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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Milk & Honey Distillery

The wonders of wine casks and whisky

As the popularity of ageing or finishing in wine casks continues to grow in the whisky industry, Millie Milliken takes a look at some of the latest experimental bottlings out…

As the popularity of ageing or finishing in wine casks continues to grow in the whisky industry, Millie Milliken takes a look at some of the latest experimental bottlings out there.

On a recent trip to the Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery alongside Master of Malt’s Adam O’Connell, I had the pleasure of trying York’s first single malt whisky finished in STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) ex-red wine barriques from Rioja vineyards in sunny old Spain. Oak, spice, vanilla ice cream and chocolate were the resulting nosing and tasting notes – accompanied by vigorous nods and satisfied oohs and ahhs from my fellow tasters.

Wine casks and whisky are becoming more frequent bedfellows. As this article goes to press, Aberfeldy is set to release its new 18 year old finished in Côte Rôtie casks as part of its Red Wine Cask Collection (more on that later); while The Oxford Artisan Distillery has made its third Oxford Rye batch which has undergone a second maturation in Moscatel casks; and Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey has launched its Apex White Wine Cask using Chardonnay casks from local winery Domaine du Castel.

The use of wine casks in whisky isn’t new, but it’s certainly a phenomenon that has grown over the last few decades. And while we might be increasingly au fait with ex-sweet wine casks being used in whisky production (PX sherry, Sauternes, Port), whisky distilleries are increasingly playing with red wines, white wines – and even orange wines – in their quest to produce liquids with a hybrid of whisky-and-wine characteristics.

Casks at the Lakes Distillery

Casks at the Lakes Distillery

Whole new world

“Over the last few years we’ve seen lots of new wine casks coming in because we’ve got young distilleries and while your house style might take years to develop lots of these younger distilleries are using these casks for a different flavour,” explains Mark Thomson, Glenfiddich brand ambassador. “We’ve all tried ex-bourbon, rum, sherry, but wine casks seem to be a real trend.”

So, why are we all lapping them up? And what’s the difference between ageing and finishing? For Thomson, a change in consumers’ palates is a factor when determining their growing taste for wine casks, with people moving away from those sherry bombs and peated whiskies towards lighter styles. “People also know wine – there’s a familiarity there,” he adds.

Stephanie MacLeod, master blender at Dewar’s Aberfeldy distillery, agrees: “Increasingly our whisky drinkers are not only interested in the flavour of the whisky that results from a wine cask finish, but also the provenance of the wine and our whisky drinkers also tend to be knowledgeable wine drinkers – a wine finish can satisfy both passions.”

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar's

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s

Ageing or finishing?

When it comes to ageing and finishing, you’re more likely to see the latter. This technique involving a second stage of ageing in a different cask often for just a matter of months came to the fore in the 1990s.

Which brings us back to that Aberfeldy 18 year old. It has spent 18 years in a combination of re-fill and re-char ex-bourbon casks, before being finished for six months in French red wine casks from Côte Rôtie – a Syrah-based wine from the Northern Rhone. 

“The process always begins with the casks – we often come across parcels of wine casks and other types of casks that we think might be interesting, and think how the character of the wine cask will interact with the character of the whisky,” explains MacLeod of how she begins the process.  “Once the casks arrive we nose each one to ensure that there are no off odours and then fill the casks with the chosen spirit. This is when sampling begins: at least once a month the casks are sampled and assessed – we look at colour, aroma and maturation related compounds. Once the aroma and colour starts to have an effect on the aroma and the appearance of the whisky, we either increase sampling or stop the finishing process because the purpose of finishing is always to complement and not to dominate the character of the whisky.”

The resulting liquid is red berries on the nose, like raspberry and redcurrants, followed by the softening of vanilla and butterscotch – what the team describe as being “deeply evocative of an Eton Mess”.

The Nightcap

Glenfiddich Grand Cru

Outside the cask

White wine casks are also used. In 2019 Glenfiddich’s first release in its Grand Series was the 23 year old single malt matured in sherry casks and finished for four months in French oak casks used for fermentation of wines that will become Champagne. Glenfiddich refer to them as ‘rare French cuvée oak casks’ because the wine was still so cannot legally be called Champagne. 

Thomson elaborated: “With the Grand Cru it is important to note that no sparkling wine was involved in any stage… When the Champagne industry makes their assemblage they take a selection of still wines from their growers and leave those wines for a period of time in cask… very few these casks were offered up to us from a cask broker, and have only ever contained still wine but the quality of the wine has been exceptional.”

For Thomson, the main difference between red and white cask finishing is unsurprisingly the level of tannins (with red wine casks producing more tannins in the whisky), followed closely by a drier note in the whisky as well. With white wine casks however, “you’ll get orchard fruits, or strawberry flavours which is interesting (although not all the time).”

Meanwhile, 2020 saw The Lakes Distillery release its The One Orange Wine cask, taking its The One blend (a blend of grain and malt Scotch whiskies from Speyside and Islay with The Lakes Single Malt at the centre), using first-fill American oak casks seasoned with Vino de Naranja – a white wine macerated with orange peels from Huelva in Andalucia. The result? Marmalade, butterscotch and dried tobacco on the nose, followed by candied oranges, tropical fruits with peat smoke and a buttery finish.

Bright future

So, what does the future of wine-cask ageing and finishing look like? “I have no idea,” Thomson says while also admitting that Glenfiddich has a number of experiments on the go involving wine – “but I couldn’t say”. What he is keen to impress though is that the distillery’s interest in wine casks is nothing to do with its growing trend but is an ongoing discovery for the brand.

For the team at Aberfeldy, while red wine casks from the old world have been their modus operandi to date, they are starting to experiment with new world styles. MacLeod also divulges that they are running trials at the moment on white wine, using the same approach to determine the perfect finishing period. And that’s all before the endless possibilities they have when it comes to the type of oak they use too. One style of wine will however, she thinks, remain on top: “I’m not convinced that sherry will ever be replaced in the hearts of whisky drinkers, but wine gives another dimension to the flavour of whisky – something which we are more than happy to explore.”

 

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Master of Malt Tastes… Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

It’s been a long wait, but Israel’s first single malt whisky from Milk & Honey has finally arrived. Does it live up to expectations? We find out. When I asked Milk & Honey’s…

It’s been a long wait, but Israel’s first single malt whisky from Milk & Honey has finally arrived. Does it live up to expectations? We find out.

When I asked Milk & Honey’s distiller Tomer Goren how he felt about launching Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt, the Israeli distillery’s first whisky, his response was exactly what you imagine. “It feels great, we have waited for a long time and it is great to finally be able to taste, share and talk about our whisky. We are very proud of our initial outcome and for sure climb higher mountains in the future”. 

It’s a proud moment for any distillery. Launching your first whisky is like watching your child leave for the first day of school. You’re excited and anxious in equal measure, desperate for everything to go well. However, this day could have come much sooner for Milk & Honey. Before it was founded, there were no whisky distilleries in Israel. That means no regulation or rules anything like what, say Scotch whisky, has to follow.

The brand, however, resisted naming any of its releases ‘whisky’ until now, opting to name its previous expression ‘Young Single Malt Aged Spirit’ instead. “We try to make the best quality single malt whisky we can and want it to sit alongside with other international brands, so we decided to follow the Scotch Whisky Regulations,” Goren explains. “It is a big challenge to be the pioneer of the industry in Israel with no knowledge or regulation to follow. So, even though the hot and humid climate causes fast maturation, we still waited at least three years before calling our expression whisky”.

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Introducing: Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

The climate (winter doesn’t dip below 16°C, summer highs can top 40°C and humidity is in the 50-90% range) poses quite the challenge. The extent of the angel’s share and the risk of the cask influence being too extreme means long maturation is pretty much out of the question for Milk & Honey. As such, most of the whiskies in Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt are 3-4 years old.

Maturation took place in ex-bourbon casks (about 75% of the whisky), shaved, toasted and re-charred red wine-seasoned STR casks (about 20%) and virgin oak casks (less than 5%). “The ex-bourbon casks that bring vanilla sweetness, caramel and honey and our special red-wine STR casks that bring spiciness and fruitiness and a lot of colour. There is also a touch of virgin oak that gives the whisky depth and oaky notes,” Goren explained.

We’re not going into the production process or history of Milk & Honey here, because we’ve already said pretty much everything there is to be said about the distillery. Both Henry and Kristy reached the same conclusion: Milk & Honey is a promising, intriguing and experimental distillery. Tasting the brand’s first single malt, you’d expect to taste a whisky that reflects this approach. We’re sampling the result of an extreme climate, which isn’t just affected by heat but also the location of the casks (some are matured on the shores of the Dead Sea) and witnessing how this impacts the new-make, which Kristy described as being “surprisingly soft, bursting with pear, apple and green grain notes”. We’re also tasting an unadulterated whisky, which was bottled without chill-filtration at 46% ABV.

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Milk & Honey is Israel’s first and biggest whisky distillery

We’re also tasting history. Which makes this all rather exciting. While we love that there is a vast array on whisky to enjoy in the present day, the consequence of this is that there is a fair amount of spirit being created using similar production processes in similar conditions and matured in similar barrels. This is not one of those drams.

Goren says that stylistically, the brand wanted its first release to be a “whisky for everyone, something well-balanced and welcoming”. It’s certainly gone down well in the arena of award shows, picking up a multitude of medals already. While Goren says it’s great to get recognition, he remarks that it is just as good to get feedback from people in the industry and from worldwide consumers. “It is easy to fall in love with what you do, so it is better to get outside recognition to see that you are on the right track”. 

Which brings us nicely on to the review of Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt. It’s a very pleasant sipper. There’s a lot going on, with distillery and cask character in abundance. I recommend you give it a little time to breathe and you’ll be rewarded with an array of flavour. It does lack some integration, harnessing that swift maturation speed is going to be an on-going process, but it’s a drinkable, distinctive dram and a strong foundation to build on. I poured a couple more drams after I’d finished my tasting, which is always a good sign. I also realised I’d written down ‘honey’ as a description a couple of times, which is very pleasing. Here’s the full tasting note:

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt

Milk & Honey Classic Single Malt Tasting Note:

Nose: There are aromas of caramel flapjacks, dark chocolate, lemon shortbread and vanilla initially, with notes of summer flowers, orange zest and Manuka honey drizzled on porridge in support. Some really interesting fruity notes add depth – predominantly gooseberries, melon and drying red grape skins – among hints of marzipan and a little nutmeg.

Palate: Oak and spice make much more of an impact on the palate, with barrel char, polished wood, black pepper and prickles of cinnamon and clove making their mark. It’s less integrated than the nose but full of interesting and enjoyable flavours: red apple, creamy barley, Werther’s Originals and milk chocolate then beeswax, salty and sweet popcorn, red berries. 

Finish: Some of the spice remains but the finish is a little sweeter, with hints of vanilla, boiled orange sweets and a bit of honey and almond granola.

Milk and Honey Classic Single Malt is available from Master of Malt

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Milk & Honey Distillery: A taste of Tel Aviv

Forget tradition: Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery is taking conventional whisky-making and turning it on its head in pursuit of bold flavour and a focus on locality. This is…

Forget tradition: Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey Distillery is taking conventional whisky-making and turning it on its head in pursuit of bold flavour and a focus on locality. This is what meaningful drinks innovation looks like in 2019.

What makes a whisky a whisky? For purists, there are stringent rules to adhere to, especially if you come from a classical Scotch perspective. For others, it’s all about the flavour, and the innovation that comes from experimentation: grains, cask type, yeast strain. Then, for world whisky especially, there’s a growing consideration: locale. And none of these have to exist in isolation, something that Israel’s Milk & Honey Distillery is setting out to prove.

“There’s no whisky-making in Israel,” an El Al representative forcefully tells me at the airport. I’m about to travel out to Tel Aviv to get a taste for the distillery first-hand. The immediate issue: convincing the national airline that I’m not some kind of security threat. 

“There is!” I respond. “And there’s gin, too. I can’t wait to taste the whole range, actually.”

The Milk & Honey Distillery tasting room

The Milk & Honey Distillery tasting room

He looks at me like I may well be both mad and geographically confused. But he lets me proceed. And that perhaps is the first barrier Milk & Honey faces; Israel is known for many things internationally, good and bad, but spirits production isn’t one of them.

It’s something that a group of whisky-loving entrepreneurs set out to change back in 2012. Considered, thoughtful co-founder Gal Kalkshtein describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. Tomer Goren, a contemplative drinks and chemistry geek, is head distiller. Eitan Attir, CEO, is commercially-minded and collaboration-focused. Dana Baran, marketing vice-president, is glowingly cordial and welcomes us with open arms. Tal Chotiner, a more recent addition to the team as international sales director, is an easy-going beer-lover. Tal Gantz is an infectiously boisterous brand ambassador. The team we meet are all so different, but they share a collective vision: to get the world to fall in love with Tel Aviv whisky.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Tal Chotiner and Tomer Goren showcase an STR cask

“There is just no tradition of distilling in Israel,” Kalkshtein tell us when we meet in the distillery’s sleek visitor centre, complete with bar and highly instragrammable wall art. Yes, there’s wine production that dates back centuries, but whisky and gin production is entirely new. Times are changing though, and while Milk & Honey is the “biggest, largest, most serious” distillery, he says, others are coming online. Production details of course sets M&H apart (more to follow!), but the first thing that piques interest initially is its Tel Aviv location.

The non-stop city

Think ‘Tel Aviv’, and you may well conjure up images of beachfront chill, award-winning bars and beautiful people – the Miami of the Med, if you like. Stark Bauhaus buildings bask in 300 days of sunshine each year; the snaking staircases of Old Jaffa hold millennia-old secrets. By day, the city takes to the beaches, the golden sand peppered with bars, colourful lifeguard huts and volleyball courts. By night, there’s a different energy. Tel Aviv becomes fluorescent; neon signs adorn the walls of sleek cocktail bars, meticulously-presented dishes delight elegant diners in the fanciest of restaurants. But there’s no pretence: there’s as much of an appetite for pitta bread feasts from street food vendors washed down with beer as there is for haute cuisine. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

The steps in Old Jaffa

Tel Aviv has become almost as well-known for its food scene as it is for its laid-back, liberal outlook. The Milk & Honey Distillery largely sits at this intersection, keen to align itself more with the city’s international reputation than that of its native country. 

Tel Aviv beach: The Miami of the Med

“We wanted to go global from the get-go,” Baran explained, over a welcome cocktail at the distillery. And it’s an effective philosophy. Work to convert the former bakery to a distilling space started in 2014, five short years ago. The first “serious” distillation took place in 2015, when the visitor centre opened. Already, 72% of production is destined for export. “The ambition is to get to 90%,” Baran explained. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

The colours of Tel Aviv

Good news for international spirits lovers, then. Even better news: whisky is on the way. “There will be a commercial whisky out at the end of the year,” she confirms.  Expect a founders’ edition, followed by liquid for The Whisky Show. And we should anticipate high demand: more than 12,000 visitors have made the trip to the distillery since April 2016, with 10,000 expected in 2019 alone. 

Rescue still

But, back to that fundamental question: what makes a whisky a whisky? However you approach it, production has to play a part. And for the Milk & Honey team, balancing the traditions of Scotch with the challenges (quirks?) of the Israeli climate its physiography has resulted in some really quite stunning spirits.

After the introduction in the bar space, we embarked on a tour. “We doubled the size of the distillery a year ago,” said Baran as we moved through. The space is substantial but not cavernous, and it’s already pretty full with tanks, stills, casks, the lab, and even a bottling line.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Different casks line up in front of the Milk & Honey lab

“Everything is operated by steam,” said Goren, almost wryly as we walked through the distillery. “There’s no cold spring for us to use.” 

The Israeli climate is perhaps the fourth ingredient in this whisky (alongside malted barley from the UK and peated barley from the Czech Republic, yeast, and of course, the water, which is filtered before use). Winter doesn’t dip below 16°C, while summer highs can top 40°C. Humidity is in the 50-90% range. This isn’t just an environment for rapid ageing, it’s positively breakneck.

Good job, then, that the team set up the distillery under the wise and watchful eye of the late Dr. Jim Swan. His legacy is everywhere, from the still design to the widespread use of STR casks (shaved, toasted and re-charred). Everything is purposefully set up to harness that swift maturation speed, and channel the character into whisky that thrives at a younger age.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Casks in the Tel Aviv sunshine

We start off by the mash tun, which processes 10 one-tonne batches each week. Production stops on Fridays and Saturdays (the resulting whisky will be kosher) with as much as 450 tons of malt processed each year. It’s then on to the Israel-designed one-tonne mash tun, interesting because it operates with two waters, rather than the traditional three.  

Fermentation is perhaps longer than expected, given the climate. The process is allowed to bubble away for up to 72 hours, in four stainless steel tanks. The team uses M yeast (“typical, really”), and the resulting wash is bursting with orchard fruit (we were there during unpeated production). 

The great rescue still!

Distillation is where it really starts to get interesting. The 9,000-litre wash still was literally salvaged from Romania – “like a rescue still!” I remarked – and dates back to the 1980s. The team think it was made in Spain for Spanish brandy-making, but it’s impossible to be certain. The 3,500-litre spirit still came from CARL in Germany. “We want ‘Scottish-style’ single malt,” said Goren. And why did they plump for the Romanian still? “Go to Forsyths and you’ll have a 10-year wait,” he commented. “We take a very, very short, very high cut,” he continues, with the spirit coming off at around 73% ABV, bursting with big, round fruit notes. 

Milk & Honey Distillery

Gin botanicals!

While Milk & Honey is very much in the whisky business (even if most liquid is still to come of age), gin is a massive part of its activity, too. Local botanicals, sourced from the famous Levinsky market, include cinnamon, coriander, chamomile, black pepper, lemon peel, verbena, and hyssop. These are macerated in the dedicated 250-litre pot still for 48 hours prior to distillation. There’s even a Levantine Gin – Tel Aviv 2019 edition specially blended to capture the essence of the city. We explored the labyrinthine Levinsky market after the distillery tour – this expression really is a taste of Tel Aviv, with its zesty citrus and fresh spice.

Dead Sea maturation

Milk & Honey makes use of a tremendous array of casks. Along with the mix of ex-bourbon, STR and virgin oak (at around a 70%/20%/10% ratio for what will become the classic whisky expressions), there’s a whole load of esoteric vessels, too. Think: Israeli wine casks (“Israeli wines are kosher”), STR red wine casks hailing from Portugal, and even a pomegranate wine cask. This is perhaps where operations diverge from the strictly Scotch-style approach. We gather in a warehouse space, fittingly surrounded by casks, for a tasting session.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Dead Sea spirit!

But it’s not just what you mature spirit in; where that cask rests will have a massive impact on flavour. This is most marked when we taste spirit from casks matured on the shores of the Dead Sea – the lowest place on Earth. After the new make (surprisingly soft, bursting with pear, apple and green grain notes) and a couple of samples of maturing spirit (including exceptionally rounded liquid from an ex-bourbon cask just one year and seven months old), we move on to the Dead Sea liquid. “This one is six months old,” Chotiner explained. I was stunned. The liquid was almost garnet in colour, an astonishing hue given the short time exposed to oak.

I’ve not visited the Dead Sea, but photographs will show you it shares a similarly jewelled complexion. Turquoise and sapphire waters lap at lemon quartz shores – and then there’s the salt factor. It’s 430.5 metres below sea level, and the Sea is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean. Temperatures can reach 50°C in summer. Milk & Honey was the first distillery to mature spirit in these “incredible” conditions.  

The casks chosen to reside here? Ex-bourbon, ex-red wine and more of those STR casks. The first impressions of the spirit (at six months it’s WAY too young to be called a whisky) was its overwhelmingly velvety quality on the palate. Young spirit is usually spiky, lively, harsh. Not this stuff. It was super well-integrated and soft, with dark fruit and chocolate notes. I had to double check with Goren that I’d written down the age correctly in my notes. But yes. Six months it is.

Milk & Honey Distillery

Tasting in the warehouse space

“We could never fully mature there, it would be too much,” he added. Anticipate future Milk & Honey whiskies to spend a short finishing period at the Dead Sea though – and expect them to be incredible. 

We taste some more young spirits, including a delectable rum cask-matured expression, an ex-Islay cask, and even a sample from the aforementioned ex-pomegranate wine casks. Each added another dimension to the Milk & Honey vision: yes, this is ‘proper’ whisky, double-distilled and treated to thoughtful processing from raw materials to maturation. But this is a team unafraid of showcasing its inventive side – or its Israeli heritage.

We walk back through to that sleek bar and event space for a quick cocktail before heading back out into the sparkling Tel Aviv sunshine. I ask Kalkshtein whether among all the iterations, the distillery expansions, the international growth, if he ever takes a second to appreciate everything he and the team have already achieved. 

“You never stop and think, ‘wow, we did it’,” he pauses for a moment. “But the stills are the most amazing thing. That’s the point where you say, ‘wow, we did something good’.” Watch out, world whisky: Israel is about to arrive on the scene. 

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