Is This Israeli Spirit The Best Whiskey In The World?

Last spring, judges at the prestigious World Whiskies Awards baffled the world by showering Israeli distiller Milk & Honey with awards such as Craft Producer of the Year, World’s Best Head Distiller (Israel’s first and only recognized master distiller, Tomer Goren), Brand Innovator of the Year, Best Visitor Attraction of the Year, and various second place prizes. The most controversial announcement of all came when they declared M&H Elements Sherry Cask to be the greatest single-malt whiskey on the planet.

M&H, started in 2013 in Tel Aviv by Jewish businessmen with experience marketing The Macallan (a Scotch commonly criticized for being overpriced and overrated), is Israel’s first whiskey distillery. Israel does not produce premium grade barley, Kosher certified barrels are not easy to come by, and it is more or less impossible to age whiskey for as long as in countries with more moderate temperatures due to the Middle East’s climate.

The company’s name is an obvious reference to the Old Testament, but their logo, a bumble bee colored bull, is really stupid. M&H claims to be a craft operation that started on a Kibbutz, yet their products are currently available in 40 countries, bringing into question what the definition of “craft” even is here. The prize-winning bottle claims to have been aged for three years (the bare minimum to be accepted as a Single Malt Scotch) in Kosher sherry casks, but the first kosher casks produced by Bodegas Del Pino were made in 2017 and used to make wine outside of the sherry region, which means they cannot legally be called sherry. M&H’s Sherry Cask expression was first released in the mid-2020s, yet authentic sherry casks blessed by a Rabbi only started being put to use in Jerez in 2021, raising questions as to whether this Kosher whiskey marketed as sherry aged is deceiving consumers. The regional issues don’t stop there. Many barrels of M&H are aged in the Golan Heights, which under international law is Syrian land and should in theory obligate the producer to label these products as Syrian whiskey.

As for their impressive new title, discerning drinkers on social media are in consensus when expressing befuddlement. How did an unaged, unknown Scotch knock-off from a country that has never produced whiskey defeat formidable and excellent contest competitors such as a 31-year-old Rosebank and a 25-year-old Ardbeg? We don’t know, since the WWA, which is a for-profit marketing event hosted by British publication Whiskey Magazine, does not list its criteria for deciding winners. Even if we could speculate that affordability was the main factor in their choice, this M&H expression sells at an audacious $70-80 a bottle, despite not being as complex and intense as single-malts within the same price range, such as the 13-year-old Craigellachie from Speyside, which retails at around $60 dollars.

Taste in whiskey is undoubtedly subjective, but the fact that no independent whiskey connoisseur appears to agree with this panel of supposed experts is highly suspicious. M&H showings, including the one supposedly aged in a sherry cask, have received mixed reviews. Even those who enjoy it don’t consider it good enough to win any award, much less best in the world. Even Jewish social media users have reacted to M&H’s awards with comments like “It is even more insane if you’ve actually tasted the M&H whiskey,” “I was sure this was an April Fool’s joke,” and “How much did it cost? The award that it is.” Both the aromatic notes and palate of these Jewish whiskies have been described with words like “vegetation,” “funky,” and “asparagus.” The sherry barrel version in particular has been criticized as lacking body and needing significantly more work.

The belief that beer and spirits awards are fixed through companies stacking judge panels or even outright bribery is commonly held and supported by evidence. Figures such as Jim Murray, author of the influential yearly Whiskey Bible, have been known to take “consultant fees” from the companies that happen to produce his unusual and sometimes ridiculous whiskey appraisals. Scandals of this sort have for decades followed British multi-national Diageo, who have been caught rigging results on multiple occasions.

In the case of the World Whiskies Awards, their website openly solicits distillers (who must pay to enter the competition) by stating the marketing importance of putting their awards on a bottle. For this year’s competition, they curiously did not officially list their panel of judges, but looking at previous years (where they did list the names of judges), an immediate conflict of interest is present. An unusually high number of individuals who work at M&H, such as Gal Kalkshtein (CEO), Tomer Goren (master distiller), Ron Eldad (production manager), appear to have served as official judges for this award’s group in recent years, which means that unless they recused themselves (there is no sign that they did or are even expected to), they were judging their own product.

Aside from the unfair advantage created by Israelis and diaspora Jews, prompting or incentivizing other judges (who work as unscrupulous marketers and starving freelance journalists) to inflate M&H would not be difficult. According to the body’s press release, the whiskey candidates are unmarked but regionally separated when tasted, making M&H easily discernible on the table as it was the sole Israeli entry.

There is plenty of smoke and enough fire to justify dismissing this award and others like it as a scam. Prize festivals were what took previously ignored American and Japanese whiskies (both which can be objectively great) to the next level of recognition and begin challenging Scotch in the luxury market, and it certainly seems like the Israelis are trying to get in on the racket. Nevertheless, they are hitting a ceiling, as the craftsmanship and whiskey-making heritage needed to produce a dram worthy of the title of “world’s best whiskey” appears to be lacking. Taking home such a prestigious title does not appear to have had much of an impression on the large, overwhelmingly white gentile whiskey drinking community, who reviewed this M&H line years ago and quickly forgot about it, and now are tasting it again and still expressing confusion.

With bottles of whiskey rapidly catching up to art as a preferred speculative asset, we will continue to see the degradation that ruined the art world continue manifesting in the whiskey realm. Bottles of M&H may be covered in gold medals from dubious whiskey appraisers, but most of the world is still taking a pass.