Is That Whiskey Kosher?
The kosher laws about wine and spirits have long been a complete mystery to me. I knew that there were far more rules about wine than there were about whiskey, but I was unsure how extensive they are. A colleague sent me a copy of Wine, Whisky & Halachah by HaRav Shraga Kallus and Rabbi Avraham Chaim Slansky so that I could have the opportunity to learn more. I am now confident to say that I have a far greater understanding of the many laws regarding wine according to the Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and how they impact the permissibility of different kinds of whiskeys.
What Do Laws About Wine Have To Do With Whiskey?
There are a lot of laws about wine in the Kashrut - laws about who can make wine, who can sell wine, who can pour wine, and even laws against wine being shaken or deliberately poured out. This is an obvious issue for cocktails, which answers a question I have long had about why Manhattans are not kosher. But there are also very specific laws about spirits that have come in contact with a vessel that once contained non-kosher wines - applicable to the many whiskeys that are aged in used wine casks.
Of particular concern in this book is Scotch, often aged in used wine casks. Despite the fact that the wine contained in the final product would be minimal, the ratio of the entire thickness of the barrel is taken into account when making that calculation. While it is difficult to give a definitive answer as to what is kosher in the Scotch realm, if it is aged exclusively or mostly in used wine casks it is almost certainly not permitted. There is some wiggle room if it is a large batch and only a small percentage of casks were former wine barrels, but one has to do the research to find out. This goes for bourbon and other spirits that have been finished in used wine casks - they are generally not considered kosher.
Generally speaking, the type of wine cask used for Scotch maturation will most likely be mentioned on the label, so that information should be the first indication about whether or not it is kosher. Some Scotch may bear a Kashrut symbol on the bottle indicating kosher status. There is also an extensive list (250+) of Scotch and their kosher standings in this book if you are unsure of a particular bottle.
There are, of course, a few technical issues with some of the information in this book. Here,“Blended Whiskey” refers to a blend of malt and grain alcohol. However in Canada, for example, this category often indicates a blend of straight whiskeys. The book also states that bourbon is only made in Kentucky, which we know to be untrue - it can legally be made anywhere in the United States. Still, these technicalities have little bearing on the overall analysis of the book. The takeaway is that anything that is made from only grains and aged either in new, charred oak containers or aged in used bourbon containers is generally going to be considered kosher.
The Case For Pushing Back Against Labeling Offenders
According to Chapter 14, “Bourbon is a drink that due to legal constraints should never be non-kosher. The ingredients that must be utilized are 100% kosher, as no additives are allowed. Therefore, for many years this was the drink of choice for the kosher consumer.” This is important for two reasons: First, in recent years there have been some brands marketing bourbon finished in wine barrels as “straight” and getting away with it because the TTB has allowed it. Muddling the definition of "straight" as a mark of quality to indicate age has consequences not only to the category, but also to consumers who just want to know what they are getting. Second, there have been issues with the confusing wording of products made with flavoring but which have bourbon as their base spirit. Again, consumers just want to know what's in the bottle, and this is another example of a legitimate reason to leave the category of Straight Bourbon to whiskey that has no additional cask finishes or ingredients.
There Were Some Surprises In This Book
Many of the laws about wine were a complete surprise to me - these simply haven't been issues that have been on my radar, so it was nice to have the opportunity to learn more about them. But one of the most surprising things I learned was that some of the wine laws even pertain to electronic cigarettes.
As far as whiskey is concerned, the most surprising thing I learned was that even if a facility has been inspected and certified kosher, if the owner is Jewish and does not sell the distillery for the duration of Pesach, or the Passover holiday, the whiskey or other grain spirit produced and aged there is no longer considered kosher. The book phrases this in a confusing way, making it seem as though only the whiskey made after the sale can be kosher, but after some investigation, it turns out it's a pretty common occurrence for Jewish-owned businesses to sell and then repurchase businesses before and after Passover. As long as those laws are observed, the spirits are considered in good standing to be considered kosher.
Why Does This Matter?
There was a time when information was difficult to come by, so a consumer would just have to trust whatever was on the label and hope for the best. These days with the internet there is unlimited information available just about everywhere, so many believe that not knowing is not an excuse. This book is a great resource for anyone who is strictly observant of kosher laws because it comes with a nice index in the back complete with images of which whiskeys are kosher, including Scotch, are kosher and which aren’t, as well as reliable sources for looking up those still in question.
There are at least two distilleries in Kentucky that I know of with Kosher certifications - Heaven Hill and Boone County. This means that Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Boone County 1833, and Boone County’s Whitehall Bourbon Cream are kosher, even with the latter containing dairy. But as long as the Bourbon is labeled as "straight" and isn’t finished in any sort of wine cask, it is considered permissible.
In other words, when in doubt drink Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey!