When six Israelis decided to make tequila in Israel, they thought their biggest mission would be convincing people that tequila made from blue agave in the Holy Land could rival the well-known and much appreciated tequilas of Mexico.
After October 7, however, when Hamas attacked Israel and killed 1,200 people, the founders of spirits company Negave Estates realized that they had a whole new mission – to help rebuild and resuscitate the Negev communities devastated in the attack.
Making tequila in Israel sounds like a pretty wild thing to embark on. Blue agave usually grows in the plains of central Mexico. But in fact, the climate of the Negev desert in southern Israel is quite similar, and Negave Estates pinpointed Kibbutz Alumim on the border with Gaza, as the perfect location.
“Tequila is now the fastest-growing spirit in the world,” Fitz Haney, a decorated ex-diplomat and one of the Negave founders, tells ISRAEL21c. “In the United States it passed vodka last year to take the top spot.”
Haney is Negave’s active board member along with David Niewood, David Polinsky, Amanda Parness, and William Kuluva.
Yitzhak Carmy is the only non-US citizen of the group. He owns Carmy Exports, and is one of Israel’s biggest produce growers, raising about 45 percent of all sweet potatoes in Israel and cultivating hundreds of hectares of land in the Gaza border region.
When Haney and his business partners first put together the pitch for Negave Estates, they were waiting “for someone to tell us that we were crazy.” Instead, they discovered that agave was actually blooming in the Negev in the 1950s and ’60s.
“David Ben-Gurion brought it to develop the Negev, and there was a thriving business here for agave-based textiles,” says Haney. “But when Israel opened up and brought in synthetics, it killed that industry.”
To this day, there are wild agave plants growing across the Negev. “Agave has a terroir, like grapes. It gets its taste from the land it’s planted in. Agave grown here has a different taste from the one grown in Mexico.”
The company’s long-term plans involve bringing blue agave DNA from Mexico and lab-growing the plants until they are strong enough to thrive in the desert.
“Operationally we have had some hiccups, like negotiating shipment logistics of plant material and dealing with understaffed regulatory bodies. We have been able to negotiate these challenges in no small part by the can-do attitude of our partners and supporters,” says Niewood.
Tequila under shadow of war
The team’s efforts, including curing the DNA in Israeli labs, were expected to culminate in planting in March next year at Kibbutz Alumim, and a juice harvest sometime in the following five years.
When war broke out in Israel on October 7, however, everything changed.
Haney’s son Asher, a paratrooper in active service, was one of the first to engage the terrorists on October 7 near the kibbutz.
Carmy, whose farms have been hit badly by the attack in the south, was then called up to fight with a reserve group made up of veterans of various elite IDF units.
Everyone at Negave Estates volunteered to provide transportation to reservists to get to their bases, pack supplies on army bases, deliver supplies and food to soldiers on the frontlines and open their homes to displaced families directly impacted or subject to incessant rocket barrages.
Though the war will likely delay the initial rollout, founders say that the recent events have only made them more determined to cultivate agave-based spirits in Israel’s south, even though the crops will be grown in the fields and communities most impacted by October 7 attacks.
“Not only are we more committed to our goals than ever before, but our mission is now augmented by its crucial role of helping to rebuild and economically contribute to the resuscitation of the vital Negev economy and its populace,” says Niewood, the company’s CEO.
“In the interim, we are contract-manufacturing an agave distillate out of Mexico with the taste profile evocative of what we think we’ll end up with here,” says Haney.
To develop the taste, Negave is working with maestra tequilera Ana Maria Romero Mena, one of Mexico’s most-trusted tequila authorities, as well as other experts.
Haney says even though the distillate will be shipped from Mexico, it will be “aged, bottled and stored” in Israel until “our agave locally is mature enough to harvest.”
The aging of tequila, which can take anywhere from three months to two years, in a certain geographical location contributes to the product’s “climatic influences.”
“Our idea is to age it in different locations in Israel. The taste of tequila aged somewhere in the Negev will be different from the product aged along the coast. So there will be an Israeli influence even in this distillate that we’re shipping from Mexico,” says Haney.
Legally, the word “tequila” is reserved for beverages made in the five Mexican states that grow agave.
Niewood says Negave’s chief’s priorities are sustainability and biodiversity.
“The growth of tequila was so successful that in Mexico they’ve cloned the plant,” he says.
“There are as many as a billion agave plants in Mexico that are genetic twins. It’s good from the productivity standpoint, but bad from the susceptibility standpoint, because it’s lost its natural ability to reproduce.”
The danger in this scenario is that one pest or disease can wipe out the entire crop, which has happened to plants in the past.
Niewood says they plan on working with agriculture experts, including from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to improve the biodiversity of the agave that will be grown in Israel.
He calls the plant “perfect” for weather-stressed areas, especially the desert. “We would like to think that we’re taking the best of Mexico and applying it to the resources and strengths of Israel to do it better here.”
The company currently has two full-time employees: Niewood and Jeremy Kaufthal, a marketing and distribution specialist.
It has raised $1.2 million since being officially incorporated a year ago, and was in the seed funding stage right before the war.
Niewood says the brand has attracted even more investors in the wake of the war. Investors are “attracted by the meaningfulness as much as the potential return of an investment in Negave and want to be part of our mission.”
“We feel blessed by the reaction of our partners overseas and our non-Israeli expert advisers
who have similarly doubled down on their efforts and contribution to our success, proactively reaching out to us to assist in any way they can.”
Even before the war, the company had already secured agricultural land in the Negev, and clinched agreements with top agave propagators in Israel and around the world. The company was also evaluating additional locations for future operations.
Tequila currently makes up only around 1.5% of the Israeli spirit market. Thanks to Negave, Israel may soon follow the trajectory of the rest of the world, increasing its tequila intake. Just in time to celebrate the end of the grueling war.
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