Tell us a little about the history of the Tel Aviv drinking culture.
Tel Aviv has a really young drinking culture – all the culinary scene really started about 15 years ago. Before that there was nothing, it was literally a desert of restaurants and bars. But over the past 15 years it has changed drastically and now there is a very rich culinary scene, a lot of good restaurants with cuisines from all over the world, pubs, bars and clubs. All this period, me and my colleagues have tried to push the industry forward but only recently did the scene start to get recognition. More and more cocktail bars are opening up and restaurants are trying to implement cocktail programmes and hire experts to create cocktail menus. I would say beer is the biggest seller, and obviously mixers. It used to be that the local spirit – the Mediterranean arak – was really popular due to its price, but a reform in the spirit taxation has changed the market and right now gin is the highest climber, taking market share from both arak and vodka.
Is Tel Aviv getting in to cocktails - or is there still a way to go?
Tel Aviv is definitely getting into cocktails. Since we opened Imperial in February of 2013 six more cocktail bars have opened and three more are on the verge of opening – it has become quite the trend. Really good cocktail bartenders are lacking but a new generation is rising fast through the ranks and I believe that in a few short years we will have a very capable foundation of bartenders trained in proper cocktail bars under good mentors, and who will lead the way for a solid cocktail drinking culture.
Who and what are the pioneer bartenders and bars of Tel Aviv?
Founders of 223 Ariel Leizgold and Mosh Budnik were the first to open a bar that sets the emphasis on cocktails six years ago. Taking inspiration from New York’s Employees Only, they wanted to open a bar that was both fun and high pace but also aimed at serving cocktails. But it was until the birth of the Imperial Craft by Dror Alterovich, Gilad Livnat and myself that cocktails got the attention they deserved, both ingredients-wise and guest-wise.
Is there a growing cocktail community? Who comes to Imperial Craft?
Everybody comes. We first aimed for industry and tourists, figuring those would be the crowds that will understand our product the best, but the word had spread quickly and we are being visited by everyone. Cocktails are not widely known as ‘girly’ drinks anymore but more as a drink for the sophisticated, educated drinker.
Where do you think Tel Aviv ranks in terms of bar scenes in the Middle East – is it leading the way?
Truth be told, the political situation doesn’t allow us to visit most countries in the Middle East. I was pretty shocked to hear that there is a cool scene happening in Beirut due to the muslim restriction on alcohol and high-end bars in muslim countries of UAE. But from knowing the capabilities of the Israeli people I would assume that if we take matters seriously enough we will definitely lead the region.
Does Imperial Craft’s custom track to economical shifts – how is business right now?
Imperial is a really small venue but, as all, it is affected by political and economical changes. The recent situation in Gaza three months ago took business down by 30%, given the fact that morale was down and there were hardly any tourists in the country. So, yes.
What are the challenges you and other bartenders/bar owners face?
We are lacking a lot of interesting spirits – for example, pisco, mezcal, various liqueurs and fortified wines – and are having a hard time getting importers to distribute them. The matter of manpower is a problem now because you kind of have to train new recruits from the ground up.
Who made you the best cocktail you’ve had?
Actually, the last really good cocktail I had in Israel was in Jerusalem, the first ever cocktail bar opened there recently and its cocktail menu was consulted by Yuval Soffer. One of the drinks was a Spanish Daiquiri, a mix of hibiscus-infused rum, Tio Pepe sherry and lime. A great drink.