We talk extreme climate ageing, Israeli terroir and Jim Swan’s influence on world whisky with the team at Milk & Honey (or M&H to its friends).

When is a single malt not a whisky? When it’s the snappily-titled M&H Young Single Malt Aged Spirit, that’s when. Later this year, there will be a whisky release from Israel’s first single malt distillery, but the spirit is so delicious at about six months ageing that the team has decided to bottle some now. This is the Triple Cask release, and it’s aged in a combination of ex-bourbon, Islay and STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) casks that previously held Israeli wine.

I tried some last year; firstly in its component parts, and then put together where it had notes of honeycomb and cherry, all with an underlying smokiness coming through strongly on the finish. The liquid is so rich, harmonious and golden in colour, that it’s hard to believe it is only six months old.

Milk & Honey

M&H Triple Cask

Dana Baran, head of marketing, explained to me why it had so much flavour already. “It’s very hot and humid in Tel Aviv, and the climate helps with fast maturation,” she says. “It’s like Kavalan in Taiwan. The negative side is the evaporation rate, which is about 8-10% yearly.” Head distiller Tomer Goren added: “Whiskies over three-to-four years old, which we already have, are well-matured. We will not reach more than five or six years of maturation.” The Triple Cask bodes well for the distillery’s first full release of whisky, due out later this year. There was a very limited release of 391 bottles in 2017, the first of which went for £2,400 at auction.

Milk & Honey (from the biblical name for ancient Israel, the land of milk and honey) has something else in common with Kavalan: the involvement of Jim Swan, distiller extraordinaire, who died in 2017. “Dr Jim Swan was our consultant,” said Baran. “He helped us to build the distillery from scratch, chose the casks, the yeast, and designed our pot stills.” According to Goren, Jim Swan found Israel’s climate fascinating from a maturation point of view. “We are such a small country, but we have three or four different climate zones. All the zones see whisky mature at different rates.”  

The team have been experimenting with ageing casks in the ultra-salty environment of the Dead Sea. ”The air is very dry and salty,” said Baran. “Temperatures can run up to 50°C in the summer there, so obviously the evaporation rates will be sky-high. But we might get some interesting flavours from there as well.”

The climate isn’t the only unique thing the team has to play around with. “Our ‘terroir’ is trying to use locally-based interesting things,” Baran told me. Israel has a burgeoning wine scene. At the moment, Israeli wineries use mainly French grape varieties like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, but some are experimenting with indigenous grapes. M&H is ageing some spirit in casks that previously held these grapes for added local flavour. The team also uses casks that contained wine made from fermented pomegranates, “a very biblical and very Israeli fruit”, according to Baran.

Milk & Honey

It’s a barrel of laughs working at M&H

Sadly, Israeli barley is not suitable for distillation so the grain comes from Muntons, a British company. Most of the M&H distillation runs are unpeated, but every six months Goren does a two-week run of peated barley. The yeast comes from Fermentis in Belgium, and the team ferments for between 60 and 70 hours. There is a 9,000 litre wash still and a 3,500 litre spirit still producing around 170,000 litres of pure spirit per year, enough to fill 800 casks. So it’s a small operation, at least by Scottish standards. For comparison, Ardbeg produces around 1.25 million litres per year.

M&H filled its first cask in 2015. At the time there were no other whisky distilleries in the country. But, according to Goren, “the whisky industry is booming, so there is now one more that is up and running, and there’s one or two that are in the construction stages.” There are no Israeli regulations for whisky. Goren told me that distillers largely use those of the Scotch Whisky Association, so the first whisky will be aged for a minimum of three years.  

As well as whisky and nearly whisky, M&H also makes gin and other liqueurs using the house malt spirit. Being based in the tourist hot spot of Tel Aviv means that the distillery gets a lot of visitors, around 10,000 a year according to Baran. “But we’re actually not aiming for the Israeli market, we’re thinking global,” she said. Welcome, Israel, to the world whisky club.