to fans, or people who wanted to help us to bridge this gap seemed like a great thing. And many other whisky distilleries do the same thing. One of the inspirations I had was a distillery in Sweden. They are also in a New World, nontraditional whisky country, and so far they have sold 10,000 small barrels to the public.
People want to have a role. They want sense of ownership over whisky. And for a lot of people, having your own cask with your name on it, and aged as you want it aged, that you can drink or leave to your grandkids—it’s a very special thing.
Where will your distillery be located?
We have a place in northern Jaffa, a few hundred meters from coast.
Scotland’s climate is cold and wet. How will Israel’s hot and mostly dry climate affect your whisky?
In Israel’s case, it’s a huge advantage. This is a country where nobody has any patience whatsoever, and the good news is the whisky will age quickly. The whisky will be fully mature after three, four or five years, rather than the usual ten or twelve people would normally hope to see from Scottish whisky. The higher temperature makes the interaction with the wood quicker.
When will your first bottles of whisky be available?
We’re hoping toward end of 2018, but those bottles have already been ordered through crowdfunding. Not too long thereafter other bottles will hopefully be available. We didn’t sell out of our first batch of casks, so if people are still interested in buying one, they can get in touch with us.
Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.