Norm Cohen and Alan Cohl are confident that their new breed of whiskey will echo Israel’s success in making the desert bloom. They are creating Israel’s first distillery for American bourbon-style whiskey, hoping to trailblaze the Israeli market for the spirit and bring an added level of sophistication to an Israeli cocktail culture that is just starting to take off.
Without local competition in their niche and little consumer experience in Israel with the whiskey they’re striving to produce, Cohen and Cohl—immigrants from New Jersey and New York, respectively—are confident that their brand, Legends Distillery, will win the hearts and palates of the Jewish state.
The distillers believe they have the perfect recipe for success: pairing their established bourbon-style whiskey recipe with Israel’s biblical tourism industry. (They’ll need to call their creation something other than “bourbon,” as international trade agreements restrict that name’s usage to products made in the U.S.)
According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the number of licensed distilleries in that state, which is the birthplace of bourbon, has more than tripled since 2012. Israel is capitalizing on bourbon’s unprecedented popularity, a trend characterized by increased demand for cocktails made with whiskey and other liquors.
In Tel Aviv, the cocktail scene is gaining steam with the annual Whiskey Festival, the Whiskey Bar & Museum and the summertime Cocktail Festival, in which many of the drinks use bourbon as a main ingredient. Jerusalem, too, boasts several world-famous, award-winning cocktail bars. To Cohen and Cohl, this is a testament to the growing sophistication of Israelis’ taste buds, which yearn for a quality bourbon-style product.
Legends Distillery founders Alan Cohl (left) and Norm Cohen survey the land and architectural plans for their new distillery. Credit: Legends Distillery.
Israel’s first whiskey distillery was Milk & Honey, and two others have followed suit: the Golan Heights Distillery, focusing on two-grain whiskey; and Pelter Distillery, specializing in brandy, with its whiskey not yet on the market. But Cohen and Cohl are certain that scotch, single malt whiskey and brandy are not in competition with their bourbon-style whiskey or with their unique marketing concept and image, which is why Legends hopes to share resources and work with the other distilleries in the future.
“We are working to develop this burgeoning market and Israeli palate together,” Cohen tells JNS.
The Israeli market is “ripe” for the rise of whiskey, and there are also many different aspects of whiskey production that find much more meaningful expression in Israel as compared to anywhere in the U.S., he says. For instance, Cohen explains that the area of Israel in which Legends will be located has rich limestone—which naturally deionizes water and has low iron content, and is therefore chemically suitable for bourbon production.
While corn is not traditionally an Israeli grain, says Cohen, “we have farmland in an area where we will grow our own; the land in that area is very mat’im (fitting) for corn.” The locally obtained water, he says, will make for high-quality, locally produced whiskey.
Legends has partnered with consultant and master distiller Stephen Gould, an award-winning distiller and a world-renowned lecturer on a distilling technique whose proprietary aging process enables the production of a top-level spirit in a small fraction of the time it would normally require. Gould, who works for Golden Moon distillery in Golden, Colo., says that his proprietary aging process allows to get a quality product on the shelves within only 15 months, instead of the usual five to seven years of aging that bourbon usually requires.
Israel’s Elah Valley, the home of Legends Distillery. Credit: Mark A. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.
Further, unlike the pre-existing distilleries in the Jewish state, Legends hope to augment Israel’s tourism industry by offering a product drawn from domestically harvested grains and inspired by the Bible. The distillery is planned to be located in the Elah Valley, the site of the biblical story of David and Goliath. Fittingly, Legends’s flagship spirit—Slingshot—is a clear reference to the legendary battle between David and Goliath, which took place a stone’s throw away from the distillery’s location.
At the same time, Slingshot’s flavor and texture is punctuated with complex notes of oak and leather, and its long, warm finish evoke imagery of the American frontier and its colonial bourbon industry, the very inspiration for their product.
Indeed, even the distillers’ branding fuses these images—featuring a wagon wheel, an unmistakable symbol of early Americans’ drive to cultivate their new country, that rests upon the trunk of an olive tree, an ancient symbol of perseverance and gritty determination. By combining these themes, Legends strives to bring the same ingenuity employed by Israel’s early pioneers in making the desert bloom to the nascent Israeli whiskey industry.
Bourbon lovers and Israel lovers alike can obtain Legends’s bourbon-style product through the distillery’s crowd-funding campaigns on Kickstarter and Jewcer. In a similar spirit, Cohen and Cohl hope that tour groups of all denominations and affiliations will “top off” their visits to the Elah Valley with a distillery tour and a glass of biblically inspired Israeli whiskey.