Wine talk: free and artisan spirit

I have been in Israel for 30 years. During that time, we have seen some metamorphoses in the spirits market.
The 1990s were the decade of Israeli-made brandies, spirits and liqueurs.

Israeli spirits were used in bars on any occasion where a mixer or cocktail could mask a flavor. The unscrupulous waiters no doubt filled the empty bottle of the famous brand of vodka at the back bar with the cheap Israeli version, and then charged the higher price.

There were names like Vodka Stopka, Captain Rum, Lord Gin, Tehila, Kapri from Carmel, Keglevich and Stock from Barkan, Elite, Alouf Arak, and Gold Vodka. Of the eight largest wineries, each and every produced spirits, except for the Golan Heights winery.
Israel was a huge fan of brandies, which was later mistakenly called Cognac in Israeli slang. Stock 84, 777, Extrafine, and Grand Reserve were much more popular than whiskey. However, only Elite Arak has really kept up with all the changes since then. He is the true survivor.

The 2000s were the years when the great global brands came to Israel. For the first time, Israelis were able to enjoy the same great brands that they had known in New York, Paris and London. Importers were firmly established, the brand was built, but still, the most popular area for shopping was Duty Free. Even bars and restaurants would try to buy whatever they wanted at Duty Free instead of paying the stratospheric prices of the importer.

(FROM LEFT) Ocho Tequila, Mancino Vermouth, Appleton Rum (credit: Free Spirits)

Vodka consumption skyrocketed and everyone was infatuated with a new interest in whiskey. If vodka was the liquor of choice for young people, whiskey was the drink Feinschmecker liked to talk about. Everyone loved to say what their favorite malt was, as a sign of sophistication.

The 2010s were the decade of democratization of the spirits market. Prices fell due to fiscal and government intervention. The market became more accessible. Parallel imports destroyed the cozy and exclusive relationships that importers had with their suppliers. In Israel there were more great brands than ever. The rise of flavored spirits, but still dominated by global brands, became noticeable.

In Israel, 75% of the market was controlled by four major players. These were IBBLS, part of Coca-Cola Israel, Tempo Beverages, Hacarem, and Akerman. These companies divided global brands among themselves and often cajoled customers into accepting their products.

IBBLS and Tempo in particular were able to provide a total beverage service, supplying wines, spirits, beers and soft drinks.

WHEN YOU work in the beverage trade and sit in a bar or restaurant, your eyes wander the shelves as a matter of habit. You’re reviewing the big names, seeing what’s new, and looking for something different.

What quickly became apparent was that, whether in a small bar or a fancy restaurant, the back shelves look pretty much the same everywhere. They all carry the same brands from the same big distributors. After all, there is a saying that “brands are tasteless.” By this I mean that larger brands tend to be less characterful, more parve, less likely to offend, and more palatable to a larger number of people. In other words, bland!

So it is nice to find the new trend in Israel for the 2020s. Welcome to the artisanal distillery. It is a small-scale artisan production where the emphasis is on ingredients and authenticity. The global brand is more interested in the post-production story, while the craftsmanship revels in what happens before the product is bottled.

In Israel this is manifested in the number of artisanal distilleries that have opened. These include Golani, Jullius, Milk & Honey, Pelter, and Yerushalmi. For those who demand “blue and white”, this gives them the opportunity to return to local production.

The movement towards the production of artisan spirits has developed in the last decade around the world. This followed the craft brewery revolution that happened earlier in the previous decade. However, it has come to Israel only now.

This is partly due to a new company called Free Spirits & Co. With great knowledge and experience, they have traveled the world to find artisan spirits with unique character, great quality and a history. It has built its portfolio during COVID, of every year, to allow the best bars and restaurants to shop outside the box to illustrate its excellence above its competitors. It offers more options that did not exist before.

The two-man company is fortunate to have two giants in our business.

First is Asaf Ivanir, who really is a giant. Tall, patrician-looking, like a guard, with a broad smile. He was CEO of IBBLS, the importers of Diageo and Campari. He is a proven marketing master, who has skillfully guided some of the largest spirits brands in the world and also developed some brand 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 in the beverage industry, who is a master of what’s in the bottle and how it’s produced. For years he was involved in alcohol, spirits and spirits education, then later became IBBLS business development manager, providing the knowledge, experience and business intelligence under Ivanir.
I don’t want to exaggerate, but if I had a question about spirits, it could be said that Zats is the first person in the country that I would approach. He’s quiet, reserved, until he starts talking about his portfolio. Then you get an information tirade like a volcano. There is an overflow of knowledge and passion, and he has a story that he is desperate to share. It is charming and intoxicating. Sit quietly and listen, and you can’t help but learn.

From its portfolio of spirits, liqueurs, vermouths, bitters and ciders, certain products stand out.

First and foremost is your gin. This is a neutral liqueur that has its predominant flavor from the juniper berry and other botanicals. 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 artisan craft sector.

Ivanir and Zats have gotten a good one. G’Vine is produced in the Cognac region. Its base product is the Ugni Blanc grape, and it is distilled in an alembic (like a cognac). It is much more floral and less juniper-dominated than most London Dry Gins. Therefore, it is more complex. It would be particularly good for a martini cocktail.

Gin fans will also be delighted to try 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, which is 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 in which it is made and the precise field where the agave is harvested; And, of course, Ocho exclusively grows his own agave.

The word “eight” means eight. Why the name? The producer has a witty answer. Agaves take an average of eight years to mature before being harvested. Eight kilograms of agave are needed to make one liter of Eight. The owner has eight siblings, and is in his eighth decade of making tequila!

I like to drink a good straight tequila from a brandy balloon, but I guess it is most famous in the margarita cocktail.
Free Spirits also has a beautiful vermouth called Mancino.

A vermouth is a flavored fortified wine, flavored with herbs and spices. We all know Martini and Cinzano, the giant world producers. We can remember the sorry Carmel and Stock vermouths of yesteryear.

This is a very individual expression made to the recipe of Giancarlo Mancino. He uses 40 botanicals to make his vermouth, which are ground in a family-owned 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 Vermouth Mancino Chinato, made with Barbera d’Asti. The result is a beautiful expression of the depth, richness and complexity of the red wine. A super interesting digestif.

The most charming thing, if you can get it, is the beautiful Mancino Sakura, an Italian vermouth made in homage to the cherry blossoms in Japan. Who knew that vermouth could be so exquisite?

If there is an area of ​​specialization, it is in the rum market. Rum is made by fermenting and then distilling sugar cane molasses. This has been so dominated by Bacardi and Captain Morgan, and the lack of organization at the source has delayed the recovery of the rum.

However, with whiskey reasonably saturated and at its peak, vodka may be slightly on the decline (certainly by a very high percentage) and gin is the main beneficiary of the last boom, maybe rum is next. The wide variety of rum and the beauty of aged rum is a potential market waiting to advance.

Free Spirits definitely sees this, and it has some great rums.

Hampden Estate rum is produced in Jamaica. It is made in an alembic. It is aged in a tropical climate, which means that more is lost in the angel part (the evaporation of the spirit in the barrel) than usual. The rum is intense, full-flavored with a savory spice.

Free Spirits also has Foursquare rums from Barbados, and some of their aged Appleton rums are worth trying.
As for me, although my first love is whiskey, I start every meal in a restaurant with Campari and soda. This is what Ivanir and Zats marketed with such amazing success at IBBLS.

However, never fear. 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 can never understand why it is not popular here. It is made for a warm country like ours.

Their cider comes from Normandy and Brittany in northwestern France, and is called Galipette. It is made 100% from apples picked by hand. It has no added sugars, it does not contain gluten and it is suitable for vegans. It has less gas than some of the more commercial ciders. It comes in its own unique chubby bottle. I could drink a lot of this in Israel.

The Free Spirits philosophy is to be small but act big. Certainly, by focusing on artisan producers, you are giving a home to artisan spirits producers in Israel. It is aimed at those seeking individuality, character, uniqueness and quality. At last, there are new options for the quality restaurant bar and the innovative home drink cabinet.

The writer is a wine industry insider turned wine writer, who has promoted Israeli wine for 35 years. It is known as the English voice of Israeli wines.

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