Jewish life-cycle events, be it a bris, a bar mitzvah, or a wedding, are special occasions that we anticipate eagerly and celebrate with joy. At any simcha, we fill our cups with wine, raise our glasses of schnapps, and with great fervor pronounce a resounding “L’chaim!” in honor of the blessed event. This custom of melding alcohol with simcha has been a Jewish practice from time immemorial. The cup that is raised today, however, bears very little resemblance to that of yesteryear.
The single fleshel of schnapps has given way to a sprawling bar, complete with every imaginable alcoholic beverage. The drink combinations abound. All too frequently, the names, as well as the kashrus, of these selections are difficult to discern. To the uninitiated, all spirits look alike. Who knows the difference between a liquor and a liqueur, a tequila or a sombrero?
This article will attempt to lead the kosher consumer through the maze of alcoholic beverages, their original sources, their unique processes and the various kashrus issues inherent in this fascinating and complicated industry.
Hashem, in His ultimate kindness, has provided man with the keys to unlock some of nature’s most amazing secrets. Alcoholic beverages are no exception. Simply put, alcoholic beverages are beverages that contain ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is derived from Hashem‘s natural bounty – grains, fruits, vegetables or plants.
It is not coincidental that alcoholic beverages have been given the distinctive appellation spirits, alluding to the fact that these beverages seem to magically emerge from these natural ingredients as if they have been assisted by spirits.
These natural ingredients are converted into spirits through two processes: fermentation and distillation. Fermentation, one of the Ribbono Shel Olam’s unique phenomena, is a chemical process where an agent causes an organic substance to break down into simpler substances. In the case of alcoholic beverages, yeast, a fungus found in nature, converts the sugar found in grains, fruits, vegetables or plants, into carbon dioxide (natural carbonation) and ethyl alcohol. Fermentation is the basic process for producing beer. Distillation is an additional process that separates two or more substances through heating, and which may be used to produce alcoholic beverages.
THE PROCESS OF BEER MAKING
The four steps of beer making are malting, roasting, brewing, and fermenting.
Malting: The first step of beer making combines barley and water in a process known as malting. Barley is composed of germ, endosperm, and a layer of bran. The living part of the barley, the germ, lies dormant until it is planted or comes in contact with water. Once the germ comes in contact with water, it germinates and begins growing. The starch in the endosperm provides the nourishment needed for the living germ. However, it is too difficult for the germ to digest the starch without assistance. Therefore, the germ secretes an enzyme that breaks the starch into simpler sugars which can be digested more easily. Although barley is not sweet at all, it has been discovered that barley which is soaked in water and allowed to sprout, produces a sweet syrup. This is a result of barley’s natural germination process. This enzymatic conversion of barley into fermentable sugars is known as malting. The barley malting process lasts for forty-eight hours, thus enabling the barley to begin germinating and sprouting.
Roasting: The sprouted barley grain is then roasted. Roasting is a vital step in the ultimate creation of beer’s color and flavor. Adjusting the roasting time, temperature, and amount of barley will cause variation. A longer, higher roast produces a darker, more flavorful barley, hence a darker, more flavorful beer. Conversely, a lower, shorter roast produces a less flavorful beer.
The roasted barley kernels are then ground into a grain mixture called a grist. Sometimes, with blander beers, the barley is mixed with other cereal grains, such as corn, wheat, or rice to make the grist. The grist is then mixed with hot water to form a mash. The purpose of the mashing is to continue the malting process where the germinating barley left off. This process allows the enzymes contained in the grain to convert the starches of the mashed grains into sugar. The sweet liquid solution created by the germinated grain water is called a wort.
Brewing: Hops, dried flowers from the spice-like hops plant, are now added to the wort to create a hopped wort. There are many varieties and forms of hops grown throughout the world. The hopped wort is brewed in a copper or stainless steel kettle, imparting a unique aroma and cooked flavor into the wort. The liquid is now ready to be converted into beer.
Fermenting: Yeast is added to the wort, and through fermentation the sweetened wort is converted into natural carbonation and alcohol. Though there are literally thousands of yeasts, the two popular fermenting yeasts are saccharomyces cerevisiae, a top fermenting yeast that produces ales, and saccharomyces uvarum, a bottom fermenting yeast that produces lager. Both ales and lagers can be light or dark, strong or weak, more flavorful or bland, depending on the temperature, ingredients, and brewing methods.
Beer making has been known for centuries, yet, throughout the millennia it has been elevated into an art form. According to Michael Jackson, author, consultant, and world-renowned wines and spirits expert, man has developed over forty styles of beer, each with a full spectrum of flavors and colors. How do the beer meisters do it? By varying beer’s natural ingredients, grains, hops, and yeast, and by modifying the roasting and brewing methods, new flavorful varieties are created.
In the new technological world of major beer production, the key term of successful brewing is consistency and uniformity. In recent decades, scientific discovery has facilitated consistency and uniformity, enabling brew meisters to comprehend the simple centuries-old process of beer making. Technological scientific research has shown that additives and processing aids can provide assistance needed to deliver a consistent and uniform product, though not necessarily a beer with more character.
How do these revelations impact on the kashrus status of this generically kosher beverage? Are there any additives that would compromise the kashrus of beer?
Processing Aids: Hydrogen peroxide, bromade, or other alkalis can be used to accelerate malt germination. Natural enzymes such as papain, bromelin, or aspergillus niger, or industrial enzymes such as amylo-glucosidase, can supplement an enzyme-deficient mash to help break the starches into sugars and facilitate brewing. Hops extracts can be added for flavor. If necessary, papain or tannin can assist in the removal of unwanted protein, delivering a clearer brighter beer. After brewing, natural clarifiers such as isinglass finings (prepared from ground tropical fish), gelatin, silica gel, or a synthetic clarifier poly-vinyl poly prolamine (PVPP) remove dark particles from the beer, giving the final product a crystal clear appearance. If the completed product needs bolstering, caramel color may be added for coloring, extra carbon dioxide for carbonation, or alginates for head retention. In all, over fifty-nine chemicals or additives are legally permitted to be used as beer additives and don’t have to be listed on the ingredient panel.
Gelatin and isinglass clarifiers are not used in domestic beers. Isinglass finings is a traditional British beer clarifier that has been used for centuries in the United Kingdom. Isinglass (pronounced i-zin’glas) is a gelatinous substance made from the swim bladders of certain fish – usually sturgeon, a non-kosher fish. Like gelatin, it causes yeast to settle out of the beer more rapidly. It is fascinating to note that over two hundred years ago the great halachic authority, the Noda Beyehuda, permitted the use of the isinglass clarifier.1 A clarifier only filters unwanted particles and should not be present in the final beverage.
Flavorings: Traditional beers do not have added flavorings. Cherry flavorings, other fruit flavorings, and spices are used to make flavored products, and by law must be termed “flavored beers”. Such a product would definitely require kosher certification.
Yeast: Barley wine is a specialty beer that could possibly be fermented with non-kosher wine or champagne yeast and would definitely require kosher certification.
THE PROCESS OF DISTILLED BEVERAGES: LIQUOR AND LIQUEURS
The creation of a distilled alcoholic beverage or “spirit” involves three fundamental processes: fermentation, distillation, and aging.
Fermentation: As with beer, liquor fermentation combines grains, plants, fruits, or vegetables with water to create a liquid blend mash. Yeast is added to the mash to convert the natural sugars present in the mixture into ethyl alcohol and CO2. Barley malt is also added because it is richer in amylase that helps convert starch into sugar. This fermented product is now ready to be distilled.
Distillation is a process that separates two or more combined substances through heating. If one of the substances in the solution (e.g., Substance A) boils at a lower temperature than the other component (e.g., Substance B), when the boiling temperature of Substance A is reached, it will evaporate out of the solution. The vapor is then captured and collected in a separate part of the distillation apparatus called a still. When the vapor cools, Substance A condenses as a separate substance.
In the alcohol distillation process, Substance A refers to the alcohol vapors that are separated from the fermented mash (Substance B). These vapors are collected and are condensed by cooling them over cold water pipes, to form a separate liquid called ethyl alcohol, the fundamental ingredient for all alcoholic beverages.
Percentages in alcohol commonly range between 40% and 50%. The term proof indicates the percentage of alcohol present; the higher the proof, the more alcohol. The percentage of alcohol in a beverage can be easily determined by dividing the proof in half. Hence, an 80 proof whiskey contains 40% alcohol, 100 proof, 50%, and so on.
Aging the Spirits: After distillation, the whiskey’s unique flavor and color is developed through aging. Whiskey must be aged a minimum of two to four years in wood barrels. The different tastes of these spirits depend on a number of factors: the raw ingredients, the amount of alcohol present, and the type of wood used for aging.
Bourbon by definition must be aged in new charred oak barrels. By law, the barrels can only be used once. Scotch maturation does not have that restriction and can use a variety of wooden barrels. Most barrels used to age scotch are used bourbon barrels. Some new barrels are used as well. Bourbon casks give the scotch a very distinct overt woody flavor. Over time the scotch distilleries needed to increase their supply of casks and began using Spanish oak casks that were originally used to age wine and sherry. Sherry casks were used to age and store sherry; port and madeira casks were used to age and store port or madeira wine.
The use of wine casks for aging alcoholic beverages is not a new halachic revelation. The method of aging spirits, which is clearly described in the Shulchan Aruch,2 mirrors the description outlined by world-renowned scotch blenders.
Before using the casks, all barrels are cleaned and washed free of any residual sherry. The casks remain empty and dry for a number of weeks before any scotch is matured in them. No sherry is added to the casks; the purpose of aging is not for the scotch to taste like sherry. Rather, aging allows the newly distilled scotch to have its innate fragrance, flavor and color enhanced when it is matured in wood.
Can we assume any scotch to be sherry cask free? According to Michael Jackson, “Most distilleries have over the decades acquired a ‘mishmash’ of casks from different sources. The distillery manager or group blender orchestrates what is available to try and achieve consistent bottling. It is therefore difficult, even in a single malt, to be sure that not a drop came from a sherry cask. In my view no blended scotch could be guaranteed innocent of sherry. Macallan Scotch, in fact, boasts that their catch is exclusively aged in sherry casks.” The use of sherry casks in most distilleries is minimal: 94% bourbon and 6% sherry. In better quality distilleries 80% bourbon and 20% sherry casks are used. Very few distilleries use sherry casks exclusively.
POPULAR VARIETIES OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES
The following is a brief rundown of some of the more popular varieties of alcoholic spirits, along with some information on how they are produced.
Whiskey is a term derived from the Scotch Gaelic, meaning “water of life”. Whiskey, the broadest category of alcoholic beverage, includes the following types: Bourbon, Rye, American, Tennessee, Canadian, Irish, and Scotch. There is a fundamental difference between American, Canadian, and English whiskeys. American whiskey is spelled with an “e”, Canadian whisky and English whisky without.
Bourbon is produced from at least 51% corn (maize) and 49% other grains such as rye, barley, oats or wheat. After distillation, the bourbon has to be aged in new oak charred casks for six to eight years. Premium bourbons can be aged over twenty years. No additives are allowed to be added to bourbon. (It is interesting to note that when the bourbon matures, a small percentage of the maturing spirit is absorbed or lost in the cask. This absorbed portion is called the “angels’ share”.) Small batch bourbon refers to a superior quality production of bourbon that is made in limited quantities. All distilleries know where the bourbon ages best. The premium bourbon that is bottled from the heart of the warehouse is known as special reserve bourbon. Bourbon is the beverage of choice in Dixie. It is also the alcoholic beverage of choice amongst “the heimishe”, due to the fact that nothing additional is added to bourbon and that it is aged in new oak casks.
Rye is made with 51% rye plus a combination of other grains. Rye and Tennessee whiskeys are aged in new wood casks. Blended American whiskey uses a combination of new and used oak casks.
Scotch whisky, originating from Scotland, comes in three types: malt, grain and blended. Malt whisky is produced from 100% malted barley. Grain whisky is produced from a combination of grains. Single malt refers to malted Scotch whisky that comes from one distillery. Blended whisky is a combination of the two – malt and grain – blended together to achieve a uniform taste. Blended scotches do not use additional blending agents in the process.
There is a shortage of wood in Scotland but there is a great demand for whisky casks to be able to age all the scotch that needs years of maturation to achieve the desired quality. There is a written American law that bourbon casks can only be used once. There is no such law regarding scotch, hence the great amount of reused bourbon casks used to age scotch. Furthermore, casks are reused for Scotch and Irish whisky. These casks are called refills. Another source of casks comes from countries like Spain that used the casks to age sherry, port or madeira wine. Some scotch producers empty the scotch from their original casks and refill them into sherry or port casks. This is called “finishing”. (The halachic ramification of aging in sherry casks or scotches that state sherry or port finish will be discussed later in the article.)
Canadian whiskies, like their American whiskey counterparts, are produced from corn, rye and barley. They are aged for two to six years in oak casks. Canadian whiskies are light bodied and are blended.
Other Alcoholic Beverages
Vodka is derived from the Russian term “voda”, meaning waters. It is a distilled beverage usually made from barley, corn, or rye, and sometimes made from potatoes, sugar beets, grapes, or whey. Vodka is known as a neutral grain spirit, meaning that it has no taste or color. It is not aged, and can sometimes be sweetened with sugar. Vodka is used primarily in mixed drinks. If other flavors or sweeteners are added, it can no longer be called vodka, and is instead known as a distilled spirit specialty beverage, which requires strict kosher certification.
Gin is a distilled neutral grain spirit and is flavored with juniper berries and other seed oils, such as coriander oil. Gin, too, is used in mixed drinks and is combined with both alcoholic and non-alcoholic mixers.
Rum is distilled from fermented sugar or molasses. It, too, is distilled and aged. Depending upon the length and process of aging, rum color can be light (light rum) or dark (dark rum). Dark rum is colored with caramel. Rum is aged in oak casks for five to seven years. It can be enhanced with rum blenders. Typically, the flavors are ether esters, which are higher alcohols retrieved during distillation; basically, natural rum flavors coming from rum itself. Flavored or special rum is known as flavored rum, or spiced rum.
Brandy is a Dutch derivative meaning distilled wine. Brandy is distilled from fermented grape wines or other fermented fruits, such as plums or cherries. It is then aged from two to eight years. Cognac is grape brandy originating in the Cognac section of France. Although brandy is derived from grapes, the bracha on grape brandy is shehakol because brandy no longer tastes like wine.3
Tequila is a distilled spirit made from a fermented mash containing at least 51% of the agave plant. There are four categories of tequila: silver (white), gold (dark), anjeo (aged), and repesado (rested). By law, nothing can be added to silver. Caramel color and blending agents can be added to the other tequilas. Anjeo and repesado are aged gold tequila. Sherry casks can be used to age tequila. Tequilas containing a worm in the bottle (Mezcal) should be avoided.
If manufacturers followed the strict and simple rules of liquor production, liquor kashrus would not present major concerns. However, as in all industries, nothing is simple, as we will soon see.
Flavored Alcoholic Beverages
Liqueurs or cordials are flavored grain spirits. Liqueurs include: flavored whiskeys, brandies, neutral grain spirits and rums that are colored and flavored with a variety of ingredients such as fruit, chocolate, coffee, peppermints, cream, or with combined flavors. Additives, such as wine or glycerin, are often added, as are emulsifiers, sweeteners and colors.
TRICKS OF THE LIQUOR TRADE
Additional processing practices range from the simple to the sublime. They include:
Caramel Color: Although the aging process can darken liquor naturally, often caramel color, a kosher ingredient, can be added as a coloring. Color is commonly added to whiskeys, rums, and brandies.
Enzymes: These are sometimes used to expedite or standardize the fermentation process. Enzymes, which create kashrus problems, can be used in the fermentation of American or Canadian whiskeys, vodka, or in a batch of neutral grain spirits.
Off Standard Wine: It has been said there are two constants in our lives that never go away: death and taxes. The only difference between the two is that death can’t be avoided and taxes we try to avoid. Since whiskey is a highly taxed commodity, the liquor industry looks for different legal avenues to lower their tax while not compromising the quality of their product.
How is this accomplished? It is a common practice in both American and Canadian whiskey blends to add a small amount of wine to a distilled blended spirit, so that the spirit can now be considered a wine product, which is taxed at a significantly lower tax rate than whiskey. The “wine” added for this purpose is called O.T.S. wine, a mnemonic that stands for other than standard wine. O.T.S. wine is added in minuscule volumes – less than 1%. There is a fundamental difference, however, between the American and Canadian O.T.S. wines. American O.T.S. wine is a citrus wine made from orange peels, while Canadian O.T.S. wine can be, and usually is, made from grapes. We will discuss the halachic implications later in the article.
Blenders: The U.S. and Canadian governments allow blenders, “harmless coloring or flavoring materials”, to be added to their blended whiskeys. It has been alleged that glycerin is possibly added to U.S., Canadian, and English whiskeys. After extensive research from manufacturers, producers, and independent sources, we have conclusively confirmed that no glycerin is used as a blending agent for these whiskeys. Vodkas, tequilas, and liqueurs may use glycerin blenders. If glycerin is used as a blender, it is never added beyond 1%. The Canadian government allows O.T.S. wine to be used in their blended whiskeys. By law, no ‘blender wine’ can be added beyond 1% of the total volume. In actuality, the standard quantity of flavor blenders added is typically less than ½ of 1% of the total volume of product. Blenders are used to cut the harshness of the whiskey in order to improve “mouthfeel”, an industry term that refers to the mellowness of a particular spirit.
CHOMETZ SHE’AVAR ALAV HAPESACH
As is the law with private Jewish consumers, Jewish merchants or Jewish manufacturers may 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 the Pesach holiday. In the event that the volume of Jewish owned chometz is too great to be consumed or destroyed, the chometz can 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 will render the unsold chometz forbidden for Jewish consumption after Pesach. These laws apply equally to any chometz, whether it is simply owned by a Jewish merchant, or produced by a Jewish manufacturer and was in his possession during Pesach.
How does this prohibition impact on the alcoholic beverage industry? Most authorities4 are of the opinion that alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, which is derived from wheat, barley or rye, are chometz gamur, and a person must not own these products on Pesach. If a Jew did not sell his liquor, the prohibition of chometz she’avar alav haPesach would apply; the whiskey cannot be used, nor can any benefit be derived from these beverages.
What about the whiskey manufacturers? After years of research, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of companies producing spirits are either large corporations that are publicly owned or are non-Jewish. There is a major American whiskey company that is Jewish owned that has been selling their chometz through the Orthodox Rav in Louisville, Kentucky for well over a decade. Moreover, the finished goods do not go directly to your neighborhood liquor store; they first go to large distributors that house great inventories of alcoholic beverages. In many large metropolitan areas, the owners of the liquor distribution companies are Jewish and do not sell their chometz. There is little control over what is distributed on Pesach. However, unless one knows for a fact that the liquor comes from a non-observant Jewish distributor that did not sell his chometz and owned the alcohol over Pesach, or if whiskey comes from the local Jewish liquor proprietor who did not sell his chometz and owned the liquor over Pesach, one need not be machmir. Since chometz she’avar alav haPesach is a rabbinic prohibition and we have a safek, a reasonable doubt, the halacha allows us to take a lenient position.5
THE HALACHIC BOTTOM LINE
The question is, can we, in accordance with halacha and in good conscience, consume beverages that do not have any hashgocha? Obviously the best case scenario would be to purchase alcoholic beverages with a reliable hechsher. There are, in fact, a few selections that have reliable kosher certification, but these are few and far between. When research into ingredients and production practices indicates that there are no apparent kashrus problems with the product, then halacha permits us to follow the concept of holchin achar harov, that we may assume that the majority is the scenario with which we are dealing. The following assumptions can therefore be made:
- All varieties of domestic whiskeys are acceptable. Glycerin is not used as a blending agent for these whiskeys and the O.T.S. wine is a citrus wine.
- Canadian whiskies present a fundamental kashrus question. Does the possibility of grape O.T.S. wine or blenders added to Canadian whiskies in very small percentages of 1% or less create real kashrus concerns? Can we rely on bitul, halachic nullification, or do we need concrete information about each beverage? As stated before, since the O.T.S. wine is added in less than a sixtieth, it is batul. Furthermore, some Poskim maintain that the wine would be batul even if it would be added in less than a sixth.6 Additionally, there is a doubt whether the O.T.S. wine is indeed grape, or whether blenders are used altogether. Canadian whiskies would therefore be acceptable. Nevertheless, our recommended liquor list reflects those products that do not contain any wine.
- Scotch and Irish whisky would be acceptable7 unless specifically stated that the beverage has been aged in sherry casks finished in sherry or port casks.8 We do not have to assume that this is the case unless the company asserts that it is so. Our recommended liquor list reflects those products that do not specify aged in sherry casks.
- All silver tequila would be acceptable. Dark, repesato, and aged tequilas require kosher certification.
- Domestic, German, English, European, and Canadian beers and ales are acceptable.
- All flavored beers, malternatives, hard beers, coolers, and extreme beers require reliable kosher certification.
- Gin is acceptable.
- Domestic vodka produced from 100% neutral grain spirits is acceptable.
- Imported vodkas require certification.
- Wines, liqueurs, cordials, spirits, flavored spirits, and brandies require reliable kosher certification for year-round use, and special Passover certification printed on the bottle for Pesach.
1. Noda Beyehuda Vol. Yoreh Deah No. 26
2. Y.D. 137 H. 4
3. Orach Chaim 202 Beur Halacha
4. Mishna Berurah Orach Chaim 442 Shaarei Teshuva ibid.
5. Orach Chaim 448 – Safek d’rabonon lekulah.
6. Igros Moshe Y.D. Vol. 1 No. 62, 63, 64
7. Yoreh Deah 137 Shach 17
8. Yad Efraim ibid.