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.”

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