Lest the bourbon geeks forget, whiskey—or “whisky,” in so many other cases—truly is a global endeavor. In the insular American whiskey sphere in particular, drinkers often have a tendency to get very provincial and shortsighted, to the point that even the most famed international whiskies, such as those from Scotland, are some exotic category far removed from the familiarity of bourbon. Scotland and Ireland, though? That’s just the start, when it comes to discovering whisky outside the U.S. Ditto with Japan. Malt whisky in particular is a scene that is popping up all over the world, in regions you likely don’t associate with whisky at all, from South America to India. And that brings us to Milk & Honey Distillery, which became the first producer of single malt whisky in Israel when they opened their doors in Tel Aviv in 2014.
It’s notable that although they were the first, Milk & Honey was by no means the last—four other whisky distillers have since opened in Israel in the last few years, including Golan Heights, Pelter, Legends, and Yerushalmi. But Milk & Honey has functioned as the ambassador for the emerging substyle of Israeli whisky because they opened with international sales always in mind. Although their product is meant to represent the new concept of “Israeli whisky,” it was always intended to be shipped around the globe. Such was the vision of owner Gal Kalkshtein, who made a sideways move from brewing to distilling to open Milk & Honey.
To do so, Milk & Honey fell back on some of the science pioneered by whisky/whiskey makers in other hot, dry climates such as Texas. The heat is a major consideration—hotter environments cause faster rates of evaporation, and also increase the spirit’s interaction with the interior of a wooden barrel. You can’t make the same exact type of spirit in a climate like Israel as you can on the cool, damp coast of Scotland.
Milk & Honey’s process, then, combines traditional distilling techniques with fairly nouveau aging practices. A large percentage of their flagship Classic single malt, for instance, is aged in the same type of re-used American bourbon casks that are typical of the scotch whisky industry, but the company also uses newly charred (or “virgin”) casks in small portions as well—a practice that was once something of a taboo within the malt whisky world, but has now increasingly come into the norm. To this formula, Milk & Honey also adds the presence of “STR” casks, a fairly recent development that stands for “Shaved, Toasted and Recharred” red wine casks—literally wine barrels that have had the interior lightly shaved away before re-toasting them, ultimately yielding a barrel that combines elements of both re-used wine casks and virgin oak.
Curious to see how this lineup is progressing, we received samples of Milk & Honey’s Classic Cask Single Malt Whisky and the three barrel-finished entries in its Elements series: Sherry Cask, Peated and Red Wine. All are non-chill filtered and presented at natural color.
This is a young single malt, aged somewhere under four years in the hot Tel Aviv climate, which is intended to speed the process of maturation to some extent. As previously stated, it matures in a combination of ex-bourbon casks, virgin oak and STR casks, and is bottled at a fairly robust proof point of 46% ABV (92 proof)—a bit higher than you might expect for a flagship malt of a younger company. MSRP is around $60, which is a bit high for the age and fundamentals of this particular bottle, but something to be expected with a smaller company offering a unique product.
On the nose, the Classic Cask initially favors notes of honey, florals and Cheerio-like graininess, with hints of pencil shavings. Fruitier impressions steadily emerge, with some nice peach or apricot stone fruit. It does indeed read clearly as a malt whisky; it’s not as if you’d mistake the aroma for another style. With that said, the overall aromatics are somewhat on the simple side.
On the palate, Classic Cask is pleasantly malty, with mild sweetness and some toastiness. Fruity notes of peach and citrus are easily accessible, trailing into light and subtle baking spice hints of nutmeg or clove. It is, however, very thin of body even with the decent proof point—on the other hand, I found the ethanol to be very restrained as well, which is nice. I was afraid that in a young malt it might prove to be on the hot side, but this isn’t the case.
Overall, the impression is of a light, fruity, largely uncomplicated malt. It’s easy to drink and fairly easy to enjoy, but lacks depth. With continued aging, though, there’s no reason why this malt couldn’t turn into something excellent.
Because sherry typically doesn’t meet the requirement to be labeled as kosher, the Milk & Honey team traveled to Jerez, Spain and had these oloroso and PX sherry casks designed specifically for them. That makes this the first single malt in the world in which a portion was aged in kosher sherry casks. Like the Classic Cask, it’s bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof).
I am a fan of sherried single malts, but Milk & Honey’s Elements offering strikes me as a very subtle one in a field that is usually a bit more boisterous. The nose seems repressed in comparison with the Classic Cask base malt—very neutral, with some light nuttiness and vinous notes that hint at the cask, but don’t really “celebrate” it per se.
On the palate, this is a bit better, with some light roasted nuts, cinnamon and nutmeg, in combination with traces of the stone fruit present in the Classic Cask. Overall, though, this offering feels muted—the simplicity of the profile worked better in the Classic Cask than in a sherry cask expression that was likely intended to offer a deeper collection of flavors. Ultimately, not my favorite of this group, mostly just for the lack of assertiveness.
This is basically the Classic Cask, with a portion of the whisky (41%, according to M&H) matured inside of ex-Islay scotch casks in order to absorb some of their peated malt influences and seaside flavors. The rest of the whisky was matured in the usual combination of ex-bourbon, virgin oak and STR casks. Like the others, it’s at 46% ABV (92 proof).
On the nose of this one, I get a very light smoke—just a tiny kiss of it that hints at the peated/Islay origin. The more prominent impressions are of malty sweetness and toasted bread, along with honeycomb sweetness. On the palate I get that same honeycomb, although here you get more of the vegetal qualities of the Islay casks, along with a lingering cigarette smoke. There are hints of the brine and seaweed notes typical of Islay malts, but it’s again subtle and subdued—it’s like a first primer on the much bolder flavors that one usually expects in a flagship Islay single malt.
All in all, I think this offering is alright—it feels like it was designed for drinkers looking to dip a first toe into more heavily peated malts, and is less intense as a result. It’s not going to capture the attention of lifelong Laphroaig and Lagavulin drinkers, but it’s really not meant for them.
This expression of the Elements series celebrates the Israeli wine industry, partially aging in re-used red wine casks in addition to ex-bourbon, virgin and STR casks. Like all the others, it’s at 46% ABV (92 proof)—M&H seems quite committed to that particular proof point.
This one is a pleasant surprise on the nose, being a bit more expressive and nuanced than the other Elements entries. There’s young graininess here; a combination of malty/biscuity notes as in the other malts, but also a darker and more vinous thread, combined with roasted nuts, orange citrus and more buttery tones. I can appreciate that there’s more going on here in general than in say, the Sherry Cask expression.
On the palate, this one is quite smooth in texture and offers pleasant notes of honey, biscuits and dark fruit, with lingering cocoa powder. As with most of the others, the flavors aren’t very assertive or intense, but as with the others the ethanol also doesn’t ever get in the way—something M&H should be commended on, given that this is a bit higher proof point and a fairly young spirit. The dark berry notes of this particular expression make it my favorite of the Elements series, and the roastiness/chocolate hints give it some appreciable depth.
All in all, I think expressions like Classic Cask and Elements Red Wine Cask will likely benefit from more age in future releases, and I look forward to seeing Milk & Honey’s continued evolution as Israeli whisky looks to make a name for itself on the world whisky scene.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.