Making Wine Where Perfume Once Reigned
A review of the Binyamina Reserve Carignan 2010 and two Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week September 19, 2012
Israel’s Binyamina Winery began life in 1952, when Hungarian winemaker Joseph Zeltzer immigrated to Israel and established the Eliaz Winery, named for his son who perished in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
The winery’s facilities actually began life as a perfume factory. In 1925 Baron Benjamin de Rothschild built the factory to take advantage of the abundant jasmine that grew in the area. The surrounding village was renamed Binyamina in the Baron’s honor. The enterprise did not prosper, however, and the factory was abandoned in 1937. The abandoned building soon became a “safe house” for the Haganah until independence.
Zeltzer’s plans required the intervention of then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who had a law passed that permitted the local farmers to sell him grapes rather than to the large Carmel Mizrachi winemaking cooperative. Subsequently Zeltzer released his liquors and brandies under the “Hard Nut” label to honor the PM who was known as a “hard nut to crack.”
Over the years, the winery changed hands several times. In the 1990s new ownership renamed the winery “Binyamina“, installed modern winemaking equipment and invested in improving the vineyards and cellars. In 2008 the winery was again sold and these newest owners have further upgraded the facilities and vineyards. The former perfume factory is now the winery’s visitor center.
Binyamina currently releases nearly 2.8 million bottles each year under five main labels including their flagship “Reserve” line and the “Chosen,” a series of six specially selected wines named for the precious stones found in the breastplate of the High Priest. “Yogev” (translated as “farmer”) “BIN” and “Teva” round out their portfolio although occasionally some special wines and liquors are also produced. Their grapes are sourced from numerous locations throughout the country with the winemaking supervised by Sasson Ben Aharon and CEO Ilan Hasson.
The Binyamina Reserve Carignan 2010 is remarkably smoother than the 2009 version which required time in the glass to become approachable. This latest iteration has a floral aroma with the typical black fruit flavors including dark berries and plums with accents of vanilla oak, raspberry, and cherry alongside mild pepper and herbs at the ending. It is yet another example of the fine carignans being produced in Israel.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d review a Scotch whisky from the wonderful, yet sadly often hard to find, Mortlach Distillery. Mortlach is still an active distillery, but most of its whisky is blended into the Johnnie Walker portfolio so single malt expressions can be hard to come by. The distillery lies in Dufftown, the heartland of the Speyside region. Mortlach was founded in 1823 and was the first legal distillery to be built in Dufftown.
Unlike the vast majority of distilleries in the country, Mortlach’s most essential distillation equipment – its three “wash” and three “spirit” stills – have been altered in both design and size over the years and are a bit of a hodgepodge, requiring no small amount of complex planning to produce consistent high quality spirits. The reason for these changes in still shape and size are historical happenstance.
The distillery was sold in 1831, and then resold in 1832, and then again in 1837 it was sold to John and James Grant who dismantled the equipment for use in another of their distilleries. Mortlach lay dormant (“silent” as the industry calls it) for quite some time. In the intervening years, the distillery was used as a brewery and even, for a time, as a church. Production only resumed in 1851 when John Alexander Gordon, who a decade before joined the Grant brothers as a partner, began producing Mortlach as “The Real John Gordon” Scotch whisky. The distillery switched hands again and by 1923 was bought by John Walker and Sons. In 1925 John Walker and Sons was acquired by the Distillers Company Limited, which in turn – via the usual mergers and acquisitions – became the Scottish Malt Distillers and then eventually became Diageo. Today, Diageo is still the world’s single largest drinks company, and single biggest whisky producer with 28 Scotch malt whisky distilleries and two Scotch grain distilleries.
The Mortlach Distillery was substantially rebuilt in 1964. In the 1990s, computers were installed to help run the facility and today, sadly, Mortlach operates on a skeletal staff. Diageo uses Mortlach as a bit of a workhorse, so there is no visitor center and official single malt bottlings are few and far between. Here in the U.S., official bottlings are even harder to come by. Fortunately, there are a fair number of excellent independently bottled expressions that surface from time to time. Here then are two that are well worth trying:
G&M Mortlach 15-Year-Old Speyside Single-Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $70): This light-bodied, straightforward whisky offers enjoyable aromas of barley, cereal notes, heavy fruit compote, and pumpkin spices with flavors of raisins, caramel, fruit salad, toasty oak, vanilla, pepper and a whisper of anise. A nice dessert-style whisky.
SMWSA Cask 76.84 “Feisty and Zesty” (57.8 percent abv; 21 years old; only 239 bottles allocated to the U.S.; $145): This is a lovely whisky. The nose is a bit closed, but with water opens beautifully. The whisky offers wisps of smoke and oak char amidst leathery fruit, licorice, green grass, citrus fruit rind, dark chocolate and some enticing savory meaty quality. Mouthwatering, chewy, and a bit drying and fiery in finish, this is an after-dinner whisky to savor as fall draws near. L’Chaim!