It happens this time of year. You’re invited to a Jewish holiday celebration such as Rosh Hashana (Jewish new year) or Sukkot (the harvest feast) and you have no idea what to bring, let alone what part of the matzo the ball is from. You know the hosts enjoy a good tipple, but what is an appropriate bottle for such an occasion? Does it have to be kosher? If there isn’t a kosher section in the liquor store, how to know if it is or isn’t? Oy gevalt!
Don’t get yourself in a tsimis. Let’s start at the beginning.
What does kosher mean anyway?
The word kosher is Hebrew for “fit,” meaning something is fit to be consumed – it’s clean according to Jewish law. Modern slang has stretched it further to mean that it’s “legitimate” or free from a compromising situation, as in, “Hey, is it kosher for me to take one of these cookies?” Or, “It was totally not kosher for him to call half an hour after our first date.” In terms of spirits, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether something is kosher in the true meaning of the word, or just kosher in the more casual sense.
For you, a little insight.
It’s probably a good idea to assume anything served at a Jewish celebration should be kosher. Because Jewish law indicates that meat and dairy not mix at the same sitting, it is important that any wine or spirits be neutral (pareve) and free from any dairy ingredients. Anything alcoholic made from fruit such as wine or brandy can only be handled and bottled by Jews and must be certified kosher (look for the circle U on the label, which means it’s approved by the Jewish Union, or a capital K). This all dates back to a time when wine was used by other religions for pagan worship and the tradition just stuck. So to be absolutely sure of a wine’s kosherness, there is the whole mevushal category, which means the wine was flashed boiled to rid it of any perceived impurities before bottling. There is also an entirely different category of kosher for the Passover holiday, when all grain is eschewed for eight days, but that’s not till spring.
Seems simple enough for wine, and for non-fruit spirits, just stay away from cream liqueur, right?
Not so fast, Bubbala.
Sometimes the easiest way to know if a spirit is kosher is it will tell you! Some brands, even if they don’t look Jewish, have gone out of their way to advertise that they’re kosher. A rabbi has inspected the facility where the products are made to be sure it meets all dietary requirements and has pronounced it with a certification. Certified kosher spirits, as with wine, will indicate this on their label.
However, there are plenty of other spirits out there that aren’t certified that still meet the requirements, especially whisky, vodka, gin or tequila. What’s not allowed is any grain spirit that has come in contact with a non-kosher wine barrel (and this includes fortified wine such as sherry and port styles), or is flavored with anything unkosher and doesn’t have certification. It can be especially tricky to know with unflavored Scotch, and even now some bourbon and rye, since wine cask finishing has become so popular. There are lists out there to provide some guidance, such as the one from the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc) (it’s kind of a go-to and you will find many surprises in the liqueur category especially, such as Luxardo Maraschino and Cointreau!). If you’re at all concerned that the intended recipient of the spirit keeps very strict kosher, best to stick to the list, which really does have something for everyone in every category. And for any liqueur or brandy it’s best not to purchase anything without the certification on the label or off list. However, for the other categories, here’s a simple way to play it safe:
Look for bourbon or rye aged in new, charred oak with no additional cask finishing or flavoring (sorry, no bacon whiskey).*
Most releases from Westland except the sherry cask
Irish whiskey – this is a tricky one because most brands use a blend of whiskey selected from a variety of casks, which might include some sherry. Most of the more recognizable whiskeys won’t be kosher, like Jameson, Bushmills, etc. However, some single malts make the cut. Again, look out for ex-bourbon cask aging on the label. There are only a precious few.
Rum – Good news, rum fans! Unaged, unflavored rum passes and since so much of the mature versions are aged in ex-bourbon barrels or new oak, a lot of it is kosher. There are a surprising number of flavored rums that went for certification along with their core unflavored expressions from Cruzan, Bacardì (except Oakheart) and Don Q. Other surefire bets in the aged rum category are:
Tequila, mezcal, raicilla, sotol and other agave spirits – any unaged (silver, platinum, blanco, etc.), unflavored 100% agave version will pass as long as no other non-kosher ingredients have been added (no pechuga!), and best to avoid the ones that have been lightly aged, but filtered for color. For any of the other aged agave categories (reposado, añejo, extra añejo) it’s best to stick to those on the rabbinical lists or look out for the kosher certification on the label since the provenance of the casks is most often not indicated. Since there are no strict regulations about the labeling, you shouldn’t be drinking anything that isn’t 100% agave anyway, no mixto, but especially in this instance.
Gin – some producers use fruit, whey or some other form of lactose in the base spirit, which is not acceptable. However, the majority of London Dry and Old Tom style gin is acceptable as long as none of the botanicals are fruit-based. Stick to these styles and you should be right as reyn.*
Vodka (see gin, except without the botanical part). Unflavored grain or potato vodka should pass. For the rest, consult the list.*
Unaged, unflavored whiskey (‘moonshine,” if you must, white dog, etc.) – probably acceptable since it hasn’t spent time in wood that might be called into question. However, unless your host has pronounced a certain fandom to this category of spirits – why risk it?*
All of us at Alcohol Professor wish everyone a sweet, happy and peaceful Jewish new year 5777! L’chaim!
*Alright. There is one additional exception here, but this is so particular and would really only matter to strict kosher households: If the owner of the whisk(e)y or grain alcohol distillery is Jewish and doesn’t sell his/her grain during Passover, the spirits produced there are not considered fully kosher. Many would look the other way about this, but there it is. If this might be at all an issue, stick to the list.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.