23 Oct Israel’s Forgotten Brandies
Twenty years ago there was a large market for Israeli brandies. Stock 84 and Brandy 777 were big domestic brands. In the 1990’s Carmel & Tishbi brandies won major international recognition at the very highest possible level. Yet high domestic taxes and the fact that brandy just drifted out of fashion, have contributed to an ongoing decline in Israeli brandy, which has continued until today. This is sad because Israeli brandies are good and deserve better.
The new brown spirits of choice for Israelis are Scottish or Irish whiskies, but the major boom in sales has been in vodka. The major international vodka brands came to Israel backed by their massive advertising as global brands and furthermore, cheap vodka imports fuelled the trend to what has become the preferred drink of Israeli youth. Today the few remaining brandy drinkers tend to be in the 60 year old plus age group.
It is true that the main indigenous spirit in the eastern Mediterranean/ Levant region is Arak, but it is scarcely a product at its best when made by Israelis. Ironically, the best Arak in Israel is produced by a Lebanese refugee from the South Lebanese Army, which is not a surprise. Lebanon is home to the best araks. However Israel does have a spirit it makes well. Israeli brandies are made to a good standard and have also enjoyed a fair amount of success internationally. As a wine producing country, Israel should be very proud of its brandies.
The brandy with the highest profile is Stock 84. Stock is a famous international company, which was founded in 1884 in Italy by an eighteen year old called Lionello Stock. The Jewish owned company settled in Trieste and was a great success until the rise of Hitler & Mussolini. Then the distilleries were pillaged, closed or nationalized. Because of this, Lionello Stock, had to rebuild his company again towards the end of his life and chose to make a start in other countries like America … and Israel. In 1938 he began to produce brandy in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Their Stock 84 Brandy, now a major international brand, is still made in Israel under license by Barkan Winery, which is owned by Tempo Breweries. The Israeli version is liked by those that buy it for having ‘bite’, and it remains the biggest selling brandy in Israel.
Carmel began distilling excess grapes to produce brandy in 1898. Their distillery tower, at Rishon Le Zion Cellars, was built in the 1930’s and their four pot stills and two continuous stills date from the founding of the state. Carmel’s brandies were aged in casks previously used to mature fine wines, in the original 100 year old barrel cellar at Rishon Le Zion, which still has the original wooden slatted roof. They include the Brandy Extra Fine, which is Israel’s oldest brand of brandy, and the label has remained virtually unchanged since before the founding of the State of Israel. It is a best seller in the Jerusalem area.
More-well known is the Carmel 777 Brandy, once known as Richon 777. This is a mere 50 years old and is the most likely Israeli brandy to be found in export markets. The name ‘777’ was chosen because of the importance of this number in the Jewish religion. The 777 Brandy is Israel’s second biggest seller and is most popular as an aperitif or as a beginners brandy.
Carmel 100 Brandy was launched in 1982 to celebrate the winery’s 100 year anniversary. Both Carmel’s brandies, 100 and 777, have won gold medals in international competition. The most praiseworthy prize was the ‘Trophy for Best Brandy Worldwide’ at the International Wine & Spirits Competition awarded in 1998. Then the brandies were produced by Freddie Stiller, for many years the winemaker of Carmel Mizrahi. Today the Master Distiller is Mendel Gil, who studied the art of distillation in Russia and the Ukraine.
In the early 1990’s, Tishbi Winery gained the advice and support of Sidney Back of Backsberg Winery in South Africa in an innovative venture. They decided to purchase an authentic Alembic Still from Cognac with the objective of making Israel’s first Cognac style brandy. Yonatan’s son, Golan Tishbi, was the distiller. He took this is on as his personal project, after studying the techniques at Remy Martin. The resulting three year old brandy was an instant success winning the prestigious ‘Trophy for Best Brandy Worldwide’ at the IWSC in London in 1996.
It was no mean feat for two Israeli brandies to win this Trophy twice in three years. However, it received less media attention than say, the comparable successes of Yarden at the IWSC and in the Wine Spectator, Castel in Decanter or Yatir in the Wine Advocate. Brandy was already becoming unfashionable in Israel.
The only other Israeli company to produce brandy is Binyamina Winery. In the days they were known as Eliaz, they produced a brandy called BBB, which continues to be produced today. More interesting to the brandy lover is The Cave Brandy, which is produced at Binyamina Winery, but has been matured at ‘The Cave’. This is a genuine 400 year old cave in the foothills of Mt. Carmel, not far from Bat Shlomo. It is 90 meters long with stone lined walls and ideal, natural aging conditions.
Segal Wines used to produce a brandy called Grand 41 and a brandy liqueur called Hallelujah, but these were discontinued soon after they were bought by Barkan.
So the main brandies to be found today in Israeli supermarkets are: Brandy Extra Fine, Carmel 777, Stock 84 and occasionally, BBB Brandy. The leading quality brandies for the brandy connoisseur are: Carmel 100 Brandy, Jonathan Tishbi Brandy and The Cave Brandy. These are scarcer, but may be found in most quality wine stores. The main brandy liqueur is Grand Sabra, which is particular popular in duty free shops.
Details about these brandies are as follows:
BBB Brandy, 3 Star
A basic brandy product produced by Binyamina Winery, suitable for those looking to buy on price. It is produced in a squat bottle, normally associated with liqueurs.
In ‘Classic Brandy’ by Nicholas Faith, BBB is referred to as: “.. the cheapest and naturally least satisfying of all Israeli brandies.” However it could be well used in cocktails.
Price: 45 shekels.
Stock 84, VSOP
Stock 84 is produced under licence by Barkan Winery.
It is made from a number of grape varieties, distilled in a continuous still and aged for up to four years in large oak casks. The result is light, fiery with an alcoholic nose.
Described in ‘Classic Spirits’ as: “Lighter styled… with a touch of fire.”
Price: 55 shekels.
Brandy Extra Fine, 2 year old
Extra Fine is a brandy produced by Carmel from various white grape varieties, distilled in a continuous still. It is aged in oak for 2 years. The result is in a light style, but it is still quite fruity.
Price: 60-65 shekels
Carmel 777 De-Luxe Brandy, 3 year old
Carmel 777 is mainly distilled in a continuous still and then aged for three years in small oak barrels. It is a light, fruity, spirity brandy, representing good value. It is an aperitif style
Price: 75-79 shekels
Carmel 100 Brandy, 8 year old
Carmel 100 is mainly produced from Colombard and a little Emerald Riesling and Chenin Blanc grapes, grown in the Shefela and Mt. Carmel regions. Seventy five per cent of the base wine was double distilled in copper pot stills and twenty five percent was distilled in a continuous still. The brandy was matured in barrels previously used for wines, so can be said to have a ‘wine finish’. The minimum age statement on the bottle is 8 years, but there are components of 13, 23 and 25 year old brandies in the blend.
Carmel 100 is referred to in ‘The Ultimate Bar Book’ by Andre Domine as: “An after dinner brandy with rich aromas of dried fruit, it is pleasantly warm and long on the palate.”
A recent tasting note by the judges in the IWSC in London described the brandy in complimentary terms: “Medium depth of gold. Delightful floral notes on the nose with apricot and peach. Well rounded mouth with sweet fruit flavours and firm oak backing. Some nutty notes add complexity. Lively, spirited finish.”
The book ‘Classic Spirits’ described the Carmel 100 as being with a: “Firm, mellow-fruit flavor and balance.”
Price: 195-215 shekels
The Cave Brandy, 10 year old
A brandy produced by Binyamina Winery. Made from French Colombard, double distilled and matured for 10 years in the cave, from which it receives its name. It is sold in an attractive and stylish glass decanter and it comes in a presentation box.
It is rich, full bodied and deeper colored than the others, with an attractive sweetness on the finish.
Price: 500-550 shekels
Jonathan Tishbi Brandy, 12 year old
This is an estate brandy named after the owner of the winery, Yonatan Tishbi. It was made from Colombard grapes, grown in Tishbi’s own vineyards, double distilled on its lees in an authentic Charentais Still. It was then aged in oak barrels. It is sold in a traditionally frosted brandy bottle.
The tasting note of IWSC judges is complimentary: “Dark gold with greenish flecks. Nose has honey, wine notes with dried fruit and cinnamon and vanilla. Well rounded mouth with fine, friendly, mellow notes. Fine oak support. Great balance and fine texture. Comforting warmth after the swallow. Spice filled finish.”
Nicholas Faith in ‘Classic Brandy’ regarded Tishbi Brandy’s success as a “tribute to its fruity cleanliness.”
Price: 350+ shekels
Grand Sabra is an orange flavored brandy produced by macerating fresh, Israeli grown kumquats in 777 Brandy, aged for three years in used wine barrels. The unique bulbous Sabra bottle is a copy of a Phoenician wine flask. It is a sort of kosher Grand Marnier, but has had its own success, winning gold medals in the IWSC in London.
The dry citrus nose marries well with the richness of the brandy. It has a pronounced orange aroma, is full bodied with a warm middle palate and an intense lengthy finish.
Price: 120 shekels
Of these, only the Carmel 777 and 100 Brandies, Jonathan Tishbi Brandy and Grand Sabra are known in export markets, but each has received awards at the highest level and warm recommendations from international drinks experts. All are kosher and considering the rarity of kosher brandies from elsewhere, they fill a niche in the kosher bar portfolio. Nicholas Faith in ‘The Pocket Guide To Cognacs and Brandies’ wrote: “Israeli distilleries have the enormous advantage of a tied market, for they are the only producers of kosher brandy. Thus orthodox and many unorthodox Jews the world over naturally turn to them.” Regretably, Israel’s brandies tend to be comparatively expensive against their non kosher equivalents and have not succeeded to gain a foothold in export markets.
Israeli brandies are the natural spirit of a wine producing country and they do deserve a little respect. Even though sales are unlikely to return to what they were, there is justified national pride at the international success and no doubt they will continue to be appreciated by those few connoisseurs and brandy lovers, who know what others are missing.
(This article originally appeared on http://www.wines-israel.co.il/len/apage/3355.php)