‘Sabbatical’ Salutations From Israel
Reviews of the Yatir Forest 2008, the Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Small-Batch Bourbon, the Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Unblended American Whiskey and the Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Single-Barrel Straight Rye.
By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week January 25, 2012
The story goes that when David Ben-Gurion was told by his scientific advisors that it would be impossible to plant trees in the northern Negev, he responded by getting new advisors. The result was Israel’s Yatir Forest, the 30-square-mile woodland along the southern slope of Mount Hebron. There are more than 4 million trees thriving in the Yatir Forest. Planted under the direction of Yosef Weitz and the Jewish National Fund, the Yatir Forest has become an international model of desert reclamation and ecologically healthy responses to climate change.
Similarly, the Yatir Winery is an illustration of the potential heights in quality that Israeli wine can reach. Owned by Carmel but functioning independently, Yatir consistently produces some of Israel’s best wines. Australian-trained chief winemaker Eran Goldwasser oversees both the wines and the nearby vineyards, along with the rabbis who provide kashrut supervision. Near archeological ruins of ancient winepresses, a testament to the 2,500-year-plus history of winemaking in the area, Yatir cultivates the classic Bordeaux grape varietals of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon along with Malbec, Viognier, Shiraz, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The operation’s flagship wine, Yatir Forest 2008 ($68; “Ya’ar Yatir” in Hebrew) is easily one of the finest wines Israel has to offer. Every vintage has, so far, been a dependable winner. The 2008 is an impeccably balanced and intensely flavorful full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (58 percent, Petit Verdot (32 percent), Merlot (5 percent), Malbec (3 percent), and Cabernet Franc (2 percent).
It sings with lush aromas of black fruit and currants. Plums, mocha, blackberries, licorice and Asian spices on a soft tannin frame mingle with a bit of oak, red currants and earthy flavors hinting of its forest origins. A wine to be enjoyed today but it could also be put away for a few years to be brought out on a special occasion.
It should be noted that 2008 was a shmitah, or sabbatical, year for Israel (5768 on the Jewish calendar). Shmitah (which means “release”) refers to the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle – a year is designated as a sabbatical for the Land of Israel, according to the Torah.
During shmitah, Jewish-owned land in Israel is to be left fallow, and whatever grows there is to be free for public use, and conventional agricultural commerce is restricted. Shmitah is mentioned several times in the Torah and the other books of the Bible, and many more times in the Talmud and later rabbinic literature. Consequently, a variety of complex laws exist, accompanied by equally complex, and hotly debated, Jewish-legal “work-around” solutions to allow some form of commerce to continue.
Generally, these Israeli rabbinic methods of navigating shmitah’s halachic regulations are not fully embraced by Diaspora kashrut supervising agencies, and in any event, shmitah produce is not supposed to be exported outside the Holy Land, even though it often is by non-observant importers.
All of which helps explain why the 2008 vintage of Yatir Forest, like other Israeli wines of the vintage, is much harder to find outside of Israel – a great excuse, as if one were needed, to visit the Holy Land. It’s worth noting that the shmitta years of 2008 and 2001 produced some of Israel’s best vintages, an indication perhaps that God has a wicked sense of humor.
It’s enough to drive one to drink the hard stuff – such as some delicious, if slightly pricey, domestic whiskies from the Michter brand: Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Small-Batch Bourbon ($40), Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Unblended American Whiskey ($35), and Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Single-Barrel Straight Rye ($40) Michter’s is the chosen brand name for the whiskey selections distributed by Chatham Imports Inc., a small but intelligent player in the market. The marketing shpiel claims a storied legacy for Michter’s dating back to Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
Actually, the brand name – Michter’s – was created in 1950 by a businessman named Lou Forman, who simply merged the names of his sons, Michael and Peter, to create a brand that sounded vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch, which he thought would suit whiskey from Schaefferstown, Pa.
The distillery there was founded in 1753 by John Shenk, a Swiss Mennonite farmer. It stayed in the direct family line until 1861, when Shenk’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer, sold it to Abraham S. Bomberger, another Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite (and a relative by marriage).
The Bomberger distillery thrived until Prohibition forced its closure in 1919; it was sold off soon afterwards. After Repeal, the distillery was brought back into production. It would change hands a few more times before closing permanently in 1990 (the remains have fallen into ruin). From 1975 until its demise, it was known as Michter’s. The last of what was produced there has been selling as the super-limited A.H. Hirsch Bourbon (simply because it was produced for Hirsch under contract before apparently being forgotten in the warehouse for more than 15 years). Chatham Importers Inc. bought the brand name and re-launched it as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, whiskey around 1999.
The whiskey that is today sold as Michter’s is sourced for Chatham by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) of Bardstown, Ky. KBD does not produce whiskey; it merely procures it. It is widely assumed that the whiskey comes from the Jewish owned Heaven Hill Distillery (owned by the Shapira family), but this is not known for certain and remains a trade secret. KBD is just across the street from Heaven Hill.
Michter’s U.S. No. 1 Small-Batch Bourbon is an enjoyable, balanced, complex whiskey that offers an earthy semi-sweet experience with distinct corn and dried fruit notes, accompanied by spicy cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves, all against a drying, almost austere milled grain quality – an intriguing finish. Michter’s U.S. No.1 Single-Barrel Rye is young and enjoyably feisty, with notes of rye spice, black pepper, vanilla, coconut and sweet caramel flan. The finish is lively and enjoyable, with an interplay of orange marmalade, caramel and zesty rye. Delicious!
Michter’s U.S. No.1 Small-Batch Unblended American Whiskey is matured in previously used American Oak Bourbon barrels. It is whiskey is sweet and subtle, with explosive and intriguing aromas and flavors of bell pepper (or something similarly vegetal), vanilla, hazelnut, white chocolate, caramel and charred oak – there also seems to be a slightly minty note lurking about. Definitely worth checking out. L’chaim!