April 17, 2024
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Noam Cohen: Pioneering Whiskey Production in Israel’s Elah Valley

Nine years ago, Bergenfield native Noam Cohen was sitting with his friend Alan Cohl on the balcony of his Efrat home that overlooks the Judean Hills, bonding over a bottle of whiskey. The two men were members of a neighborhood group that convened periodically to schmooze and sample different alcoholic beverages. Cohen and Cohl stayed behind that evening, sharing their discontent over the lack of whiskey offerings in Israel when it hit them—“Why aren’t we doing this better?” Fast forward to January of this year, when they produced their first bottle of whiskey under Legends Distillery, Israel’s first distillery producing American-style whiskey.

Even as a teen Cohen had a penchant for American-style whiskey—also known as bourbon. So when he made aliyah in 2013, he was naturally disappointed by Israel’s whiskey production that consisted of only two distilleries that made Scottish whiskey—or Scotch—but not bourbon.

Shortly after a seed was planted in their minds to produce an American-style whiskey, Cohen and Cohl began the arduous task of setting up their business. They started by hiring a consultant and other experts from the U.S. who have experience building distilleries. They traveled to the U.S. to learn about the field, conducted feasibility studies in Israel, applied for approvals from the Israeli government, researched equipment options and much more.

During this long journey, Cohen and Cohl had an important meeting with a senior Israeli customs official on importing copper equipment for the production of whiskey. The two men explained to the senior Israeli official what their intentions were, thinking to themselves that this man probably thought they were crazy. After hearing their pitch, the customs official looked at his associates with a big smile and exclaimed excitedly, “Finally!” If this Israeli sabra was waiting for American-style whiskey to arrive in Israel, Cohen knew that things would end up working out.

And indeed they did. Cohen and Cohl secured a site in the Elah Valley for the distillery on the same grounds where David defeated Goliath in ancient times. Besides for its historical significance, the Elah Valley has topographic features that make it an ideal location for a distillery. The climate with its cool, dry nights results in a quicker and more efficient aging process. The two men invested much time and energy into fine-tuning the production process, which included testing the right ratio of corn, barley and wheat, and experimenting with toasting and charring time, treatment of the barrels and the aging process. Each of these factors influences the flavor and texture of the final product.

What makes the whiskey unique is the traditional American recipe that was missing in Israel with some added nuances, what Cohen likes to call “Israeli innovation.” These include variations to the barrels, wheat content and charring of the wood. Cohen and Cohl discovered that doubling the amount of charring time results in a richer interaction between the alcohol and wood, allowing the alcohol to pull out more flavors from the barrel. This results in a very smooth, smokey flavor. “We wanted to take bourbon which we love but make it Israeli,” explained Cohen.

The first bottles of Legends Distillery appeared on the market in January of 2022—the culmination of years of dedication and perseverance, mixed in with some Israeli chutzpah. Since then, Legends Distillery has produced 2,500 bottles and sales have exceeded initial expectations. Bottles are currently sold in 100 stores around Israel and can also be shipped to the U.S. Cohen hopes that by the fall, bottles will reach 700 stores in Israel and within the year, that they will hit shelves in the U.S. He also has plans to produce a more aged spirit which will be introduced in the future.

For Cohen, who still maintains a career in finance during the evenings, the satisfaction he derives from Legends Distillery is far greater than the palatable whiskey that he can enjoy on his balcony at the end of a long day. It is the realization of the Zionist dream, of the Jewish people’s ability to live freely in its own land, to break free of norms and create innovations that compete with and outdo American standards. “If you can do what you were doing there but do it in Israel and even better, then that is pride,” Cohen said.

When Cohen looks back at that evening nine years ago when he and Cohl looked at each other and asked, “Why not?”—what might have sounded at the time like a crazy idea that was beyond their abilities proved to be possible. “Israel is the Start-Up Nation because there is a ‘why can’t we’ mentality, which has driven the development of the country,” Cohen said. “You are surrounded by people who have this ‘why not’ attitude. and it’s contagious.”

Now that deserves a “L’chayim!”


Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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