The last few years has seen a growth in craft brewing and distilling in the Western world and Israel is no exception as can be seen by simply going into any local store that sells wine or beer. The wine industry, once confined to a few large wineries, has seen small scale producers popping up like mushrooms after the rain. Beer drinkers, used to a choice of Goldstar, Carlsberg and maybe a Belgian import or two are now overwhelmed with the choices available when it comes to locally produced, high quality beers.
It is still something of a surprise however, to encounter David Zibell, a Frenchman, who arrived in Israel via Canada and decided to make his mark by building a whisky distillery on the Golan Heights. Despite having no background in the industry, other than as a consumer, he has set to work to produce quality blue and white whiskies which will put Israel on the global whisky map. David, nominally just the CEO and Master Distiller (perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that his mentor is based in Oregon?) currently takes care of every detail including sourcing raw materials, designing labels, new product development and sales and marketing.
Although nominally based on the Golan, David spends much of his time travelling around the country running whisky tastings to introduce his product and I was lucky enough to be able to arrange to host as tasting in Jerusalem for about 20 people. During the course of the evening, David recounted how it was that he came to the idea of making whisky in Israel and detailed how he’d begun to build his distillery from the ground upwards. He proved to be an engaging and entertaining speaker, prepared to answer most of the questions which were put to him – of which the one that sticks in my mind related to kedushat shevi’it – two words referring to the sanctity of produce from the 7th, fallow or shmitta year in the planting cycle of which last year was one – and which I never expected to hear in the context of whisky.
As something of a whisky snob, my expectations for his product were not particularly high, largely due to their age. A whisky that hasn’t aged in the cask is never going to be particularly drinkable and this was certainly true of the 3 young whiskies which we sampled during the course of the evening. That having been said, the difference between the youngest, essentially an undrinkable raw spirit, and a whisky that had been in the barrel for 6 months was appreciable.
In that the raw material needs time to develop into whisky, David also decided to distill other spirits which are bottle ready far faster. We also sampled grappa and absinthe, both of which I enjoyed although I admit to having very little knowledge of either spirit. Arak and I understand Gin have also been added to the repertoire.
At the end of our very entertaining evening, bottles were offered for sale although there was no pressure to buy. I took a bottle of whisky, purely for the novelty value and as a conversation starter. I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in whisky to get in contact to organise an evening.
Kiddush clubs are not uncommon in synagogues across the world and there is certainly a certain cache to being able to serve a bottle that no-one has ever seen before. Foreign whiskies are increasingly being noticed internationally with a small batch Japanese whisky named best in the world in 2015. There is no reason why, in years to come, we shouldn’t be seeing exports of Israeli whisky as well as wine, beer, chocolate and hummus! In years to come I would not be surprised to see Golan Heights Distillery products available for sale when passing through Ben Gurion Airport.