Inside the Rules—and Rise—of Kosher Whisky
April 8, 2021 –––––– Sam Stone
Rabbis are asked to sign many things—marriage certificates, contracts, and the like—but Rabbi Sholem Fishbane never expected to be scrawling his signature on a bottle of whiskey. A neighbor asked him to sign a bottle of Buffalo Trace kosher whiskey. In some ways, Fishbane had already made his mark on the bottle. He's the kashrus administrator at the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc), the kosher-certifying organization that worked with Buffalo Trace to ensure compliance of its trio of kosher whiskeys.
Though not subject to the same rules as wine, whisky—just like any other food or drink—can be kosher. To “keep kosher” is to follow the rules of kashrut (also known as kashrus or kashruth), a set of Jewish dietary laws from the Hebrew bible dictating which foods Jewish people can eat and how those foods may be prepared. “Many, many ingredients are inherently kosher, like water, sugar, salt,” says Rabbi Akiva Niehaus, director of kashrus operations at the cRc. “Most things that come from the ground are kosher, like barley, wheat, and rye. Other [products] are more kosher-sensitive, like wine or cheese; those can definitely be kosher. It just has to have a lot of oversight to make sure it's done correctly.”
For a whisky to be kosher, the distiller must ensure all of the individual ingredients, such as yeast and enzymes, are kosher, explains Niehaus. But that's only the beginning. “Besides for the ingredients being kosher, you also have to make sure the equipment is kosher,” he says. “If it's produced on the same lines as something not kosher, then even the equipment would pass on the non-kosher contamination.” Products that meet all these requirements will often be labeled with the symbol of a kosher-certifying organization, also called a hechsher, making them easy to identify.
The Jewish holiday of Passover, usually celebrated in March or April, presents an additional hurdle for Jewish whisky makers.“According to kosher law, a Jew may not own anything which is produced from the primary grains like wheat, rye, barley, etc., which is leavened,” says Niehaus. These items are referred to collectively as chametz. Jewish-owned whisky companies need to sell their chametz prior to Passover each year, or else their products are no longer considered kosher.
Since most whisky matures for several years, this poses a long-term issue for Jewish-owned companies, like Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky. Buffalo Trace began working directly with the cRc in 2012 in order to arrive at a solution and released its first kosher whiskeys—two bourbons and a rye—in the spring of 2020. The kosher whiskey was designated to certain barrels prior to the first calendar Passover. “We oversaw the sale [of those barrels] to a non-Jewish executive in the company,” Niehaus says. The cRc followed the barrels over their 8 years of aging to ensure they were not under Jewish ownership during Passover, and therefore could remain kosher.
Years in the Making
In April 2020, Buffalo Trace released a trio of new kosher-certified whiskies, which the Chicago Rabbinical Council oversaw.
Master blender Drew Mayville says the conversation about creating kosher Buffalo Trace whiskeys stretches back over 10 years. “When I first came [to Buffalo Trace], we had a lot of requests for kosher, and that started the dialogue going over the years,” he says. Mayville worked closely with the cRc throughout the entire process to ensure the kosher whiskeys were “truly authentic,” he adds. “We just thought this was a good time to bottle it at this particular age because of the taste profile.” Buffalo Trace chose the cRc as its kosher-certifying organization because they are “such a noted body in the kosher world,” says Mayville.
Whisky drinkers who only consume products that are certified kosher are delighted to be able to enjoy whiskey from Buffalo Trace, but Mayville says that these whiskeys appeal to non-kosher drinkers as well. “I think customers have the perception that anything kosher is better, and it's got probably a lot to do with the quality of the ingredients, and then the supervision, and ensuring the quality is there,” he says. And while he can't put his finger on the exact reason, Mayville says there is a noticeable difference in the flavor of the kosher whiskeys, which makes them a compelling proposition for any whiskey drinker.
Kosher Whisky Throughout the Years
Buffalo Trace's kosher whiskeys are big news from a large distiller, but they are certainly not the first kosher-certified whiskies. Journeyman Distillery in Michigan has been making several kosher and organic whiskeys since 2013, according to distiller Joe Biggs. “We believe better ingredients make better spirits,” Biggs says. “So that's why we were organic, and it's really not that far of a stretch to be kosher if you're already doing those things [to be certified organic].”
Kosher whisky isn't limited to the United States either. Joshua Hatton, president and CEO of the Jewish Whisky Company, an independent bottler that's home to the Single Cask Nation brand, points out that in the mid-2000s, Glenrothes released Alba Reserve, which was certified kosher by the Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din, and later Glenmorangie certified its Original expression and Ardbeg certified its 10 year old single malt. These whiskies remain kosher-certified today.
Unlike bourbon, which is aged in new charred oak barrels, scotch maturation often involves wine casks such as sherry or port, adding yet another wrinkle to kosher certification. If the initial wine wasn't kosher, the whisky that follows cannot be kosher either. Kosher-keeping whisky drinkers generally can't enjoy sherried whiskies or those with special finishes in wine casks. However, Bruichladdich has occasionally finished single malt in kosher wine casks, such as its 1989 18 year old single malt that was finished in kosher wine casks from Israel's Carmel Winery.
Milk & Honey Distillery (M&H), based in Tel Aviv, is currently making Israeli single malts, some of which are aged in kosher wine casks, including kosher sherry. “They went to such lengths,” says Hatton, who is also national sales director for M&H Distillery's U.S. importer. “They worked with a sherry producer in Jerez and got two rabbis, one from Madrid and one from Barcelona, to go there and make the sherry and oversee the maturation and producing of about 50,000 liters of sherry per year to season the sherry casks—and specifically just to mature their whisky in these sherry casks.”
Israel's M&H Distillery produces Elements Sherry, a single malt that's unique thanks to its maturation in custom kosher sherry casks.
While a non-kosher wine cask-finished whisky is not certifiably kosher, Single Cask Nation leaves it up to its members to determine their own comfort level when it comes to which whiskies to consume—even those finished in wine casks. Rather than kosher-certify whiskies, the company offers transparency and education to its customers, allowing them to make an informed decision.
When it comes to keeping kosher, says Hatton, “it comes down to the individual consumer and his or her rabbi.” Some kosher-keeping people will determine for themselves that a whisky is kosher based upon its ingredients; others insist on kosher certification.
By going to the great lengths to kosher-certify, even when it means procuring kosher wine casks, these whisky makers ensure they are serving all whisky drinkers while promoting a fascinating facet of whisky making. In many cases, it's a chance for kosher-keeping drinkers to taste these whiskies for the very first time. “Ever since I spotted Buffalo Trace, I've been wanting to try it, and I never had the opportunity until this very year when I tried the kosher whiskey,” Niehaus says. “And it was just a fantastic product, something which I was never able to enjoy [before].”
How to identify kosher whisky
Kashrut is a set of dietary laws within Judaism that dictates what Jews can eat and drink, and how those products must be prepared in order to be considered kosher. A distillery works with a kosher-certifying organization to ensure that ingredients, equipment, and practices meet these requirements.
Inspect the label of any whisky carefully. If it was aged in a non-kosher wine cask, including port and sherry, it is not recommended for kosher consumers.
Jack Daniel's, Penderyn, and Ardbeg all produce whiskies that are certified by an official kosher-certifying organization, such as the cRc.
Certified kosher is always kosher according to a kosher-certifying organization. Look for the hechsher, or small symbol of the kosher-certifying organization, on the label. Each bottle must be inspected individually; sometimes companies become kosher-certified while they still have old, non-certified stock. The only way to distinguish between the two is the logo on the label.
Approved whiskies are not certified but are presumed kosher due to production methods that don't appear to defy the rules of kashrus: They're not aged in wine casks, the company isn't Jewish-owned so it is absolved of certain requirements, or if it is Jewish-owned, it complies with the requirements to sell its chametz during Passover.
Keep it Kosher: 8 kosher whiskies to try
Ardbeg 10 year old—92 points, 46% ABV, $56
Peat, pipe tobacco, black coffee, licorice, and chocolate imbue this diverse dram.
Journeyman Distillery Last Feather Rye—91 points, 45% ABV, $50
An enigmatic and savory-sweet rye with mint, walnuts, dark fruit, cola, root beer, and black pepper.
Penderyn Celt—91 points, 43% ABV, $60
Fresh lemon, mandarin orange, chocolate, and spicy smoke are all in play in this single malt, which earned the No.-17 spot in our 2018 Top 20.
M&H Elements Sherry Cask—90 points, 46% ABV, $70
Aged in kosher-certified oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, this boasts classic sherry notes such as dried strawberry, chocolate pudding, and black cherry. For more on M&H's use of kosher wine casks, watch our Instagram Live interview with head of international sales Tal Chotiner.
Koval Single Barrel (No. ZT3W42)—88 points, 47% ABV, $50
This features notes of oak and cinnamon on the nose, followed by a palate of sweet and spicy fruit and more oak on the finish.
Buffalo Trace Kosher Wheat Recipe Straight—86 points, 47% ABV, $40
Semi-sweet chocolate, peanuts, orange oil, apple peels, and white pepper on the simple palate that's abundant with oak.
Gentleman Jack—85 points, 40% ABV, $32
A sugar bomb throughout, with sweet apple, poached pear, peach, and cocoa.
Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve—85 points, 40% ABV, $50
Sweet, soft, and velvety with apples and pears, toffee, and a hint of guava.