“We fulfilled our dream and established Israel’s first whisky distillery.”
Around a year ago, a couple of close friends and I (well, it was mostly my friends – I was just asked by them to join the conversation) discussed a research project on cultural heritage. My friends were interested in applying for a research grant that would help us use cultural mapping methodologies to determine the way a specific Filipino dish is perceived, defined, and shaped.
One of the long-term effects of this project would have been to create a formal designation – a geographical indication – for that dish. Given the lack of a formal identity that involved this specific local dish and the rich industry surrounding it, we felt that such a designation would provide the necessary structure that could make this aspect of Philippine heritage more tangible and sustainable.
The idea of having the opportunity to pioneer an entire industry and its cultural products is fascinating. An entity doing so will have an immense amount of freedom; no standards have been set and – to an extent – no rules have been made to be followed. In the same vein, those freedoms come with many implications. Which production processes are best? What defines the product? In what ways would the product be distinct? How would other entities seeking to produce the same cultural product go about in doing so? What are the ethical or legal implications of this business or product? The possibilities and consequences are endless, and the same questions surround the emergence of new kinds of whisky.
New-world whisky is defined by Distill Ventures as “whisky not produced in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the USA, or Japan, or a whisky made in a style not traditionally associated with the country that it is made in.” The whisky giants have engendered new players that seek their own place! And so, it becomes fascinating to learn about the challenges, decision-making, and commitments encountered by entities that produce new-world whisky, especially those that pioneer whisky production in their respective countries. Today, it is with this sense of curiosity that I’d like to write about M&H Whisky Distillery.
The idea of opening M&H (formerly Milk and Honey) Whisky Distillery was conceived in 2012 by a group of friends who were both entrepreneurs and whisky enthusiasts. They considered the endeavor a cultural challenge yet wanted to take it on anyway. The distillery’s name references Israel, biblically described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” to indicate the fertility of the land promised by Yahweh for His people. Located in Tel Aviv, the “heart of Israel’s culinary and drinking scene,” the distillery’s local climate is likened by head distiller Tomer Goren to countries like Taiwan and India.
They began a partnership with the late Dr. Jim Swan, who had particular expertise in distilling in hot climates; he served as the group’s consultant, and some of his significant contributions involved designing the mash tun, choosing the stills, finding the casks used for maturation, and coming up with the overall recipe used by the distillery.
Through their design decisions with Dr. Swan, M&H wanted to produce Scotch-style whisky, specifically similar to the character of Speyside whisky, but this regional preference changed over the years. Production in the distillery began in 2014 and -according to CEO Eitan Attir – 2019 was when they engaged in mass production for distribution in foreign markets.
M&H, the first whisky distillery in Israel, follows the blueprint of Scotch whisky. Since the climate of Israel causes locally grown barley to have undesirable fibers and low starch content, it is not suitable for making whisky, so they import their (unpeated) barley from the United Kingdom. They’ve begun working with local farmers to produce better barley, but this project has not succeeded yet. Peated barley is used twice a year.
Their mashing takes place in 1-ton batches, though they only use two water cycles instead of three, which is usually the case for Scotch distilleries (for those unfamiliar with this process, mashing generally involves using hot water to extract fermentable sugar from milled grains). They are unable to do the third mashing cycle because they don’t work on weekends since work is prohibited on Saturdays in observance of Shabbat, a part of Jewish law, and since they prefer to rest on Sundays.
Of course, this results in reduced efficiency because less fermentable sugar is extracted from their barley. They use clear wort, revealing a desire to produce lighter and fruitier flavors. According to Goren, they ferment using a Belgium-sourced common distiller’s yeast for around 60 to 72 hours, depending on the season.
For distillation, they use two pot stills, a 9,000-liter wash still and a 3,500-liter spirit still that have downward-angled lyne arms which, according to Goren, contribute an oiliness to their whisky that compensates for the way they cut their distillate. The feints or tails of the distillation run contribute oiliness, but since Israel’s climate will prevent them from ensuring that the other undesirable compounds and off flavors in the feints are oxidized (and, thus, removed or reduced), their distillation uses an early and narrow heart cut: the first cut is done at around 80% strength, and the second cut is done at around 70% strength.
As for maturation, the climate at Tel Aviv causes a much higher rate of angel share, around 11% annually, which results in “quicker” maturation. They mostly use ex-Bourbon barrels sourced from Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky, but they also use STR (shaved-toasted-recharred) casks – a method with a specific formula created by Dr. Swan – from Portugal and locally sourced red wine casks, among other kinds of casks like ex-Islay and ex-rum. Regardless of the wood policy they use for different releases, they consistently mature the same new-make spirit. Annually, the distillery fills up around 800 casks.
It is intriguing to think about the way new producers like the team behind M&H seek to bump elbows and compete with other producers in order to carve out a niche for their own products, especially with an established global industry such as whisky. The opportunity to create a new narrative and identity is both valuable and necessary. I remember Han’s piece on South Korean distillery Three Societies and their Ki One Korean Single Malt. In it, Han writes about the journey undertaken by Bryan Do and his team as they aim to give Koreans a place in the world of whisky production. Han clearly details the way that Korean cultural heritage – whether through Korea’s climate or culinary traditions – is translated into Three Societies’ whisky.
Indeed, M&H, in their own way, seem to also hold a strong position over what Israeli whisky is and should be. The influence of Tel-Avivian – and, by extension, Israeli -climate is already clear. Judaism, the dominant religion in Israel, also shapes their production methods. An example would be the degree of freedom that M&H has when it comes to experimenting with their whisky. According to Tal Chotiner, Vice President of Global sales, it is fortunate that there is no whisky production in the Torah; otherwise, there would be many laws and regulations that the distillery would need to observe in order to follow Kashruth, a set of Jewish dietary laws that prescribe the way food is prepared and eaten (Kashruth also defines what counts as “kosher”).
While there are still laws like the prohibition of work on Saturdays and the way they source grape-based products like ex-wine casks – laws that the team considers to provide added value to their whisky – the relative freedom allows the team to explore different areas of production like their barley, yeast, and fermentation times.
However, they consider the maturation to be the point where Israeli character comes in. Aside from the climate, they also use unique casks like those that were used in local wineries that age wine from pomegranate-variety grapes that are only grown in Israel, a nation with a 3,000-year-old wine culture. When it comes to formal institutions, there are already other whisky producers in Israel like Golani, Yerushalmi, and Pelter distilleries, and there are others that were already in construction or production in 2021. Along with those distilleries, M&H is communicating with the Israeli government and their chamber of commerce in order to establish formal rules and regulations for the production and sale of Israeli whisky. There are no restrictions yet right now.
The whisky I’ll be evaluating today is M&H’s Classic Single Malt Whisky (yes, they spell “whisky” without an “e”). Goren and the team describe this as their entry-level expression, which is intended to be the most accessible. It is a three-year-old single malt blended from single malts matured in ex-Bourbon (75%), STR casks (20%), and virgin oak casks (5%). It is unchill-filtered, of natural color, and is presented at 46% ABV. I bought this bottle for around $53.
M&H Classic Single Malt Whisky – Review
On the nose: A bowl of cubed pears, kiwi, and toasted bananas, sprinkled with sesame seeds and coconut shavings. An edge of salty anchovies and chili chocolate. There’s an unusual mix of old latex, manila paper, and wet wood or asphalt that underlines the fruit. I wonder if this is due to the influence of their terroir. Slightly diluted honey and some cashew marzipan.
In the mouth: Right away, it’s clear that it has the same flavor profile as Scotch. There’s a little more heat than I expected. Some dominant notes are ginger ale and crispy cinnamon cookies. Gentle accents of licorice, gummy candy (the kind vampire teeth gummies are made of), and orange zest. Lots of oak, too, though not overpowering. I almost want to say that this evokes warmth, but it feels a tad too linear to hit the nuances that fulfill that sense of warmth. Medium-bodied in the mouth and becomes thicker in the throat. The finish is, for me, the biggest weakness of this whisky; it falls off rather quickly. First, there are traces of oak, fruit pith, and cinnamon, but after I inhale, it’s gone.
I can see why Tomer Goren and the rest of the M&H team would consider this whisky successful. This is approachable, balanced enough, and very much similar to Scotch. However, I can’t help but feel that this is still too Scotch-like, which defeats the distillery’s pioneering ethos. A certain uniqueness shows up on the nose, but aside from that, it’s easy to just opt for a Scotch whisky that might even have greater value if these are the flavors that one is after anyway.
In fairness, though, M&H seems to be focused more on developing and expressing Israeli terroir and character in their other whiskies, especially their single casks. But if they will market themselves as emerging players in a global industry, I believe that even their flagship whisky should already begin to clearly represent the particularities of Israeli whisky. It would help, too, if the finish were at least a tad longer. Perhaps blueprints can be more limiting than liberating sometimes.