Israel is said to flow with milk and honey. But when David Zibell arrived in 2014, he had a slightly different vision — of a land flowing with whisky.
He now produces six different whiskies, sells around 15,000 bottles a year, and hosts visitors at his distillery. Although he is one of just two Israelis making whisky, he is determined to put his new country on the whisky map.
“When I moved here I realised there’s an Israel market and also a market abroad that is looking for world whisky,” says Zibell, a former estate agent who was born in Paris and raised in Montreal.
Some of his products have names that give a nod to Israel, such as his experimental brewer’s whisky, Spicy Hummus, but what makes them uniquely Israeli is a set of factors linked to his location.
Israel in general, and his Golan Heights location in particular, accelerates the ageing process of whisky.
“A three-year-old whisky here will have the intensity of flavour of a 10-year-old whisky from Scotland,” says Zibell.
The reason is that in Scotland, temperatures are relatively constant, while at his distillery there are large differences — sometimes 20 degrees Celsius — between day and night.
“When it is hot the whisky is absorbed into the barrel and when it is cold it moves out again,” he explains. “As it is constantly warming up and cooling down, the whisky is constantly moving in and out of the wood, which makes the flavour intense — far more so than in Scotland where temperatures vary less.”
This means that Golan Heights Distillery whiskies mature quickly with intense flavours — and allow him, as a newly professional distiller, to improve quickly, as he waits less time for the results of his efforts. “Here you can experiment and learn much quicker than elsewhere,” he says.
Another big difference between distilling in Israel and in Scotland is that Zibell has plenty of wineries within a short drive, and the Golan Heights Winery is just 200 metres away.
“When a Scottish distillery orders a barrel from France, it may be treated with a preservative — you can taste the sulphur in some whiskies — and doesn’t arrive in as good a shape as when your winery next door can give you a barrel.”
With barrels in plentiful supply, he has done much experimenting and has come up with his own “barrel system”.
He says: “People don’t realise that up to 80 per cent of the flavour in their whisky and 100 per cent of the colour is coming from the wood — the wood is really important.
“We purchase barrels from the wineries and use them in a combination of ways. Some we use with the wine influence still there, and this gives a fruitiness to the whisky. In some cases we dry the barrels, shave the winey interior away so we get to ‘new’ oak, and then set light to it.
“After the barrel has been on fire for 50 seconds you have a heavy char that will age our whisky with a very caramel-like colour.” These barrels are used to produce his Golani Black.
Zibell uses Israeli wheat and British malted barley. He decided that the first two batches of water — introduced when mashing the grains and when moving the spirit to the barrel — need to be a mixture of well water and spring water.
And where does he get this combination? From his tap, because in the Golan Heights, water comes from springs and wells.
When the whisky comes out of the barrel with an alcohol content of 63 per cent, it needs diluting with spring water. Luckily, Israel’s top-selling mineral water, Mey Eden, has the right profile.
The results are surprising connoisseurs and reviewers. Whisky website The Mashing called the Golan Heights Single Cask Edition (left) “a fantastically made single malt whisky” with a “rich, oily and thick” palate.
“It’s incredibly complex and rich for such a young expression,” writes the reviewer. “You can tell that this was made with extreme attention to detail by someone who really loves whisky.”