What a difference a year makes

22 July, 2016

Do you have a recurring nightmare? Mine is very specific. I am speaking before an audience who are just staring at me in total silence. I finish my speech and everyone just stares. I ask for questions. Nothing. I start going red, and redder, and redder…

Fifteen months ago this became a horrible reality in Israel, where I was making a speech to open Whisky Live Tel Aviv in front of about 100 Israeli writers and bloggers.

I reached the end of my speech and there was just silence. I asked for questions. Nothing. One of the organisers tried to jolly them up. Nada. So I gamely ploughed on with another speech. Or at least tried to, because my brain had already worked out that I was heading up a very short creek without a paddle. And, sure enough, I rapidly stuttered to an embarrassing halt and was engulfed by another wave of silence. At which point the organisers intervened and led me away for a large whisky.

It turns out that the room was packed with drinks writers who knew nothing about whisky and didn’t want to reveal their ignorance to their rivals by asking a dumb question.

That was then, though. I was back recently – always been a sucker for punishment, me – and wow, what a change. I wasn’t asked to make the opening speech for a starter, but how Israel has moved on as a whisky loving nation.

The country now has two distilleries producing and bottling malt spirit, though they are both some way off a single malt whisky. Milk & Honey is in Tel Aviv itself, and its spirits are surprisingly mature for their age – sweet, candyish and with a floral heart. Golan Heights makes an altogether crisper and spicier malt, using a combination of different casks.

A rapid maturation shouldn’t come as a surprise. Golan Heights, where much of Israel’s impressive wine is made, can have a 20° temperature swing from 40°C to 20°C on one summer’s day and night.

There were other signs of change, too. Where a year ago whisky was mainly supplied through importers and rarely strayed past the usual suspects, this year all sorts of weird and wonderful bottles were on display. And this year not only did the questions keep on coming, but they were being asked from a position of considerable knowledge, too. In fact, the increase in the level of knowledge from year to year was quite staggering.

It’s no passing fad, either. Israel is climbing the whisky mountain at high speed, laying down markers as it goes. There are the distilleries, for instance – no small investment – then there’s Tel Aviv’s latest attraction, the Whisky Market & Bar.

It’s situated at one end of the ultra-trendy culinary centre, Sarona Market, down a stone staircase, and is a cool (in all senses of the word) underground crypt. One wall is covered with backlit shelving containing dozens of rare, exciting and unusual bottles. On my two visits I witnessed a Diageo cocktail competition and a Glenmorangie masterclass featuring the company’s global brand ambassador, Hamish Torrie.

It all adds up to a thriving, growing and exciting whisky scene. All in all, Tel Aviv has changed its theme tune from Silence Is Golden to Movin’ On Up.

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