Who Has Whom…Over the Barrel?

Kashrus Kurrents, Spring 2023

The immortal words of Koheles, “l’kol zman va’eis” – there is a time and a place for everything – rings true in all of life’s twists and turns and is certainly relevant in the world of kashrus and kashrus standards. Kosher food certification has grown exponentially, and standards have improved with age. Who would have dreamed that pas Yisroel, bishul Yisroel, and cholov Yisroel would be available to the wider kosher marketplace?

Forty years ago, a can of tuna with bishul Yisroel and hashgacha temidis was a rare commodity. Many a yeshiva would resort to stam cholov when cholov Yisroel wasn’t available, something that would be unheard of half a century later. Yoshon was an anomaly, except for the meticulous few; today, yoshon is a kosher household term and it continues to proliferate.

These amazing developments across a variety of industries are a testament to the tireless diligence of kashrusagencies who strive to provide the kosher consumer with the finest quality kosher products and to uphold the gold standard of hilchos kashrus. These efforts to certify many popular consumer items have told the story of the growing success of kashrus in this country over the last quarter century. This has held true for many industries – save one.

There yet remains one industry that for decades has been shrouded in mystery and has refused to strip away her opaque shrouds. This is an industry that appeals to young and old alike. If you haven’t guessed it: it is the world of liquor.

The world of liquor production is truly a global phenomenon. It has been around since Noach planted the kerem. It is a subject that is dealt with extensively in the Gemara, Halacha, and poskim.And it has been one of the least transparent products in the marketplace. To this day, you won’t see an ingredient declaration on a bottle of booze.

While for decades, the industry followed manufacturing protocols and BATF[1] regulations, kashruswas not privy to any industry information, nor did it make any significant inroads into the confidence of the brew masters and master blenders of mystery. Kashrus-wise, this was unacceptable.

Approximately a quarter of a century ago, STAR-Kbegan researching the kashrusof beer and liquor in earnest. The internet, the exciting new “information highway,” was then in its infancy, so information had to be culled the old-fashioned way, through faxes and phone calls, and good old-fashioned gumshoeing, to find out whom to contact to help us ferret fact from fiction. It was a painstaking but sometimes fun process, and over time great friendships were cultivated. Through dogged persistence, we found ourselves making headway and – to borrow a well-known beer term – slowly things were becoming clarified.

STAR-K, as a kashrus agency committed to kosher consumer education, felt a responsibility to create a pair of lists, one of certified-kosher liquors and liqueurs, and a separate one of “acceptable” products – ones that were determined to be free of kashrus concerns due to their strict manufacturing and regulatory protocols. Over time, different agencies created their own lists, and each based their “acceptable” list using their own yardstick –  what was acceptable to one agency might be unacceptable to another.

Then two phenomena emerged:

  1. Whereas a kosher consumer would never think of purchasing a soft drink or flavored seltzer without a reliable kosher certification, we noted this did not hold true when it came to liquor; there we found an element of indiscriminate drinking by most, with a heavy reliance on the “acceptable” lists. These lists were created by agencies solely on the basis of a “reasonable assumption,” in sharp contrast to the rigor applied, for example, by STAR-K to certify a flavored hazelnut K-cup.
  2. With the growing awareness by many breweries and distilleries about the accelerating consumer demand for kosher alcoholic beverages, the manufacturers began voluntarily opening their portals and seeking reliable kosher certification on their own. Score another win in the kosher certification column!

As a result of the steady increase in kosher-certified beers, whiskies, liquors, and liqueurs, the discriminating kosher consumer can now select from a wide range of high quality alcoholic beverages with reliable kosher certification. The question du jour is how to encourage, inspire and convince a generation of consumers who have long relied on “approved lists” to change course and take the certified route, to move from “bedi’eved” to “l’chatchila.” Indeed, the task is challenging, and it won’t happen overnight.

To make a significant change in the kosher consumer’s way of thinking – or in their case, their way of drinking – kashrusagencies should continue in the their quest to certify quality liquors. As more and more high-end bourbons, scotches and tequilas elect to become kosher-certified, and the liquor market becomes saturated with certified kosher spirits, kashrusagencies are better able to suggest viable options to their kosher consumers, and not “compromise” options.

It is a fact that kosher consumers would not consider drinking flavored beers without reliable hashgacha. This is true of liqueurs, cognacs and vermouth as well, all of which require reliable kosher certification. STAR-K now certifies many premium kosher flavored beers, seltzers, teas, and ciders, including Samuel Adams Truly, Twisted Tea, and Angry Orchard. These days, there are a  barrelful of kosher-certified product on the market to choose from. No one need miss Remy Martin or Courvoisier.

It is still a process to reach the next madreiga. Decades earlier, before Mr. Joseph Rosenberger zt”l educated an entire world about the mitzvah of shatnez, people who were aware of the mitzvah would crush suit collars to see if the stiffening was soft. Most of American Jewry outside of Brooklyn didn’t even know there was such a mitzvah. Today, who won’t check a garment to see that it is shatnez-free? It was an evolving process and the process succeeded.

Elevating our ruchniyus by choosing only kosher-certified product is today’s challenge for the kosher liquor consumer. Unquestionably, it is hard to change a mindset from years of relying on “acceptable lists” to abiding only by strictly certified ones. But kashrus agencies have spent decades taking the kosher alcoholic beverage consumer from the unknown to the known, and now, more and more companies are moving to become kosher certified.

With so much movement afoot, I am certain that the next phase is to progress from “acceptable” to “certified.” This is our generation’s shatnez moment. Will we get there?

Time will tell. Ya’aseh hazman ma shelo ya’aseh haseichel –time accomplishes what the mind cannot.

STAR-K reminds readers of the importance of consuming alcohol responsibly and in a “kosher” manner.

[1] Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms