If you want to talk about passion in whisky then you could do a lot worse than to look to Israel. There's no distillery here but if the Israeli Whisky Society has its way that will soon change.
It's not any old society. It has am impressive 4000 plus members and it's prepared to think outside the box. You know of lots of people who have bought their own cask and done their own bottling, right? Well how about buying whisky spirit before it is three years old and therefore not legally yet Scotch whisky? And then maturing it in a cave in your home country so that it is martyred outside Scotland and can't be called Scotch?
Israel is always a little bit behind… but the whisky fever is definitely here
And if it's not Scotch single malt whisky, what is it? Israeli single malt perhaps…
A bit of context here - I was fortunate to come across Israeli tweeter and blogger Gal Granov a while ago, and have been impressed by his knowledge, enthusiasm and support over recent months. And then earlier this month I went to Tennessee and Kentucky for a whisky tour and met four more Israelis. I have to be honest and say it took a while to bond, mainly because they looked like hardcore Chelsea football fans from the 80s and one of the group had a weird video camera attachment on his head so he looked like a cross between Woody Allen and a coal miner.
But I noticed that while out American friends were sensibly sipping at each sample and leaving their glasses three quarters full - making me look like a chronic alcoholic as I rarely leave anything - the Israeli Contras were matching me glass by glass.
We shared a drink together at the Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, the spiritual heart of bourbon; we talked politics over too many whiskies, and we shared some great experiences. For me, this is what everything I'm involved in is all about. My one regret on what was a fabulous trip was that we were unable to share a beer in the airport before departure because the connecting flights to Tel Aviv were so late the Israelis had to return to the party for another night while I headed home.
I did get to do an interview though, and here it is, with one of the Israeli Whisky Society's founder members Jonathan Ishal
How great is the interest in whisky in Israel?
Israel is always a little bit behind… but the whisky fever is definitely here. Nearly every month new brands are imported to Israel, and almost every bar has a nice collection of whiskies. More and more people are showing interest in whisky.
Is it just Scotch or is it other categories and if so which and how big?
Indeed, Scotch is the biggest category but I think that more and more people are starting to understand that there is lots of interesting stuff around the world.
Please tell me all about the society - how and when it started, what it does, how many members, how often it meets and so on.
The society started in 2003 as a hobby. I was always in the alcohol business (bartender, bar owner) although I am an architect... I was studying architecture in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I fell in love with whisky. (During my studies I worked as a bartender…) When I returned to Israel I open a whisky bar and decided to start a whisky society. Slowly but surely the society grew bigger and bigger until I decided to quit architecture and fully dedicate myself to whisky…
The IWS is a professional society that works in close cooperation with all whisky importers as well as with the duty free shop in an effort to enhance the whisky culture throughout our domain. Our activities include monthly newsletters, professional seminars and tastings. In addition, IWS works closely with the American and British embassies in Israel and has held major whisky events at the ambassadors' residence. The IWS has also launched a number of significant projects. These ventures include the publication of the first high end whisky book in Hebrew, distillery tours and importing and bottling of whisky casks for IWS members. The IWS currently has over 4,000 members and is growing daily.
Tell me about your own bottlings - how you source them, how you choose, how regularly etc
In the past we have bottled only one cask but next year we will do more. By the way – according to the Scotch Whisky Association - you are not allowed to ship whisky out of Scotland in casks. But because we buy young spirit which is not yet whisky, we can send it to Israel. So as a result our whisky is not Scotch because it has not been matured in Scotland.
The filling strength of all three casks is 63.5%. The next cask that is going to be bottled is located in one of more interesting locations in Israel. A cave in the middle of nowhere (in the north of Israel) that belongs to one of the most famous wineries in Israel. The small cave is only for their most expensive wines.
The guy that is dressed in black is the rabbi that is responsible for making sure the whisky is kosher. He is the only one authorized to open the cave… hopefully god will take this into consideration…
Do you get overseas speakers visiting much?
Surprisingly there are quite a lot of brand ambassadors coming to Israel. Recently the importer of Ballantines invited Jim Murray to Israel..
Israeli whisky fans are very active on Twitter. Why?
I think that there are only a few – but they know what they are doing…
How is whisky viewed in Israel from a social, political and religious point of view?
Everyone drinks whisky. With regarding to the kosher thing – as long as the whisky is not matured in cask that held wine – it is kosher
DR:. Do you have good whisky bars/shops/independent bottlers? You will have to visit us in order to see that we got some amazing whisky bars. Unfortunately, the tax on whisky is very, very, very high so most of the whisky lovers buy at the duty free shop. Hopefully this is going to change… For now the Israeli whisky society is the only independent bottler.
Any plans for an Israeli distillery at any point?
One of the ideas behind our bottling was to check how whisky is maturing in Israel. Now that we know it is maturing very well, we can move on to start a distillery in Israel. Maybe we will call it – Glen Jordan…
What next for you, whisky and there society in Israel?
Keep on doing what we do – We love it !!!
Random Irrelevant Fact
A lawyer at Britain's largest Jewish law firm told me that the worst thing that can happen to him is if a client sends him a bottle of good single malt during Passover. In this case he says he can not benefit from the gift at any point then or in the future - so he must open the bottle and pour it down the sink!