Over the past decade the world has gone through what food and drink experts have dubbed the cocktail renaissance, marked by the return of mixed spirits to the menu. Now Israel is not only catching up to the global trend but is also claiming a respectable place in the international scene.
“If I had come to Israel two or three years ago, there probably would have been only one or two bars of international standard,” Hamish Smith, editor of the World’s 50 Best Bars based out of England, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) in an interview. “Today you have the 223, Imperial Craft, Bellboy, Hide and Seek, Gatsby, to name only a few.”
In the past year, two Israeli bartenders made it into the finals of two of the world’s most exclusive cocktail competitions; Omer Gazit-Shalev who competed in the Bacardy Legacy Competition in Sydney, Australia and Ariel Leizgold who won second place in the World Class Cocktail Competition in Cape Town, South Africa.
“The difference between a good bartender and a great bartender is the attention to details,” says Leizgold of the 223 and Bellboy cocktail bars in Tel Aviv.
But the international growth of Israel is also due to a more mature and discerning Israeli palate. “Today’s patron is more open and sensitive to your ability to host him in your bar,” adds Leizgold.
Tai Kovler, a bartender in Jerusalem’s Gatsby Cocktail Room who recently attended the London Cocktail Week, summarized saying, “it’s about time that Israelis abandon the Vodka Redbull and start drinking real drinks; people today want to go back to the origins and have a classy experience. Cocktails are as much a culinary experience as food.”
Gatsby Cocktail Room has also attracted some international attention and was the chosen venue for the regional round of the World Class Cocktail Competition.
In 2014, Tel Aviv’s Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, was the first Israeli bar to draw international attention from the Drinks International magazine and was crowned as the best bar in the Africa and Middle-East Region by the magazine’s World’s Best 50 Bars ranking.
More recently, on October 8, during the London Cocktail Week, Imperial Craft was ranked at 17 in the World’s 50 Best Bars awards event, while still retaining its regional title two years in a row.
The ranking is conducted by an impartial Academy of Voters consisting of close to 500 members from all over the world, including bartenders, bar trainers and food and drink journalists who are not allowed to vote for bars they have been employed at. Close to 600 bars worldwide are surveyed.
“I think that the reason Imperial Craft has done so well is because it’s different conceptually to anything else we’ve seen, it’s got a ‘colonial vibe’ going” Smith explained.
Situated near Tel Aviv’s beachfront, inside the lobby of the unassuming Imperial Hotel, the bar evokes a 1940s atmosphere. The bar has gone over the classic cocktails phase into uncharted and experimental territory which the extremely cordial bar staff executes with great skill.
“All the cocktails on our menu are crafted originals of the bar, and we might be the only bar in Israel that stocks lime all year round,” Ben Sheridan, a 10 year veteran of the international hospitality industry currently bartending at Imperial Craft, told TPS.
“This year, having heard so much of Israel and Tel Aviv in particular, I went out there to meet everyone and check out the bars, at that point I appointed another three or four Academy members,” Smith told TPS.
This brings the number of Israeli experts in the International Academy to five, a number which is disproportionate to the population of Israel.
But Tel Aviv is not the only place for a high-end bar experience, with Jerusalem home to some reputable spots as well according to Smith.
“With cocktail bars, like with any other luxury experience, you need the right clientele as well,” says Smith. “With all the tourists that Jerusalem attracts the clientele is certainly there.”
“Additionally there’s the hospitality and to our voters, that’s very important, if not the most important thing. Great drinks are a given but many bars around the world are delivering great drinks, so what do you do that’s extra?”
“That’s where hospitality comes in, and Jerusalem’s Gatsby is definitely up there,” answers Smith.
“Gatsby is another kind of Speakeasy, prohibition style bar,” explains Smith. “It really has a good atmosphere and a good vibe, it offers good cocktails, some forgotten classics and really great drinks,” he added.
“What really struck me about that place was the contrast of stepping into that bar in a city like Jerusalem. It was like a little oasis, a different world and it was very impressive.”
“Israel has one of the most exciting bar scenes in the world,” concluded Smith.
by Michael Zeff/TPS