In the late 1980s, I came to an Israel which was a bit backward in terms of its alcohol beverages. In wine, Carmel Mizrahi was a monopoly with 75% of the market. Then ‘Selected was their entry level brand and ‘Rothschild’ was their prestige label. Regarding beer, Tempo Brewery was an even bigger monopoly. Goldstar, Maccabee and Nesher were the main brands. As for spirits and liqueurs, the big brands were Elite Arak and Stock 84 Brandy. Most of the spirits were made by the big wineries: Carmel, Barkan, Eliaz, and Askalon-Segal. In fact all the wineries made spirits, with one notable exception. That was the reasonably new Golan Heights Winery, which from the get-go decided to concentrate on quality table wines. You may remember Vodka Stopka, Keglevich, Vodka Gold, Captain Rum, Lord Gin and Tehila (imitation Tequila.) There were also some vermouths (Carmel & Stock), whose chief benefit were that they were kosher, and Amadeus liqueurs. The most successful spirits in terms of quality were the brandies produced by Carmel and Tishbi, which won some major awards, and the most well-known liqueur internationally, was the chocolate orange Sabra, produced by Carmel on behalf of Seagram.
A similar article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
In fact though the quality wine revolution began with the Golan, it was only in the 1990s that the boutique winery revolution really got underway. This was led by wineries with names that became part of our wine history, like Margalit Winery, Domaine du Castel and Tzora Vineyards. The micro-brewery revolution began in the 2000s. Dancing Camel was the first name that comes to mind, but others like Golan, Jems, Malka and Negev followed. A new craft distillery industry started in the 2010s. They were preceded by the pioneering Jullius Distillery, but others like Golani, Milk & Honey, Pelter and Yerushalmi followed with whiskies and gins. Later Thinkers was founded in Jerusalem, producing vodka and gin. The 2020s has seen a new awakening of vermouths, most notably the handcrafted Vedetta.
Today we are in a different place. All the big important global brands are here, and Israel is showing its own identity with quality, wines, beers and spirits. Funnily enough the largest selling brands in each category remain the same. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Carmel Selected, Tempo’s Goldstar and Elite Arak lead the way as they always did. But each alcohol category is now showing individuality, character, variety and quality with the new developments and start-ups.
The first light of the new dawn, really occurred with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. This was the first time an Israeli winery really wanted to make high quality wine and took the steps to achieve it. I was invited to the Golan Heights Winery for the 40th Anniversary Celebration Party and decided to make a day of it by visiting a boutique winery, micro-brewery and craft distillery to celebrate how far the Golan has come since those early days of wine pioneering.
I love visiting the Golan Heights. It really is like travelling abroad. When you cross the Jordan River and begin to climb, you feel as though you are on holiday. The Golan Heights is in the Northeast of Israel, bordering Syria. It is a volcanic plateau which is overlooked by the impressive snow covered Mount Hermon on one hand, and in turn overlooks the beautiful Sea of Galilee.
I started by visiting one of our most promising new, young wineries. Mika Winery is situated at Natur in the southern Golan. I had been there before over a year ago, but this was an opportunity to taste the whites again and the reds for the first time. This is the winery founded by Mika Ran Mandel. She is a special lady. Mother of six children, they bought a farm, built their own home, but something was missing for Mika. She was born into an agricultural family of farmers and vineyard owners in the mountains of Samaria. She went full in to wine by joining Pelter Winery and gained experience looking after their vineyards. She then decided to go it alone. She founded her own winery. Now they are already up to 30,000 bottles a year. Their white wines and rose are outstanding. On both visits, my favorite wine was their Sauvignon Blanc Roussanne. Her rose also ticks all the boxes. She also produces a Riesling, a dry Gewurztraminer and an oaky Chardonnay which are all finely made. Out of the reds, my favorite by a long chalk was the Petit Verdot which was silky, focused and elegant. Most interesting was the light fruity Grenache. I also enjoyed the Cinsault, rare in Israel. This is an excellent summer wine. Mika is charming, softly spoken and modest, but hides well her determination and perfectionism, which becomes apparent in time. She knows exactly what she wants and usually achieves it. She has planted her own vineyard at Tel Phares on the Golan, but enjoys cherry picking where she gets her fruit from. She believes Samaria is best for Bordeaux varieties, the Upper Galilee is best for Sauvignon Blanc and the aromatic varieties, like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, are best from the Golan Heights. As I was on the Golan to celebrate forty years of wine, it is always pleasing to see the infusion of new wineries . The Golan Heights has a great wine route these days, ranging from Chateau Golan in the south to Odem Mountain Winery in the north. When you visit, be sure to add Mika Winery to your list.
We then drove north to Katzrin situated in the central Golan. There we visited the Golani Distillery. This was a start-up distillery founded by David Zibell and his wife Alona in 2014. My first and only communication with David was a curt, slightly rude message received complaining I did not mention his distillery in an article. My response was to say, well why not send some information. Funnily I enough I never received a press release or any information either before or since this communication. This frosty introduction was on my mind when I visited. Contrary to any fears I had, Zibell was warm, welcoming and charming and generously gave a great deal of his time as we tasted through the range.
This was someone who made Aliyah from Montreal, Canada with the express idea of establishing a distillery. Now, Israel in the previous fifteen years had turned from drinking brandy, into a country of whisky drinkers. This fit in with the world wide trend in the Jewish world, where whisky, and Scotch whisky in particular, became the chosen spirit of the Jewish people. Safe treif if you like! Jews went to Shul and spend a lot of time in Kiddush Clubs, and would enjoy discussing the merits of this single malt whisky, against that, as much as dissecting and discussing the Talmud. The only thing we did not do in Israel was make the stuff.
Well, David Zibell was one of those whisky mavens, who had a far off dream to become Israel’s first whisky distiller. This he honed into a practical vision, which he achieved with a clarity of purpose and great determination. Whereas most people making Aliyah stuff their container with home necessities, Zibell sent over distilling equipment. Though by coincidence others like Pelter, and Milk & Honey, had a similar idea at the same time, Zibell was not to be denied.
He founded his distillery in 2014 in Katzrin and now owns three distilleries. Golani is his baby producing Israeli whisky. He aims to make his whisky totally an Israeli production. He uses local grains, wheat and barley, local spring and well water, and matures his spirit in casks previously used for aging the famous wines of the Golan Heights. The toasting of casks they do themselves. Zibell also produces Kosher for Passover spirits, like gin and arak, at the nearby Katzrin Distillery. At the ‘Yerushalmi’ Distillery, a later start-up joint venture founded in Beit Shemesh, he makes peated whisky and rums. There is a debate which distillery made the first whisky. The question of ‘What is a Whisky’ is rather like ‘Who is a Jew’; Complicated! Golani were the first to produce a new-make whisky, whereas Milk & Honey were the first to produce a whisky matured for three years. Both can claim to be the first, depending on the criteria. Basically find the story that fits your reality and stick with it and Golani does, shouting in all written material that it is Israel’s first whisky.
David Zibell has the palate and perfectionism of the chef he once was, the business smarts of someone who was in real estate and the refined culture of someone with roots in France. The core business of Golani is their range of whiskies aged in casks, previously used for aging wines of the Golan. I liked the Golani Vino Whisky 5 year old best, but the Golani Unicask Nectar was also special. We did not only taste whiskies. Zibell generously unleashed the full range before us. I liked the rich fruit cake XO Brandy (Fine du Golan), loved their superb Grappa (Golanite Gafta) with lifted aromas and really appreciated an excellent Arak (Green Anise Arak). He is particularly proud of his Absinthe, produced in homage to his great grandmother who had an absinthe bar in France.
David Zibell is quite deep and serious. Passionate but in a thorough, thoughtful way, he is thoroughly absorbed in his role as Master Distiller, owner CEO, which basically covers everything. He is matched by his wife Alona, who really is a force of nature. Full of life and bubbly, she is the heart and spirit of the winery. She is the queen of the visitors’ center and hearing an explanation from her can turn even an abstemious, anti-alcohol crowd into fascinated listeners, prepared to taste anything. David and Alona are the blend, which is the essence of the Golani Distillery; the brains and the heart making the perfect team.
Around the corner is the Golan Brewery which was founded in 2006. Israel is today dominated by two large breweries, Carlsberg Israel and Tempo. The craft brewery revolution really began in the early 2000s. The Golan was one of many small operations that sprung up offering small production beers of character and individuality. Their core list of beers are under the Bazelet label. Basalt is the black stone that may be seen all over the Golan. The brewery is also a meat restaurant and a great place to grab a quick meal. It is essential to eat something if your day is spent tasting wine, beer and spirits…and their food is good. You can purchase a tasters selection of the different beers to decide what you like. For me it was not that difficult. I liked the pilsener and IPA best of all. The other beers tasted were a wheat beer, an ale and a Double Bock. Certainly it was a good pit stop.
In the evening I joined the grand celebration at the Golan Heights Winery, marking forty years since its founding in 1983. This is where it all began. They held a wonderful event. How great it was to visit the Golan forty years on, and experience how our domestic wine, beer and spirits industries have developed since then.
Adam Montefiore is a winery insider turned wine writer, who has advanced Israeli wines for 35 years. He is referred to as the ‘English voice of Israeli wine’ and is the wine writer of the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com