Looking Through the Liquor Glass
Unquestionably, the latest operative terms in the burgeoning liquor industry are ‘transparency’ and ‘innovation’. Never before has there been more consumer enlightenment, courtesy of the information highway known as the Internet. Moreover, new venues have been introduced to tweak standard products or present new ones, so that distilleries can gain a greater share of the market. What previously was assumed to be a glatt kosher choice in the liquor cabinet has now become not so glatt.
Let’s look at some new bourbon creations, for example. Bourbon, by law, has to be at least 51% corn, mixed with other grains, such as wheat or malted barley. To qualify for authentic bourbon, freshly distilled bourbon has to be aged in new oak charred casks and manufactured in Kentucky. Standard bourbon labels bear descriptive terms, such as ‘southern mash’ or ‘sipping whiskey’. Nowadays, one can find bourbon labels bearing terms ‘infused’ or ‘port finished’. ‘Infused’ is a contemporary whiskey term meaning flavored, and ‘port finished’ means that after initial aging in oak charred casks, the bourbon is further aged in port wine casks. Infused bourbon would require reliable kosher certification, and port finished bourbons would not be recommended.
Transparency has opened a bourbon chametz sheavar alav hapesach bombshell. Halacha requires that private Jewish consumers, Jewish merchants, or Jewish manufacturers not own chometz on Pesach. Included in this prohibition are grain-derived beverages (i.e., those derived from barley, rye, oats, wheat, or spelt). These products must be consumed or destroyed before Pesach. In the event that the volume of Jewish owned chometz is too great to be consumed or destroyed the chometz may be sold to a non-Jew in a bona fide sale so that the chometz will be fully transferred out of Jewish ownership. Failing to do so would render the unsold chometz forbidden for Jewish consumption after Pesach. These laws apply equally to any chometz that was in a Jew’s possession during Pesach, regardless of whether it was owned by a Jewish merchant or produced by a Jewish manufacturer.
Most authorities are of the opinion that alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, which is derived from wheat, barley, or rye, are chometz gomur and a Jew must not own these products on Pesach. If a Jew did not sell his liquor prior to Pesach, the prohibition of chometz sheavar alav haPesach would apply and he would not be permitted to use the whiskey or derive any benefit from it. Today, the overwhelming majority of whiskey manufacturers are not Jewish or are publicly held corporations. Although many liquor distributors are Jewish, the majority of them are not. However, if the distillery or distributor is under Jewish ownership, arrangements must be made for the sale of the inventory.
Recently, when a major producer/distributor applied for kosher certification, it came to light that this privately owned company was very much Jewish, and their vast liquor inventories had never been sold. The ramifications and repercussions were enormous. After careful analysis amongst the Rabbonim Hamachshirim of all the major kashrus organizations, they concluded that until the present inventories were depleted, their use would be prohibited due to the violation of chometz sheavar alav haPesach.
For years, scotch has been the most spiritually challenging alcoholic beverage. As any scotch aficionado knows, scotch makers use a cross section of used bourbon and used sherry, port, madeira, or olorosso casks to age the scotch. Previously, accepted conventional wisdom assumed that scotch manufacturers desired certain taste, which was achieved by balancing various proportions of casks that they had at their disposal. The exact percentages were murky – a lower percentage of sherry casks for cheaper blends, and a higher percentage for single malts. Unless the scotch was totally aged in sherry casks, the sherry casks were assumed to be botul, nullified in a less than 1 to 6 ratio – botul B’shesh to the aging scotch. As scotch making became more transparent, we saw that what we took for granted was not necessarily true. A single cask ratio to the aging spirit is actually less than 1 to 6. Total combination of bourbon to sherry casks in most distilleries is achieved at less than 1 to 6 ratio.
Today, with the greater insights that we have gained into the scotch industry, sherry casks actually play a far more significant role than a balancing act. Additionally, we are now seeing labels touting ‘aged in Sherry’ or ‘port’ or ‘olorosso casks’, and ‘Second Fill’ or ‘Finished in’. Furthermore, we now have to come to terms with a new term – ‘seasoned’, which means that sherry is actually poured into bourbon casks to give the casks a sherry flavor. Robert Fleming, master distiller of Tomintoul summed it up best: ‘Since they are kosher certified and are not permitted to use sherry casks, it is very challenging to be able to achieve the desired quality taste without the use of sherry. It is clear that sherry casks are not just a convenience factor.’ In addition, another cask selection that scotch producers are using is rum casks, instead of bourbon or wine casks. Aging in rum casks, as in the case of Balvanie 14, is acceptable.
Due to the fact that TTF regulations allow other flavors to be added to plain rum, and often rums are spiced or flavored, Star-K policy is that once it has been determined that no additional flavoring has been added to rum, it would be acceptable; aging has never been an issue. However, it has come to our attention that some rums advertised are now aged in American whiskey and sherry casks. Therefore, one must clearly read the label to make sure the rum was not aged in sherry casks.
As more producers realize the value of acquiring kosher certification, more vodkas have introduced flavored varieties. In fact, today there are more vodkas, both regular and flavored, bearing reliable kosher certification that put the symbol on the label. Even though vodka bears kosher certification, consumers are urged to carefully check the labels since some vodkas may be certified kosher dairy. Additionally, non-certified domestic vodkas remain approved, while imported vodkas are not so simple. Vodka can be produced from 100% neutral grain spirits, such as wheat, or from potatoes. However, vodka – especially from France – is produced from grape alcohol, such as chardonnay or Pinot noir, and these exotic varieties are featured on the liquor store shelves. At times, vodka can also be produced from whey or lactose, which would render them dairy and not recommended.
Many more popular liqueurs have become kosher certified. After years of long awaited anticipation, Kahlua is now officially kosher certified by the Mogen Dovid of Mexico. However, certification is limited to products bottled in Mexico, and the label must state “Bottled in Mexico”.
Catoctin Creek: Where Quality, Organic, & Kosher Meet
Three and a half years ago, in the darkest days of the recession, I was sitting at my desk at a high-powered Washington, DC defense contractor, working on the 30th revision of a Powerpoint package which I knew nobody would ever read. I said to myself, "There has to be something more to life than this."