Diageo, for those who don’t know, is the largest spirit producer in the western world. Their whisky makers include heavy hitters such as Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Talisker and Caol Ila. However, these ‘classic malts’ only constitute part of their collection – there are a number of other distilleries whose spirit you probably would have only tasted mixed into a dram of Johnnie Walker.
Dailuaine is one such distillery, a Speyside establishment known for its heavily sherried style. While you won’t find it in many mainstream bottle shops, it is not impossible to track down an independently aged version and if you find some hidden upon a dusty shelf, then it is well worth picking up. This particular Flora & Fauna bottling is bottled at 43% after aging for 16 years in ex-oloroso barrels, a maturation that has contributed significantly to its flavour.
On the nose, the taster is immediately presented with the classic fruitcake aromas typical of its cask type. Hints of cinnamon doughnuts follow, alongside fresh fruit such as apples and melon. On the palate there are tangy orange juice flavours alongside buttery shortbread and chocolate coated raisins. The finish is long and chewy with toffee-almonds and a hint of lingering oak.
While Dailuaine may not be the most famous of Diageo’s stable, it proves that there’s a lot of exciting whiskies to try if you stray from the well-worn path. Next time it might be a Strathmill or an Inchgower, or perhaps a Blair Athol or a Mannochmore…
So, acting on a whim, I popped over to sunny Tel Aviv in Israel the other day to do a spot of whisky tasting and a distillery tour.
Actually, that’s a lie. The government won’t let us leave Australia yet and I was sitting around freezing my tits off on a wintry Tasmanian evening. But, through the magic of the internet, I was still able to go venturing off into distant exotic lands to partake in a dram and a tour of Milk & Honey Distillery (M&H), Israel’s first whisky producer.
The Spirit Safe and Alba Whisky, the local distributor for M&H, were kind enough to send us a sample pack and an invite to join the Australian (digital) launch of M&H. Zooming in from my rather messy back room, I joined a group of fellow digital denizens to land in the rather more well appointed office of Ian McKinlay, Managing Director and highly knowledgeable chap at The Spirit Safe.
Greeting us with a Scottish brogue, softened by many years spent in the Antipodes, Ian made sure we were seated comfortably and then hit the magic button to beam us half-way across the globe to the shores of the Med Sea. Landing in Jaffa, the ancient port city from which Tel Aviv grew, we were met by the beaming faces of Tal Chotiner (International Sales) and Tomer Goren (Master Distiller) at M&H.
They were probably happy because it was 30°C and humid in Tel Aviv that day (like most days there during summer). Tal previously worked in various roles for Diageo, while Tomer worked at Tomintoul and Springbank, as well as completing his Master Distiller degree two years ago. After introductions, sitting in front of a webcam in an office, the lads leapt up to take us on a tour of the facility, Tal trailing Tomer with a smartphone. Technology eh!?
We wandered through the small visitor centre/bar, taking in the striking black and yellow colour scheme of M&H, before stumbling out into a sprawling, maze-like facility that used to be home to a bakery. Tal remembered visiting it when he was young and the pervasive aroma of the baking bread – “One good smell traded for another!” quipped Ian.
We visited the backyard, where water from the municipal supply arrives and is mixed with salts, the grain mill, the locally made one-tonne mash tun and the four large washbacks (two more are already in the pipeline). The usual fermentation time is 72hrs, but this drops to about 68hrs during summer. Interestingly, at least from an Australian perspective, the distillery doesn’t operate on the weekend because it is kosher, observing the Jewish Shabbat.
Next up were the stills, a 9000L beauty of a copper wash still that the team found in a shed in Romania, but probably originated in Spain, and a custom-built 3000L copper spirit still from Germany. Apparently they thought the wash still was rather smaller based on it’s picture, but it turns out the door it was sitting next to was actually a massive barn door. The lyne arms slope down at 45° angle to produce a very oily newmake that holds up well under fast maturation. Nearby was a small 250L copper pot belly/onion head still used for gin production.
For the final part of the tour we were taken into the warehouses. #1 housed 200 or so privately owned casks, while #2 and #3 were home to a further 2000-odd production casks, looking very spiffy in M&H livery, with their black heads and yellow lettering. Most were ex-bourbon, but there were some other very curious editions that we’ll come back to shortly.
Back in the office, Tal and Tomer took us through a screen-shared presentation that delved further into the brand. The name of the distillery comes from the description of the Jewish promised land in the Bible as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3). The logo, a bull with black and yellow stripes, further references this (apparently they tried a cow first, but it just didn’t look as cool).
Climate plays a massive role for whisky maturation in Israel. For a country that is only 420km long and 115km wide, there are actually five distinct climate zones: Upper Galilee, Jerusalem Mountains, Mediterranean Coast, Desert and the Dead Sea, a collective described by M&H’s late mentor, Dr Jim Swan, as the ‘Climate Playground’. M&H make use of this and age barrels in various locations around the country, with interesting results.
For example, we were shown two bottles of whisky that were produced at the same time using identical spirit and barrels, but one aged in Tel Aviv on the coast and the other at the Dead Sea (which is 430m below sea level but very dry). The results were incredible, with the Dead Sea dram markedly darker than the Tel Aviv one. Even Jerusalem, which is only “45 minutes and 3000 years” away from Tel Aviv according to Tal, produces noticeably distinct results due to the difference in altitude (754m).
In terms of barrelling, the majority are ex-bourbon and STR (‘shaved, toasted and re-charred’, a technique developed by Dr Jim Swan), which develop lots of character in the first year before balancing out. Beyond this, more interesting casks such as locally produced kosher wine barrels are used, which is fitting, as according to Tomer “we have a 4000yr old wine culture, so it’s part of our DNA.”
They also have a seasoning project running in Spain with a Bodega that is able to produce kosher Pedro Ximenez and Olorosso sherry. Probably the most interesting barrels in use have previously held pomegranate wine, which according to Tomer is a signature Israeli flavour.
The whisky we were sent with our tasting pack was M&H’s ‘Classic Cask’, a 3yo aged in 75% ex-bourbon, 20% ex-red wine STR and 5% virgin oak and bottled at the magical 46% ABV. To me the nose was oily, creamy and gooey, with peach, apricot, custard, butterscotch and marshmallow, while the mouth was dry, with toasted timber and wine. It was really different to anything I could think of, which I suspect was a product of the unique Israeli terroir and climate, but I really liked it.
Speaking of the climate, the high daily temperatures and humidity and cool night develop huge amounts of action in the barrels, meaning that maturity is reached very quickly. There is a price to be paid though, as the angels’ share is around 9-11% annually (and can even be as high as 25% in areas like the Dead Sea!!!). Ideally Tal and Tomer would like to see their larger barrels reaching around 4-7 years in Tel Aviv and 4 years in other areas.
As well as the Classic Cask, the other drams in the core range will include ex-sherry, ex-wine and peated (using peated barley from the Czech Republic). Additionally, there will also be a revolving special edition range featuring interesting editions such as the ex-pomegranate casks and Israeli ex-chardonnay casks from the Jerusalem mountains.
The tour ended with a tasting of M&H’s Levantine gin, made using za’atar (a ancient native oregano), and their barrel aged gin under the cheerful gaze of Oded Weiss, M&H’s gin specialist. While Tal rustled up some G&T’s garnished with orange peel and fresh thyme, the team took some questions and reflected on the nature of their operation.
According to Tal and Tomer, in general Israeli consumption of alcohol is quite low, so M&H was founded with export in mind (which is lucky for Australia). “There aren’t really any rules in Israel around whisky production, so we decided to follow the most respected model out there, Scotland. That’s the reason we went for a whisky that was at least 3yo, as the international market would accept that more easily and allow us to build a solid reputation based on our quality.”
In Tal’s eyes, one of the major benefits of being a craft distillery, particularly in Israel, is the flexibility: “We throw ideas around as a team, like ‘wanna do a rum cask? Yeah, let’s do that!’. It’s about running ahead and thinking outside the box.” Tomer agrees: “Where we live is the culture capital of Israel and we’re able to draw influence from all over the world. Tel Aviv itself means ‘old ruins’ and ‘spring’, which I think is a reflection on how we make our whisky. It’s traditional ways with crazy new ideas.”
As Ian brought the session to a close, I reflected on the experience I had just had. I’ve been to internet tastings before, but I still think it was pretty amazing that I was able to sit here in Tassie, with everything that’s been going on in the world lately, and ‘visit’ a distillery in Tel Aviv in real time, something that I would probably never have a chance to experience otherwise (you never know though…). I suspect that live online events will become a staple in the future and allow the whisky community to connect with each other and share their passion in new and creative ways.
If there’s a silver lining to come out of COVID-19, it’s that what’s keeping us apart might just bring us together across the world like never before. And these days, that can only be a good thing, right?
You can purchase Milk & Honey Distillery’s products in Australia from The Spirit Safe
This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where we discuss/gossip about developments at Tasmania’s most famous distillery and speculate at the plans of their AWH overlords
– The Whisky, where we review the TIB vatted malt 3, Tim Duckett’s cheapest release yet! and
– Mystery Whisky, where Nick nearly figures out a duty free Bunnahabhain but fails at the final hurdle
It’s my Dad’s birthday today. I suppose this day tends to make me a bit introspective because he died in 2013. Since then I’ve been finding my way through life in certain aspects without the guiding hand of a father, a fact that I regret more as I grow older and one that I didn’t appreciate enough as a callow youth. History and literature warn us of this condition of course, but I suppose it’s hard to understand at the time… and by then it’s too late.
The reason I first started this musing, over breakfast, as you do, was that I was trying to decide what dram would be best to toast to his health tonight (ironic as that is). I’ve mentioned this before, but for some reason I always associate him with Dalwhinnie 15 (whisky-wise at any rate). It’s a bit of a mystery why really, as it’s not like he was a great aficionado of Scotland’s highest distillery.
If anything, I should remember him by the 1L bottles of Johnnie Walker Red he used to keep in the pantry and swore by as a cold remedy. But the whisky snob in me has become jaded against the walking man in the red jacket I think, so while the memory is fond, the desire to imbibe from that particular cup is lacking.
I suppose, getting down to it, I think the real reason I entwine my father and the Dalwhinnie is purely a selfish one – I bought him the bottle. So, is it really a reflection of him, or of me? My own tastes overriding his in my memory?
To mount a defence against myself, the sentiment comes from a place of love. I bought him the bottle when m’colleague and I were first beginning our whisky journey, back before Whisky Waffle was even a thing. Back when we were in a Cold War arms race to impress each other with ever more interesting bottles.
During my teenage years and as a young adult, I had always struggled to talk with my father. I mean in the deep, honest and open sense, sharing the deeper parts of myself with him. We were quite different people, and it didn’t help that I was wrapped up in the arrogance of youth and he tended towards quietude and reserve.
I suspect that with the Dalwhinnie 15, my hope was that here was something that we could enjoy together. I know that I wanted to share my newfound interest with him and to talk with him about it, even though he probably found me slightly pretentious (still am?). The quality of the 15 would have been a good social leveller though. We did enjoy the occasional dram when I was around too, but whether it opened us up I’m not as sure.
I know from friends and the world at large that young men (hopefully) tend to develop a deeper, more equal and respectful relationship with their fathers as they grow older. I’m generally pretty sanguine about his death in itself, but I do regret that he is gone. With maturity and hindsight, I wonder what our relationship, perhaps even friendship (which is a nice thought), would be now. Alas, so many unanswered questions, so many things left unsaid.
I still have that bottle of Dalwhinnie sitting on my shelf. Of course I reclaimed it after the fact, it would be bad manners not to! It’s down to the dregs now, but for some reason I haven’t been able to finish it.
Part of me has just been avoiding writing a review about it. But perhaps, subconsciously, it’s because the bottle is wrapped up with other memories? Would another bottle make it easier to put pen to paper and record the facts as I see, smell and taste them? Perhaps.
Keeping that bottle alive in such a diminished state has been doing it no favours either. After at least five years rattling around the bottom, exposure to time and the elements will have irrevocably changed the nature of the spirit by a thousand tiny cuts… Huh, that’s quite a good metaphor for incurable cancer actually.
I am quietly an advocate for the right to die with dignity, to bring about closure while enough shreds of a person’s humanity remain. Or even just to be able to make choices about how and where you would like to die, assisted or not, if that luxury is able to be afforded to you. My heart broke enough with the gifts of time and the acceptance of Death’s ultimatum, so I cannot begin to fathom the world-shattering pain that suddenness would bring, although I have trodden the broken glass of its edges.
So, I think that the time has come to bring an end to my bottle. Another one can always be bought and the same memory attached to that mnemonic vessel time and again (as long as Diageo doesn’t decide to drop the 15). It is unfair to the ideals that I originally bought it, to share with my father, and the effort that went into creating the liquid itself, to allow it to moulder away on my shelf. Whisky is, of course, for drinking.
No, this one is for me, as my porridge grows cold in the microwave and a small voice in my head quietly screams that I need to get to work (luckily the commute is just to the back room, as I’m working from home during COVID-19). But overriding all else is Dad’s voice, growing fainter every year, which has derailed me on this day to come unbidden into my mind and drip bittersweet words onto the page.
Or maybe it’s just me, alone at the kitchen table.