Looking Through the Liquor Glass

Fall 2012

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.
Furthermore, the evaluation of scotch to cask ratio is not unanimously agreed upon by the poskim.  Some opine that one would evaluate the entire cask to scotch ratio; others maintain that one would evaluate the ratio using the inner membrane of the cask, k’dei klifa.  Still others posit that one can see the penetration of the sherry through the staves and, therefore, one need not evaluate the ratio using the entire cask just to the point of penetration.

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.
According to STAR-K’s Rabbinic Administrator, Rav Moshe Heinemann, shlita, a company that advertises or publicizes the fact that their scotch is aged, filled, finished or seasoned with sherry indicates that that particular scotch company values the taste of the sherry and gives the scotch its unique taste.   The sherry is, therefore, considered to be avida d’taima by virtue of the company, and those scotches would not be recommended.  Otherwise, we are permitted to use any scotch which does not make these claims.


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”. [Ed. note: While Kahlua was kosher certified at the time this article was published, its certification was discontinued after 2015.]

One of the fastest growing and more popular additions to the wine and spirit industry is the micro distillery.  Micro Brewing in the beer industry is nothing new, yet micro distilling has been on the move.  In order to get a first hand glimpse of this fascinating new vista, Kashrus Kurrents proudly presents Scott Harris, proprietor of Catoctin Creek, to share with us how his unique kosher distillery was born.

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.”

Call it a midlife crisis, or just call it restlessness in a job which I’d done for 20 years, but I could no longer sit behind that desk and watch my spine calcify, working a job in which I had no interest.  “What did I want to do with my life?”  I asked myself.  At that moment, I was swept back to a quarter century earlier, when I was a fifteen year old intern working in a winery.  THAT was a job that I really enjoyed –  the satisfaction of working with my hands, producing something, and having people appreciate what I had produced.  It was this kind of job that I now felt myself seeking.  But this time, I thought, I’d focus on spirits.  I wanted to start a distillery.

I presented my idea to my wife, and her reaction was understandable:  “You’re crazy!” she said.   I persisted, and it took many months.  “This is really something that I want to do,” I told her.   “Well,” she said, “if you’re serious, go write a business plan!”

I think she thought that was the last she would ever hear of the matter, but I did just what she recommended.  I wrote up a business plan.  It wasn’t perfect at first, and it took a lot of revision and critiquing from some friends of mine who happened to be entrepreneurs, but I finally came up with something that I could show to Becky, my sole investor.  That’s right, we were going to liquidate our entire life savings, and build ourselves a distillery.  This was very risky, and very scary.  But the business plan looked really solid, and we quickly (and much to our surprise) secured an SBA loan.  With money in hand, we were off and running.  Within eleven months, we were distilling the first legal alcohol in Loudoun County since before Prohibition.

From the very beginning, Becky and I knew that we had to find ways to differentiate our spirits from the big-name spirits which dominate the market today.  First, we decided to go organic.  Both Becky and I had long been believers in organic foods, sustainability, and limiting the use of things like pesticides and herbicides, so this fit well with our personal philosophy.  Furthermore, organic spirits would appeal to a higher end clientèle with more expendable income, and would fit well with the premium nature of our small craft spirits.

As we explored organic production, a Jewish friend of ours (neither Becky nor I are Jewish) suggested we also explore the realm of kosher.  He said that kosher spirits are in very short supply, and almost none have any kind of formal kosher certification.  There was lots of confusion from spirit to spirit about the status of individually unmarked products: whether it had been aged in wine barrels, whether wine had been added, etc.

Sure enough, kosher production fit well with our organic production business plan.  Instead of looking for organic marks on every package, we’d be looking for hechsherim.  Similar to organic manufacturing, the kosher production required detailed procedures that ensure cleanliness, accountability, and no cross-contamination in non-kosher products.  (For us, that is grape wine.)

At our distillery, we produce mostly rye whisky (we spell it the Scottish way, to acknowledge our ancestry), gin and a little pear and peach brandy.  For eleven months of the year, we are working hard on producing grain-based spirits, which we produce from scratch using rye, kosher yeasts, malt, herbs (in the case of the gin), and other ingredients.  But every September, we shut down the grain production entirely, seal all the tanks, use up all the rye, and put everything away for whiskey.  September is grape season, and that’s when we focus entirely and solely upon non-kosher grape wine.  We distill the wine as quickly as we can (for the grapes must be distilled when fresh), and then after all our production is complete for brandy, we cask up the brandy and call for the Star-K Mashgiach – time to kasher.

Under the supervision of the Mashgiach, we scrub and clean every crevice; we steam and rinse all the tanks; utensils are dipped in boiling water, and even the still is boiled.  After a final rinse, we are back in business and can resume our grain production – without touching grapes again until the following year.  It may seem like a lot of work, but as a small producer we couldn’t afford to get duplicate equipment for grapes and grain, so this was an accommodation that worked well with our processes.  We also produce some non-grape fruit brandies – pear, peach and probably some new ones in the near future. Luckily, those are kosher since they contain no grape at all; these have also been very popular.

So, one may ask, how has this worked for us?  Was it worth it?  Yes, I can definitely say it was!  Catoctin Creek has gotten some great exposure in the Jewish press (Washington Jewish Week, New York Jewish Week, Kosher-Eye, and this esteemed publication), but what’s more gratifying is the warm reception we’ve received from the Jewish community.  Yehoshua Wirth, who works at the Grapevine Spirits Shop in Wesley Hills, New York, has been an avid fan.  After two long years, when we finally got distribution in New York, his small shop moved several dozen bottles within the first month!  That was wonderful!  Here locally, we often get visitors from Silver Spring, Baltimore, and surrounding areas expressing deep gratitude for our having created Star-K certified spirits. So, yes, I do believe it has been worth it, and we love making our customers happy with a new line of products not available elsewhere!

Clearly, the need for ‘new and improved’ is in the forefront of the burgeoning alcoholic beverage industry.  ‘New’, as we have seen, may not always be a plus to the kosher consumer.  However, with the presence of reliable kosher certified liquors and liqueurs on the shelf, ‘Improved’ is definitely an improvement.  May we only share a hearty l’chaim at simchas.

Click HERE to view the STAR-K Beer, Liquor and Liqueur Listing.