Adam S. Montefiore



Life goes on


This Passover buy Israeli wine


Start-up distillery in the heart of Jerusalem


One of Israel’s most experienced winemakers
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Spirit of Jerusalem

Bennett Kaplan is tall, straight talking and charismatic, with a quick sense of humor. He is well rehearsed and charming, but knows his stuff and is interesting to talk to. He is an idealist, a deep thinker and has a fascination in how things work. He is also a big shot business man, of the type you normally hear about, but do not see that often.

He made Aliyah in 1991 from Queens, New York. He has always been a drinker, but unlike most imbibers he is incurably curious and has to know the ‘a to z’ of everything he touches. He therefore enjoyed drinking spirits, usually vodka, but just had to make himself aware of the history and the technology of production. This caused an itch he felt compelled to scratch and he knew he wanted to take his knowledge and passion further. He fulfilled his vision by founding the Thinkers Distillery in 2018.

The history of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe, in particular Poland and Russia, was very associated with distillation and their poison of choice was vodka. Furthermore, in America, the rebirth of a spirit industry after the dry years of Prohibition, was led Jewish bootleggers who became distillers. Who has not heard of the Bronfman family and Seagram? 

In Israel, spirits production was always a local, rather amateurish affair. Even when I came to Israel, two years before Kaplan, there were 12 wineries and all but one (the Golan Heights Winery) also distilled spirits. This was nothing new. The Zion Winery founded by the Shor family in 1848 produced spirits. The Shimshon Winery founded in 1955 by a later generation of the same family in Jerusalem, originally produced only spirits. Carmel Winery started distilling in 1898 to use up excess grapes. Their beautiful copper stills and tall column still (the reason for one of the towers at Rishon Le Zion Cellars) were sadly discarded and trashed when the winery left Rishon in 2016. I remember in the 1990s, when for a golden period, the Carmel bottling plant worked 24×6 to supply Vodka Stopka to Russia. Rather like selling ice to the eskimos. However, in truth Israeli spirits were not great. As soon as the gates of imports opened, the global brands arrived and the Israel-produced spirits industry withered on the vine. They left behind memory of some very good brandies, produced by Carmel and Tishbi, and the well-known Sabra, an original chocolate orange liqueur, but not much else. The big sellers were then Elite Arak (still distributed everywhere and a major brand today) and Stock 84 Brandy. However, most of the white or clear spirits were produced from cheap imported alcohol made from molasses.


Bennett Kaplan explained to me how the spirits industry reinvented itself in the early 2000s. Distilleries added science and technology to the local, farming traditions which were passed down within founding families. Barman and mixologists became knowledgeable and creative like chefs, making spontaneous cocktails based on customer preferences and the fresh ingredients available. The search for quality by the consumer encouraged the birth of a deluxe sector and the move to ‘premiumization’ followed and has continued until today. I suppose aged blended whiskies like Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black label were early manifestations of this, being in their time, a step upwards. The Bronfman and Walker family were ahead of the game. Then came the rebirth in interest of Malt Whiskies. With regard to white spirits, Kaplan explained to me that Grey Goose Vodka and Hendricks Gin were the particular spirits that broke the mold and gave him a signpost to the future. The renaissance of gin, which Kaplan called the ‘Ginaissance,’ for him encapsulated the new fast changing spirits industry. This was a subject that fascinated him, enticed him and drew him in. He read, drank and visited all over, in order to broaden his knowledge. Far from assuaging his hunger, it only fanned the flames.

In the last fifteen years there have been sprouting of new artisan distilleries, making products using Israeli ingredients where possible. Julius Distillery in the Western Upper Galilee was the pioneer, followed swiftly by Golani, Milk and Honey (M&H), Pelter, Hollander and Yerushalmi. They produced highly individual expressions with the personal imprint of the distiller. M&H has earned a worldwide reputation for their whiskies and the others are very well known and respected here by the local bar intelligentsia. Kaplan particularly admired the passion and pioneering of David Zibell of the Golani Distillery in Katzrin. He recognized here a kindred spirit.

Kaplan’s vision was a longtime cooking. He is a man of passions and absolute immersion in the subjects that interest him. These range from cars to Kabbalah. His explanations are peppered with references to Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. He is not flying low. In 2018 he founded the Thinkers Furthered Distillery. The deep-thinking intellectual distiller to be, chose names that for him summarize the Start-Up Nation. Words like Thinkers and Furthered did it for him. The fact that in all his interviews he has to explain the reasoning behind these names, does not lessen his own view that they perfectly represent what he is trying to convey. This and the metallic looking neck label on his bottles, which quote from Pirke Avot “Who is wise? One who learns from every person” is for him what the Start-Up revolution, or rather evolution, is for him, in a nutshell. Why evolution? Because he sees the Start-Up successes as building on something existing, and not necessarily creating something totally new.  

Thinkers Distillery

He chose Jerusalem as his playground. Out of the new distilleries, his is the first to be based there. Walking along Agrippas Street in downtown Jerusalem, super premium spirits do not come to mind. However just like in the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, you come to a pretty undistinguished, unimpressive entrance. On opening the doors, you are welcomed in to a whole new world. The décor and lighting is instantly inviting. Your attention is immediately drawn to spotless shiny stills, which look so clean as though they have never been used, striking rows of bottles on display, and a bar and tables for individuals or groups to come, taste and buy. It is a honey pot for connoisseurs, spirits lovers or those that wish to sample and learn. The bar staff are trained to explain at the level your knowledge requires. It is a great place to visit on the way to or from the Machane Yehuda Market, the beating heart of modern Jerusalem. My first visit was by coincidence doing just that.

Thinkers Distillery group of Gin's

As of yet, Thinkers Distillery produce five core products, each is packaged in an outstandingly individual way. The two vodkas come in a bottle that is a work of art. It is simply covered with sayings, quotes and words with lifestyle messages. It was designed by someone with a lot to say, and they decided they were going to put it all on a 700ml bottle whatever. No holding back, no less is more here! Some will cringe and think kitsch, I suspect most will think this is a bottle that needs to be turned around in your hands, read, absorbed and kept for water when the precious vodka is finished. Whatever your view, the bottle is totally unique, highly individual and absolutely original.

Then there are two gin products, with charming names in the most beautifully designed, feline-like, elegant bottles. One is Jerusalem Dry Gin and the other is Israel Sunset Gin.  If I had a bar, these are the bottles I would have on display. The newest product is a bourbon, Dew of B’Dolah, distilled in America, aged on the long boat trip over the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean, and then here in Israel. 

Launching just before Covid was not part of the perfect marketing plan, but nonetheless they have progressed very well. Look carefully and you will see their products on the back shelves of many local restaurants and bars. Thinkers Distillery is distributed in Israel by Hacarem, one of our leading wine and spirits distributors. It is a marriage that is complimentary to both of them. Hacarem is a family company dating from 1921 now managed by the fourth generation of the founding family. Royal Wine and Kedem Europe represent Thinkers in the USA and the UK respectively, but they have already gained a foothold in quite a few other countries too.

The Thinkers Vodka at 40% alcohol is their best product in my opinion. Most will drink it frozen as a shot, or with a mixer. Very smooth, it is perfect for a Vodka Martini. At last, we have a national vodka. The base alcohol comes from the best wheat in the Champagne region of France. In producing the highest quality product he can, he is not afraid to import and source the very best basic ingredients from abroad. 

The water comes from the Holy Air of Jerusalem. Using the innovative Watergen technology, they are able to convert Jerusalem humidity into water, used for cutting the spirit to commercial levels. The de-luxe vodka at 52% alcohol has a good mouth feel and the distillery recommends it is enjoyed neat, with or without ice. The Jerusalem Dry Gin, made in the “London Dry Gin” style, has the classic aromas of juniper with lifted citrus notes. The Israeli Sunset Gin comes in an attractive pink bottle. Amidst all the botanicals, it also is distilled with rose petals and strawberries, and this gives a subtle floral aroma. The Thinkers Dew of B’Dolah is a handcrafted, unfiltered, small batch product. It is an authentic Bourbon in every way, but with an Israeli twist. It was made from Kansas corn, distilled in Ohio, and it was then put in charred new American oak barrels. After maturation in cask during the long sea journey, the barrels were then left outside open to the elements for a further three and a half years in Haifa. The name comes from Kabbalah, describing balance and harmony. I am a scotch man myself, but this is a blessing for Bourbon drinkers.

The visitors’ center is pristine, glossy, rather like stepping into an advertising postcard. You don’t get the blood, sweat and tears or smells of a distillery, or the bustle and dirt of production, but you can have a really enjoyable tasting experience coupled with a great atmosphere in the place you would least expect it. Most important, the products are good.

We have experienced the boutique winery revolution in the 1990s, the emergence of craft brewers in the early 2000s and now artisan distillers since 2010. The drinks industry in Israel is blooming. It has never been so varied with so much quality, variety and individuality. Thinkers Distillery is an important addition to our drinks scene with products that can stand proud and represent Israel in bars around the world. 

Our family motto is “Think and Thank” from Sir Moses Montefiore onwards. Tongue in cheek, I have a Whats App group with the two my children who are in the wine trade, which we call “Think & Drink.” Thinking and Drinking with a Thinkers spirit in hand therefore seems to me most appropriate. It puts me in the mood for a Thinkers Vodka Martini, shaken and not stirred, served dirty, with an olive. At least, James Bond would approve!

Adam Montefiore is a winery insider turned wine writer, who has advanced Israeli wine for 35 years. He is referred to as ‘the English voice of Israeli wine’ and is the Wine Writer for the Jerusalem Post.

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