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From the beaches to a burgeoning wine scene and an influx of new luxury, design-minded hotels, Israel is drawing in culture and culinary-minded travelers as of late.
Visitors travel to the mountainous north for wine, Jerusalem for zesty street food, and buzzing Tel Aviv for gourmet vegan dining packed with flavor (In 2018, Tel Aviv had more vegans per capita, and more gourmet vegan restaurants to try, than anywhere else in the world). And now in 2019, the country seems to be embarking on a new boozy frontier: whisky.
It may seem like an unlikely candidate thanks to the country's high temperatures and intense humidity. But to the surprise of distillers, Israel's temps actually cause the spirit to mature faster and absorb more flavor from the cask, yielding a rich, nuanced and entirely unique flavor in half the time.
Pioneering Israel's whisky revolution are the folks behind the country's first-ever whisky distillery, Milk & Honey, located in Jaffa. They launched in 2012 and a year later Pelter Winery in the Golan Heights added a boutique distillery to its operations with spirits including brandy made from Mahjoul dates, and since then, half a dozen other distilleries offering whisky are either open or in the planning stages.
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It very much mirrors the local consumer tastes, as locals are buying more and more whisky. "In the past 5 years, Israel's whisky market [has been] blooming," Milk & Honey CEO, Eitan Attir, explained to Departures. "There is a 25% growth in the whisky volume, mostly from scotch whisky, and more interesting is that 22% out of the consumption is single malt (unlike the rest of the world which is at 11%)".
While distilleries are opening up in the heart of Tel Aviv and near Jerusalem too, Israel's "whisky region" has become the Golan Heights, a fairly remote area bordering modern-day Syria whose appeal is due to the many types of wild barley that cover the landscape, and the rivers and waterfalls carrying pure water down from Mount Hermon.
Without tight rules on the final product like in Scotland and the US, distillers have an exciting and playful space to figure out what exactly "Israeli whisky (or whiskey)" is.
Related: A Wine Lover's Guide to Galilee
Here are the best places to sit, sip, and savor a dram for the whisky-seeking traveler.
Milk & Honey, Jaffa
Israel's first whisky will soon be available for purchase in the US, but in the meantime, the way to buy this single malt is with a visit to the source in Tel Aviv's most exciting neighborhood, Jaffa. For Scotch fans, especially peated varieties, a tasting tour is a must. It's hard to believe the triple cask young single malt (aged in ex-bourbon, Islay, and STR casks) is so young and still so smooth. Keep your eyes and tastebuds peeled for more of the cask releases, they have barrels all over. Some are in the mountains to the north, some are maturing 382m below sea level by the Dead Sea, aging in the lowest place on earth, subject to a salty humidity that's unparalleled elsewhere.
Whisky Bar Museum, Tel Aviv
Find over 1,000 kinds of whiskey at this boozy museum, bar, and restaurant. It's located in a 150-year-old underground tunnel the Templers developed in 1871 for a winery.
Pelter Distillery, Golan Heights
"It all began with a date," according to the Pelter Distillery's site. The boutique distillery by the winery of the same name is producing date brandy from local Mahjoul dates, Apple brandy, eau de vie, and gin made from pink lady apples, as well as Arak (anise drink). Look out for the aged single malt in October 2020.
Golan Heights Distillery, Katzrin
A visit to the picturesque north comes with barrel-aged single malts and two-grain whisky that's aged in American oak at Golan Heights Distillery, they hold tour and tastings with spectacular views.
Legends Distillery, Elah Valley
Legends Distillery is currently concocting the country's first-ever "American-style whisky". Currently that means bottles with labels like Israeli Kentucky whisky and "Slingshot Cinapple" an Israeli whisky with cinnamon and apple liqueur.
Yerushalmi Distillery, Jerusalem
David Zibell, owner and master distiller at the Golan Heights Distillery in the north also opened a distillery in Jerusalem back in January 2018, producing rums, gin, Tunisian date liquor—and yes, whisky. Come here for a distinct middle eastern flavor, as they distill gin with angelica root, sumac, olive leaves, citron, and almonds, as well as boukha, a Tunisian spirit made from dried figs.