The growth in craft whisky distilleries around the world has been fantastic to watch over the past couple of years.
Sure there is debate about whether the products are going to be any good and, sure, it can be hard to keep up when there seems to be a new whisky (/gin until the whisky comes of age) distillery opening every week but it’s also hard to deny that fundamentally it is exciting.
Recently, I noted that my Facebook account was urging me to ‘Like’ a new page – no doubt, after stalking me and noting that I have a fondness for whisky, the stalker bots (or spies – depends which camp you’re in) thought, maybe this gal would like this new whisky-focused page.
And, for once, I got over the fact that I find Facebook creepy and was happy to check out the suggestion – it seemed more apt than the other ads for dating sites (no idea why) or Carphone Warehouse (how does it know I need a new phone? Weird!).
Anyway, this page was for Milk & Honey, a new distillery being set up in Israel. Funny enough, a few days later I got a note from one of the founders mentioning it to me and I got more intrigued by this new set-up.
As background, Milk & Honey is the brainchild of a group of six friends who got together in 2012 and started fantasising about setting up a whisky distillery in Israel. Fast forward to 2013, and full plans are underway with the site sourced near Tel Aviv, the stills purchased and the master distiller committed (in this case, Jim Swan).
I spoke to Simon Fried, one of the founders, about the project, the plans, the inspiration and the exciting times ahead.
This is a very exciting project as it is the first of its kind in Israel – how does it feel to be breaking truly new ground?
We are thrilled. It is one of those projects that it is easy to fantasise about but much easier to not put into action. We are excited on a personal level as we are all whisky enthusiasts; we are excited as group to have actually reached the point where it feels real; and there is also a certain something special about it being the first whisky distillery ever in Israel. The history of distillation starts in the Middle East so it feels right to be building a bridge between whisky and the region where distillation began.
You said it came about with a group of friends enjoying whisky one day in 2012: are you surprised at how quickly it has come together or, in fact, that it has at all?
We are surprised that it really got off the ground. It is no small undertaking and it was probably more heart than head doing the talking at the beginning. Right at the beginning it may even have been the Lagavulin talking! On the other hand we have really put our minds and hands to it and think that we have been dedicated and sensible enough to make things work. We believe that the team does have the right skills to make it happen and so far things are on track. It may be a dream project for us but we are working hard to do it properly.
You’ve used Crowd Funding to help raise capital for the project: why did you go down this route and what has been the positives and negatives about using it?
We have managed to get the equipment together and are nearly finished with the location planning. But whisky takes time to make and age and we hope that our supporters and other whisky enthusiasts will be tempted by exclusive access to our very first batch. We were inspired by other new distilleries such as Mackmyra in Sweden who have received much support from the whisky-drinking public.
What is positive is that it has been very helpful to draw attention to the distillery and it has started to contribute funds that will really help us weather the cost of starting production. However, we didn’t want to run a campaign where we asked for donations (although obviously welcome!). So, instead we are offering our very first batch of whisky at what we hope are considered to be fair prices. We hope it is seen as an exclusive pre-sale for supporters more than crowd-funding.
The negative of such a campaign is that it is very public and as such it’s hard work to stay in touch with everyone and to make sure that all questions get answered. We don’t want the people to think that we won’t be able to get there on our own eventually but it is much easier and will be quicker with help from the whisky appreciating community.
You’ve got Jim Swan on board – how important was it to have a distinguished master distiller working with you? Do you think this will help push the project forward more quickly?
We believe it is crucial to have Jim on board. On our own we would have a much harder time to convince people that we are serious. We are very focused on making a very high quality whisky. Jim is one of few people with the right technical skill and experience required to make an excellent whisky in a warm climate. He is also a form of insurance for our customers that everything we do will be done by the book. We believe that before you have the right to start bringing novel, creative products to market you have to have proven yourself by making the real thing well.
Where will you be sourcing your ingredients (ie: barley, casks) from?
Barley is not a widely grown crop in Israel as the climate isn’t really right for it. This means we will, along with all of Israel’s breweries, have to import it. We expect that the UK, Belgium and Germany will be frontrunners for the barley. Corn on the other hand is available locally so we certainly plan to distill some whisk(E)y in the future as well.
And the casks will be sourced with Jim’s help. We will be starting with new oak and ex-bourbon casks. Given Israel’s booming wine sector we have high hopes for some interesting locally sourced casks, to influence future releases.
Why did now seem to be the right time to go ahead with this project?
We have no idea whether this is the right time but we certainly hope so! I think that the US craft distilling movement over the last few years (e.g. Corsair, Koval etc) has certainly helped nudge the idea along. Similar developments in Europe further added to this (e.g. Mackmyra, London Distilling Company, Penderyn). The Israeli micro-brewing phenomenon of the last few years also inspired us to take the jump. All of these together are what made the idea possible. Whether it is a good idea or the right time? Fingers crossed!
What are you most excited about?
Firstly, and yes it’s childish, but I get excited about the stills. I cannot wait to see them standing there hard at work. Secondly, I’m looking forward to really highlighting fine whisky in the Israeli market where it is still relatively exotic. Naama, one of the female founders is consistently amazed at how many men she ends up introducing to whisky, let alone women! So it will be fun to be part of introducing whisky culture to the locals! Finally the dream that is at the end of the rainbow is of course to make a really great whisky. We watch Amrut and Kavalan closely as they are perhaps the best examples of what a world whisky can achieve. Maybe one day…