Rabbi Chaim Litvin goes by the moniker ‘The Bourbon Rabbi’. He fits the bill. After all, he often finds himself at a distillery. That’s because he makes his own bourbon. It’s also because he’s the co-owner of Kentucky Kosher, a company that aims to make more kosher products available to consumers by helping food and drink producers become certified as kosher. As if that weren’t enough, he occasionally takes contract work as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from organisations like the Orthodox Union – by far the world’s largest kosher authorising body, certifying approximately 70 per cent of kosher foods in the United States.
Like many things in Jewish tradition, what makes a whisky kosher goes back to the Talmud – a record of the rabbinic debate on Jewish law, philosophy, and biblical interpretation that was compiled between the third and eighth centuries. It’s easy for a novice to get lost in the weeds reading the various rulings and arguments from different rabbis. In general, whisky is inherently ‘kosher’ – the name given to foods and beverages that satisfy Jewish religious law. It can only be made non-kosher when in contact with anything that isn’t kosher, like certain wines and additives.
The role of kosher supervision bodies has grown in recent decades as distillers are more prone to experimentation. Accidents can happen where non-kosher ingredients are inadvertently introduced to the equation, unbeknownst to the distiller. This is where a mashgiach like Rabbi Litvin comes in. Again, in general, a mashgiach will observe the entire production process, to ensure everything holds up to the stringent guidelines of kashrut – the kosher dietary laws observed by religious Jews.
Rabbi Chaim Litvin, aka "The Bourbon Rabbi"
Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz is a mashgiach and senior rabbinic coordinator for the Orthodox Union, one of Orthodox Judaism’s largest organisations that supports synagogues, youth programmes and religious study programmes on top of offering kosher certification services. Rabinowitz can patiently and diligently walk a novice through the ins and outs of kosher certification. It’s appropriate that the explanation in itself is as thorough and full of hypotheticals as a piece of midrash (rabbinic interpretation of text). Trying to keep up feels a bit like trying to make sense of ancient scrolls of parchment, squinting at familiar words that combine to become an almost foreign language.
That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, this is a profession that requires years of study, which is precisely why Jews who keep kosher are happy to rely on a mashgiach to give their seal of approval (called a hechsher) on food or drink.
Dr Leah Cohen is a lecturer at the College of Staten Island’s Department of Chemistry. Cohen wasn’t always a whisky drinker herself and came to the water of life after marrying her husband. It’s no surprise she had a change of heart, considering her husband helped launch Kiddushfest, which is billed as the world’s largest kosher whisky event with 40 vendors offering around 300 different whiskies.
Nosing M&H whisky
“His family had single malt whisky and it was a part of their everyday life,” she says. “My family drank Manischewitz.” (A brand of kosher wine.) But, over 24 years of marriage, whisky has become a shared passion. Now she can breeze through her favourite drinking profiles. She tends to favour whiskies that are aged in rum or bourbon barrels because they’re a little sweeter. Although the peaty stuff is growing on her, it’s still not her go-to. At home, they share two bookcases. Instead of books, there’s alcohol on the shelves – they’re packed full of different sorts of whisky, gin, and rum.
Cohen counts herself as a whisky drinker who finds comfort in seeing the hechsher on a bottle. But that’s not to say she wouldn’t drink a bottle without one. In fact, speaking from her office during a lunch break, Cohen says that plenty of her friends who keep kosher will drink a whisky without the hechsher seal of approval.
“I would say most kosher people that drink Scotch and whiskey don’t look for a hechsher,” she adds. “But then when it comes to something like a port cask or a sherry cask, then they look into it.” Cohen highlights the port and sherry casks because this is where a distiller is most likely to run into issues with kosher certification. “The reason is that grapes were used as a libation in worship, including in idol worship,” Rabbi Rabinowitz says, explaining why grapes used in wine production have historically been considered ‘kosher sensitive’. “And as a result, it was always treated with very special sensitivity and handling.”
Opening a still at M&H distillery
According to Rabbi Litvin, supervision becomes comparatively more rigorous for the distillery when kosher-sensitive ingredients are added to the equation. That means that a whisky stored in a port or a sherry cask can present complications. He must consider whether the sherry was kosher and if a significant amount of sherry infusing itself into the whisky might alter its kosher status.
“For us, if there’s a hechsher on the bottle, then it’s just an easy pick,” continues Cohen. But she and her husband will do their own homework if they want to try something that doesn’t have certification, which means looking into whether or not the whisky was stored in a wet or dry barrel. The idea is that it’s even more unlikely that the wine would influence the whisky if the barrel was dry. Of course, the concern is moot when using kosher wine barrels from the beginning. That’s what is done at DS Tayman and Milk and Honey (M&H) distilleries, the latter being Israel’s first single-malt distillery and 2021 winner of Whisky Magazine’s Craft Producer of the Year (Rest of World).
“The whole idea started off with a group of friends having one drink too many,” laughs M&H’s Tal Chotiner. The prevailing (drunken) sentiment was that they wanted to “open the best bar in the world!” That was in 2012. Two years later, Chotiner and his new friends had their first distillation, launching their first whisky in 2017. That one cask became the first Israeli single malt. By January 2020, they had launched their first commercial whisky – always with the goal of going global. “Today, we are in 27 or 28 markets outside Israel,” he adds. “We’re doing things very fast.”
Cask sampling at M&H
M&H takes advantage of Israel’s 300 sunny days in a year, coupled with a Mediterranean climate that allows the whisky to mature comparatively quickly. Their classic single malt whisky is matured in both ex-bourbon and wine casks that have been shaved, toasted, and re-charred (STR). There’s a clear, bright gold body that leaves relatively thick tears on the glass. It’s a whisky that, in many ways, has been years in the making.
Chotiner has been around whisky for as long as he can remember, and he has spent a lot of time visiting different distilleries in both the United States and Scotland – something he did on occasion while working for Diageo in Israel. It’s led to some interesting cultural mashups, like wearing a kilt in Israeli weather while an ambassador for Johnnie Walker Black Label. M&H has been kosher certified from day one, something Chotiner calls “an added value.” The added value is that it gives them access to more potential customers, particularly in the United States, where an estimated 17 per cent of the country’s nearly 8 million Jews keep kosher.
That said, Chotiner clarifies that they have the hechsher because it was much easier than if they were winemakers. He doesn’t want to pigeonhole M&H into the kosher segment of the industry, showing up exclusively on the kosher shelves of a liquor store instead of alongside new world or Mediterranean brands. That’s why they don’t work with kosher distribution channels. The bottom line is this: if keeping the hechsher becomes a pain point, they’ll skip it. They’re about the whisky first and foremost. “We want to be a craft distillery, a new world distillery, [and] a very good whisky. We want to be the best whisky in the world, or the best whisky we can be,” he declares. “And then we are kosher, because it’s not that much hassle.”
Dr Leah Cohen (L) and Ari Cohen (R) at Kiddushfest. Photo credit: David Zimand
Kosher certification of whisky is a relatively new business, a reflection of both increased demand for kosher products and distilleries experimenting. For that reason, Cohen thinks it’s important that kosher supervision keeps on top of all the latest developments in the industry.
“It’s a very personal thing to decide what you’re comfortable with and what hechsher you trust,” Cohen explains. She mentions that the distilleries putting in unfamiliar or undisclosed additives and different flavours can lead to more uncertainty among kosher consumers. “That’s why we look for a hechsher. Sometimes it makes it easier.”
The kosher market was valued at a whopping US$19.1 billion in 2018, with projections suggesting it could reach US$25.6 billion by 2026. Kosher whisky is a small piece of that pie, but it brings to mind the economic aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. Considering the massive growth of the kosher market, there’s every reason to expect that the kosher whisky industry will continue to ride along with the tide.