I have been in Israel for 30 years. During this time, we have seen some metamorphosis in the spirits market.
The 1990s were the decade of brandies, spirits and liqueurs produced in Israel.
Israeli spirits were used in bars whenever a taste could be masked by a blender or cocktail. Unscrupulous bartenders undoubtedly filled the empty bottle of the famous vodka brand on the back bar with the cheap Israeli version and then charged the most expensive price.
The 2000s were the years when major global brands arrived in Israel. For the first time, Israelis could enjoy the same big brands they had come to know in New York, Paris and London. Importers established themselves firmly, the brand took place, but the most popular arena for shopping was still duty free. Even bars and restaurants would try to buy what they wanted duty-free rather than paying the importer’s stratospheric prices.
Vodka consumption exploded and everyone became infatuated with a new interest in whiskey. If vodka was the favorite spirit of young people, whiskey was the drink the feinschmecker liked to talk about. Everyone liked to say what their favorite malt was, as a sign of sophistication.
The 2010s were the decade of the democratization of the spirits market. Prices have fallen due to taxation and government intervention. The market has become more accessible. Parallel imports have destroyed the intimate and exclusive relationship of importers with their suppliers. There were more big brands in Israel than ever before. The rise of flavored spirits but still dominated by global brands has been felt.
In Israel, 75% of the market was controlled by four big players. These were IBBLS, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola Israel, Tempo Beverages, Hacarem and Akerman. These companies have divided global brands among themselves and have often coaxed customers into taking their products.
IBBLS and Tempo in particular were able to provide a full beverage service, providing wines, spirits, beers and soft drinks.
WHEN YOU work in the beverage business and sit in a bar or restaurant, your eyes wander the shelves out of habit. You check out the big names, see what’s new, and look for something different.
What quickly became clear was that, whether it was a small bar or a fancy restaurant, the back shelves look the same pretty much everywhere. They all carry the same brands from the same major distributors. After all, there is a saying that “brands are bland”. By that I mean big brands tend to have less character, more parve, less likely to offend, and more enjoyable for more people. In other words, bland!
Therefore, it is nice to find the new trend in Israel for the 2020s. Welcome to the Craft Distillery. This is an artisanal production on a small basis where the emphasis is on ingredients and authenticity. The global brand is more interested in the story after production, while the artisanal manufacturing rejoices in what happens before the product is bottled.
In Israel, this is manifested by the number of artisanal distilleries opened. These include Golani, Jullius, Milk & Honey, Pelter, and Yerushalmi. For those who claim “blue and white”, this is an opportunity to return to local production.
The movement towards the production of artisanal spirits has grown over the past decade around the world. This followed the craft brewing revolution that had occurred earlier in the previous decade. However, it has only arrived in Israel now.
This is in part due to a new company called Free Spirits & Co. Using great knowledge and expertise, she has traveled the world to find handcrafted spirits with uniqueness, great quality and history. He created his portfolio during COVID, of all years, to enable the best bars and restaurants to buy immediately to exemplify their excellence above their competition. It offers more options that were not there before.
The two-man business is fortunate to have two giants in our business.
The first is Asaf Ivanir, who is truly a giant. Tall, patrician-looking, like a guard, with a broad, broad smile. He was CEO of IBBLS, the importers of Diageo and Campari. He is a proven master of marketing, who has smartly led some of the biggest spirits brands in the world and also developed totally new ones in Israel. He has many years of experience in the beverage and beverage industry.
His partner is Dudi Zats, a 20-year veteran of the beverage industry, who has a perfect understanding of what’s in the bottle and how it’s produced. For years he was involved in alcohol, spirits and liquor education, then he became Business Development Director for IBBLS, providing the knowledge, expertise and business intelligence under Ivanir.
I don’t mean to exaggerate, but if I had a spirits question, Zats might be the first person in the country I would approach. He’s calm, reserved, until he starts talking about his wallet. Then you receive a tirade of information like a volcano. There is an overflow of knowledge and passion, and he has a story he desperately wants to share. It is both charming and intoxicating. Sit quietly and listen, and you can’t help but learn.
OUTSIDE their portfolio of spirits, liqueurs, vermouths, bitters and ciders, there are certain products that stand out.
First of all, it’s their gin. It is a neutral alcohol whose predominant flavor comes from juniper berry and other plants. It is most famous in the iconic gin and tonic. There has been an explosion of interest in gin, and this sector is one of the main beneficiaries of the new craft sector.
Ivanir and Zats got a good one. G’Vine is produced in the Cognac region. Its basic product is the Ugni Blanc grape, and it is distilled in a still (like a cognac). It is much more floral and less dominated by juniper than most London Dry Gins. It is therefore more complex. It would be especially good for a martini cocktail.
Gin lovers will also be delighted to taste Old Duff Genever, the traditional and unique Dutch gin, which is also part of their portfolio.
Tequila is also a growing market. This is fermented and distilled from the blue agave plant, grown near the city of Tequila in Mexico.
The Free Spirits Tequila Ocho truly captures the essence of the artisan producer. This unique producer designates the year of manufacture and the precise field where the agave is harvested; and, of course, Ocho exclusively grows his own agave.
The word “ocho” means eight. Why the name? The producer has a cunning answer. It takes an average of eight years for agaves to ripen before harvesting. It takes eight kilograms of agave to make one liter of Ocho. The owner has eight siblings and is in his eighth decade of making tequila!
I like to sip good, pure tequila in a brandy balloon, but I guess it’s best known in the margarita cocktail.
Free Spirits also has a beautiful vermouth called Mancino.
A vermouth is a flavored fortified wine, perfumed with herbs and spices. We all know Martini and Cinzano, the giant world producers. We may remember the sad Carmel and Stock vermouths of yesteryear.
It is a very individual expression made to the recipe by Giancarlo Mancino. He uses 40 plants to make his vermouth, which are ground in a family mill in Piedmont. This is soaked in sugar beet alcohol, then added to Trebbiano di Romagna, the base wine.
However, the best for me is the Mancino Chinato Vermouth, made from Barbera d’Asti. The result is a beautiful expression of depth, richness and complexity of the red wine. A super interesting digestif.
Most enchanting, if you can get it, is the beautifully wrapped Mancino Sakura, an Italian vermouth made as a tribute to the cherry blossoms in Japan. Who knew vermouth could be so delicious?
If there is one area of specialization, it is rum. Rum is made by fermentation, then distillation, of sugar cane molasses. It was so dominated by Bacardi and Captain Morgan, and the lack of organization at the source delayed the rum turnaround.
However, with the whiskey reasonably saturated and at a peak, vodka may be declining slightly (admittedly from a very high percentage) and gin being the main beneficiary of the latest boom, perhaps rum is the next. The wide variety of rum and the beauty of aged rum is a potential market that is waiting to grow.
Free Spirits certainly sees it, and it has some great rums.
Hampden Estate rum is produced in Jamaica. It is made in a still. It is aged in a tropical climate, which means that the share of the angels (the evaporation of alcohol from the cask) is more important than usual. The rum is intense, broad with a savory spicy flavor.
Free Spirits also offers Foursquare Barbados rums, and it’s worth trying some of its aged Appleton rums.
As for me, although my first love is whiskey, I start every meal in a restaurant with a Campari and a soda. This is what Ivanir and Zats have marketed with such success to IBBLS.
However, fear not. As part of their new portfolio they have Del Professore Bitter, which is similar to Campari, perhaps a little less bitter but more complex. One of the ingredients is rhubarb, which sounds intriguing.
As a Brit, I love cider and never understand why it is not popular here. It was made for a hot country like ours.
Their cider comes from Normandy and Brittany in northwestern France, and it’s called Galipette. It is made from 100% hand-picked apples. There is no added sugar, it is gluten free and vegan. It is less carbonated than some of the more commercial ciders. It comes in its own unique dump bottle. I could drink a lot of it in Israel.
The philosophy of Free Spirits is to be small but to act big. Certainly, by focusing on artisanal producers, it provides a home for producers of artisanal spirits in Israel. It is aimed at those looking for individuality, character, uniqueness and quality. Finally, there are new options for the quality restaurant bar and the innovative beverage cabinet at home.
The writer is a wine industry insider turned wine writer who has been advancing Israeli wine for 35 years. He is considered the English voice of Israeli wines.