Transforming Whiskey Production in the Middle East

February 21, 2013 2:09 am 0 comments

The Bushmills Whiskey Distillery in Bushmills, Ireland. Photo: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90.

Modeled on the extraordinary success of the craft beer movement—which has revolutionized the beer industry in the United States by emphasizing small-scale specialty production —the micro-distilling revolution has similarly reshaped the landscape of American whiskey production with its emphasis on local authenticity and character.

A British-born Israeli and his sabra partner are teaming up to bring this phenomenon to Israel by becoming Israel’s first-ever artisan whiskey producer, the Milk and Honey Distillery.

“We intend to make a whiskey that can stand on its own two feet,” Simon Fried, one of the founders of Milk and Honey,” told JNS.org. “Not only to make a whiskey from Israel for the first time, but a good whiskey that will be respected around the world.”

At first glance, it may seem out of place to produce whiskey in the Middle East. But many may not realize that the science behind whiskey production—distillation—originated in the region thousands of years ago as alchemy, a sort of mythical pseudoscience that attempted to produce gold from other elements.

Evidence points to numerous ancient Middle Eastern civilizations—such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and even Jewish alchemists—experimenting with distillation. Even the Bible alludes to King David as being an expert alchemist as well as several prophets, including Elijah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. Another famous Jewish alchemist was a woman known as “Mary the Jewess” who lived in the first century CE in Alexandria and experimented with boiling and distilling, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

It is based on this rich Middle Eastern tradition that whiskey was born. According to legend, Irish monks and soldiers traveling to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades (some say even earlier) first learned of the process of distillation from Middle Eastern alchemists and began producing whiskey when they returned. (In fact, this reporter’s own Irish ancestors may have also played a role in this legend. It is told that in 1276, that an Irish landlord named Sir Robert Savage—who also reportedly traveled to the Middle East on Crusade decades earlier—would serve his soldiers whiskey before going into battle, a sort of early liquid courage).

Whisky barrels at the White and MacKay distillery in Invergordon, Scotland. Photo: John Haslam.

Aside from the legend, it is known that the process of distillation, like beer and wine production before it, originated in the Middle East and then spread to Europe. This is seen in the language and equipment we use to produce alcohol today. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al-kuḥl, a powder used as eyeliner, and the alembic, the predecessor to the pot still used in whiskey and brandy production.This history can also be traced back by using the word whiskey itself, which comes fromthe Gaelic uisge beatha or Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life,” as it was known in antiquity.

Today, in a region bereft of alcohol production, Israel has seen a boom in its alcohol industry. Israeli wines have become world-renowned for their quality and taste, redefining what it means to be a kosher wine, while Israeli-produced beers such as Goldstar and Maccabee have become popular everyday drinks. Israel has also seen the craft beer phenomenon come to its shores with the opening of numerous brew pubs throughout the country.

As a result, Israel seems primed for the latest alcohol trend, micro-distilling. That’s where the Milk and Honey Distillery comes into play, seeking to grow the legacy of the “water of life” and connect with its Middle East roots. Despite that history, Milk and Honey’s Fried said that to be taken seriously, whiskey producers must look outside the Middle East and learn from the best in the world in places like Ireland, Scotland and the United States.

“I have experience in the Scottish whisky industry and have been in touch with Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey consultants to help to produce a proper whiskey,” Fried told JNS.org.

But despite tapping into Scottish and Irish know-how, Fried is determined to incorporate as much from Israel as he can, such as using Israeli and Jewish themes for branding and marketing, using as many Israeli ingredients as possible, and even taking advantage of Israel’s unique topography and climate.

Fried said that producing whiskey in warmer climates such as Israel’s might bring advantages.

“The Indian-produced whiskey Amrut, which has won numerous awards for its single malts, produces its whiskey quicker while maintaining high quality because the warmer climate helps to speed the aging process,” he said.

Additionally, Fried said he might consider aging some of his barrels down by the Dead Sea—the lowest place in the world.

A bottle of the Israeli beer, Goldstar. Photo: Achi Raz.

While Israel is famous for its frustrating bureaucracy, Fried said it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a distillery running soon.

“There isn’t much red tape in Israel when it comes to producing whiskey,” he said. “Israel doesn’t have much of a history in alcohol and as a result doesn’t have a legacy of laws left over from prohibition, like in America, that stunted the growth of American craft beer and whiskey until recently.”

But Fried’s biggest challenge may be Israelis themselves. While beer and wine are very popular in the Jewish state, vodka is very popular within the country’s large Russian community, and Arabs consume moonshine-like Arak, there isn’t much of an appreciation for whiskey in Israel.

“There will be a lot of educating to do,” Fried said.

With some strong investors already in place, however, Fried said he fully expects to begin whiskey production by the end of 2013 or early 2014.

“We eventually plan on having a fully functioning distillery with a visitor’s center to educate and allow people to experience the whiskey culture,” he said.

A special note to whiskey connoisseurs: The author, keeping in line with his Irish heritage, chooses to spell whiskey with an “e” rather than “whisky.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.