Fine Wine

VinePair Podcast: How Kosher Whiskey Got Trendy

Drinking within the Jewish community is not just defined by kosher wine and ritual. In fact, many spirits distillers — whiskey makers in particular — have been moving toward creating kosher products as demand increases. And what better time to explore these trends than during Hanukkah?

On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss kosher drinks, debunk some historical misconceptions about Jewish drinking practices, and debate which drinks can be paired with traditional Hanukkah foods like latkes and donuts.

After diving into these topics and more, join our hosts in today’s tasting, during which they try kosher whiskey for themselves.

Tune in for more.

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Check Out the Conversation Here

Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And this is the Friday episode of the “VinePair Podcast.” What’s going on? So, obviously the holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. But it started even earlier this year because it’s already Hanukkah. Which is crazy because sometimes Hanukkah falls around Christmastime, but it also can fall earlier or later.

Z: Because of the lunar calendar, baby.

A: It’s so annoying.

Z: I love it. I find it very fun because to me, there’s something about a stealth holiday that no one knows when it’s happening. Like with all Jewish holidays.

A: There’s a funny joke that exists among Jews: “Hey Zach, how are you doing? Are you celebrating Hanukkah? Is it early or late this year?” It’s never on time. The holidays are either early or late, they’re never where they should be. Which is always very, very funny. We thought it would be a really fun time to talk about kosher practices. Zach and I, full disclosure, are not kosher but are from the world. But also there’s a really interesting history, especially in the U.S., when it comes to Jews and booze. Two of the most prominent whiskey companies in the United States are still currently owned by Jewish families: Sazerac, which owns Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill, which owns brands like Evan Williams and Larceny, Elijah Craig, etc. It’s really interesting. We’re just as active in Prohibition as lots of other immigrant groups who had come and saw an opportunity to make some things happen while they were illegal. A lot of people came in and did some things and it helped rebuild the United States alcohol industry. What I’ve always liked about Jewish holidays is they always revolve around drinking.

Z: Pretty much.

J: Yes. As the only non-Jewish person here, I made the incorrect assumption that Hanukkah is a non-drinking holiday. And I was corrected by you.

A: It’s a holiday not only where you drink, but you gamble. I mean, come on.

Z: You get better and better at spinning the dreidel, the more you drink.

A: Let’s put your money in the middle and see what happens. I think it’s interesting because, just like a lot of other immigrant communities, there has been this reputation that Jews don’t drink. I experienced this really early on in my days when I was working in the music industry. One of the bands that we had signed was a band called Balkan Beat Box, and they were out of Israel and were super fun. They would tour with Phish and others and we would always hear from the club promoters. It’s always like, “Oh, their fans are Jewish, so we’re not going to stock the bars heavily because Jews don’t drink.” Then they would have one of their best sales nights of the year because in fact, Jews drink just as much as any other group of people in the United States. But that bias exists from that post-Holocaust generation that first came to the U.S. and didn’t drink. Because this group of people was very aware of how they were perceived, and so they never wanted to be perceived as being out of control. And so they abstained, in a large portion, from alcohol. I remember when my grandfather was alive he would have a drink, but it was always in private, if that makes sense. His drink of choice was Rob Roy. But he wouldn’t be out ordering wine with dinner. It was always at home. It was always in private, and I think that’s why that reputation developed.

Z: Adam, if I can ask. We don’t have to get too far into your genealogy, but were your grandparents first generation immigrants?

A: Yeah, they were first-generation.

Z: It’s very interesting for me because I grew up around my grandparents, and none of my grandparents were first generation. All of them had been in the country. Maybe my maternal grandmother was second generation. But most of my family had been in the United States since the 1800s. So that was not my experience. My family drank and does drink a lot and in public and in private, sometimes too much, frankly. But it’s interesting because you’re right. There’s that very common tension in immigrant groups, whatever the group is, between tradition and assimilation. That’s no different for Eastern European Jews, especially post-Holocaust or that period of time. But I also think what’s really fascinating here is not just the conception that Jews don’t drink, but also that Jews only drink kosher products. There was the reputation, not just that Jews wouldn’t drink, but also that you have to stock kosher wine. Whether that’s Manischewitz or that’s one of the many kosher wines that are made from vinifera grapes, made by some pretty well-known wineries. We’re not going to spend a lot of time dissecting the kashrut laws. It’s technical and I don’t really want to get into it. But the truth is, making kosher wine is a different process than making non-kosher wine. Adam, you can probably speak more to this than I can with your experience. But I do think that what’s been interesting is how the market for other kinds of kosher alcohol is actually a much more vibrant market than the kosher wine market. Even though that’s the thing that most people think of when they think of Jews drinking. They think of wine and of kosher wine.

A: There’s a cornucopia of ways to be connected to Judaism the same way there is to be with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. So you have lots of different observance levels in the religious side of Orthodox or Conservative, etc. In those places, there is a proclivity to drink kosher wine because you can’t drink other styles of wine. But the problem with a lot of kosher wine is that, either it’s wine that was always intended to be kosher or it is a prominent winery who, for a very limited time, does a kosher run. So they clean the entire winery, they bring the rabbi in, and everything happens. If you really want to know more about kosher wine, listen to “Wine 101.” Actually, the episode this week where Keith delves into kosher wine; he does a much better job than me. What’s fascinating about this idea is that wine in the United States is one of these incredible luxury products that allows everyone to participate, but in this one subset of the Jewish community, they can’t. No one’s making kosher DRC. So they can’t consume these very incredible luxury brands. But what they can consume and what’s been very interesting, is whiskey. And what that has caused is the religious Jewish community has become one of the most powerful buying communities in whiskey. Which is why so many whiskey brands invest in marketing to them. And I think that has been really fascinating for me. I had no clue about that until doing some reporting for VinePair. I’ve had people say, “So you started VinePair and you’re Jewish? Did you know that the Orthodox Jews are one of the most heavily invested groups in whiskey?” No, I never heard that before. That’s really been crazy. A lot of whiskey brands have released specifically kosher products, even though most of the whiskey is already kosher. Buffalo Trace has a whole Kosher line.

J: I only learned about the Whiskey Jewbilee a few weeks ago from a father-daughter couple who we met at a dinner who attended every year. Adam, can share a little bit more about what that is. It’s like a big festival every year?

A: Yes, it’s a huge whiskey festival and the big brands come in. The traditional whiskey festival in New York has always been held on Friday and Saturday nights. And for religious Jews, that’s Shabbat. So they’re not supposed to be traveling to get there in anything motorized, they can’t take the subway, they’re not going to take a car. You’re not supposed to spend money. On Shabbat, you’re supposed to turn off and relax. So they couldn’t go. In 2013, these entrepreneurs were like, “why don’t we just create the same festival, but a few days earlier that week?” That’s where Whiskey Jewbilee started, and it’s actually become more highly attended than the actual whiskey festival. A lot of brands go specifically for this because people come and buy tons of bottles, and they love to collect. It’s really interesting how it has become such a ubiquitous part of conservative and modern Orthodox Jews.

Z: It seems like a path for a community that wants to feel a part of the broader American experience — especially with bourbon, this quintessentially American spirit — but with other whiskeys as well. But also a community that wants to remain observant and connected to their religion and culture in that sense. It doesn’t require a compromise on quality, which I think is one of the big complicating factors with a lot of kosher wine. Which frankly, isn’t as good because the ways of making it kosher generally involve heating it, and that’s just not good for fine wine. So there’s this ability to say, on the one hand, I don’t have to sacrifice my faith. On the other hand, I don’t have to sacrifice my enjoyment of a beverage. We started out the podcast by talking about this, whether you keep kosher or not, drinking is a big part of Judaism. Not just on the holidays, but on Shabbat every week, and as a part of life. I’m not a religious expert, but it is certainly as firmly entrenched in the religion as drinking is in any other faith. Not that there are Jews who don’t drink. Obviously, there are plenty. Just in terms of the traditional and historical observances of the faith, alcohol is a big deal in a lot of the holidays and in the weekly celebration of Shabbat. It’s another important thing in why I think there’s been this synergy between these two communities because if you’re drinking as a part of your observances, you probably want to drink something that you like. And it’s cool that you have this increasing selection of not even just whiskeys, but a lot of spirits in general, because of the production methods and the raw ingredients are just inherently easier to get certified as kosher than wine.

A: Whiskey can be problematic in a few different ways. If it’s bourbon, it’s less problematic because it’s been put in a new oak barrel. If it’s a Scotch, which is also super popular, those can become problematic if they weren’t aged in used rum barrels or bourbon barrels, but they were aged in sherry casks and other old wine casks. If the wine wasn’t kosher, then those whiskeys become harder to certify. I’m now just thinking, that has to be the reason when I’ve gone over to religious friends’ houses, I’ve never seen Macallan. Because all Macallan machinery hold sherry. I actually never thought about that until just now. Whereas you see a lot of other whiskeys that don’t use as many former wine barrels. The fact that a lot of these same brands are also creating kosher offerings, what I find most insane about it is that these offerings have become collector’s items. Not just in Orthodox communities, but in bourbon and whiskey communities in general. We just looked today, Joanna, to buy the kosher Buffalo Trace. How much did you see it selling for?

J: It was $150 at the liquor store across the street.

A: That’s insane. Which means more people than just a small, religious Jewish community is buying it.

Z: I know you asked not to be put on the spot, Joanna. This is not a question about anything involving kosher rules or anything. As someone who’s not Jewish, in your time in the food media, do you get the sense that kosher has a certain cachet, even for those who are not Jewish, those who are certainly not keeping kosher? Maybe that’s the reason that Buffalo Trace Kosher is so much more expensive than the regular Buffalo Trace, even though I don’t think it’s inherently like a different formulation.

J: I did actually have it at Brandy Library, and it was a very expensive pour. Maybe it’s about like the rarity of it, and it’s allocated. That might be why.

Z: Was it better?

J: I thought it was amazing.

A: Aaron Goldfarb will tell you it’s better; he knows a lot about whiskey. But again, no one really knows why, if it’s the same mash bill. But people think it’s better. So I think it’s interesting. I think your question is an interesting one, Zach. It plays to one specific, very famous ad campaign that ran a lot in the ’90s. It was the Hebrew National Hot Dog campaign, when they tried to go national and they were like, “We’re kosher because we answer to a higher authority.” That was literally their tagline. They tried to tell the American population, when you see this, we’re better. We can’t really prove that at all, but because we’re kosher, we’re better. I would say maybe some people think that, but Joanna is right. It’s more because the bottle’s special and it’s different and was made for a specific reason. So people are really interested in that.

Z: In the same way that collectors’ items might be made for a cause or for a purpose, and those things become collectors’ items just because they’re scarce.

A: Because if we thought that about all things, then the kosher wine market would be explosive.

J: I actually have a question for you, Adam. You’ve had some kosher wine recently. What kind?

A: I used to judge the Jewish Week’s kosher wine competition every year. It’s not that good. There’s just not a lot of good kosher wine. That’s it. The stuff that is coming out of Israel is great because they literally certify the entire process, which means they don’t have to then cook the wine. But a lot of places don’t. The rules are so ridiculous, depending on how the grapes were picked, who picked them, how they were handled. That’s why at the very end, you have to bring that kind of wine up to temperature in order to make it kosher. A lot of this also goes back to a time when these rules were written, where the wine was being used for rituals and people were poisoning the wine. We’ve always had fights between religions, so there were other religions that were poisoning people who just didn’t believe in Judaism, didn’t want Jews there, etc. So they were damaging this ritual wine, and this was a way to ensure safety. Making the rules super strict for wine was a way to hopefully ensure the purity of the wine because it was being used so often, as Zach said, during Shabbat and all the holidays. That’s where, from my understanding, a lot of these strict laws on wine came from. Whereas with whiskey, it’s already distilled, so we’re not worried about who’s making it.

Z: And the kosher laws were written before distilling was a thing.

A: Exactly. The only thing that really affects whiskey is the eight days of the year during Passover when you can’t drink it because it’s made from grain. And that’s when everyone switches to potato vodka. But they still drink. What I think is interesting is that Passover is the only time in the year that you will hear most Jews probably have a bottle of kosher wine. I don’t know why that is. We think it’s the one time we should go get a bottle of kosher wine. I remember that growing up, my mom would go to the grocery store. I would ask her, “Why are we doing this? We never drink kosher wine?”

Z: The only time I’ve gone out and bought a bottle of kosher wine was for my wedding because the synagogue insisted upon it.

A: Exactly, so it is always a really interesting thing.

Z: Just to come back full circle to the Hanukkah thing. You’ve brought up latkes a bunch of times. Is that your default Hanukkah food? Because it is not my favorite Hanukkah food.

A: First of all, you’ve never had my latkes. If you had, it would be your favorite Hanukkah food. I’m on a three-or- four-potato-to-one whole onion ratio. I add in lots of chives and scallions because I like some color. I fry them really well, and then I top them with crème fraîche and caviar because I’m a baller. Or smoked salmon, but only from Russ & Daughters, because they know how it’s done.

Z: You haven’t had my smoked salmon.

A: Oh that’s right, I forgot you make it. Yeah, I like latkes a lot. It’s a fun traditional one. And I have the donuts. But that’s about it. What about you?

Z: The donuts are the thing for me.

A: You make them? Oh, that is really aggressive.

Z: Caitlin and I make them. We have a deep fryer, and we put it to good use this time of year. Latkes are great, but there is just nothing like a homemade donut. What’s cool is, we get to fill them with whatever we want. The two main fillings in our household are pastry cream and Nutella. I’ve got to tell you, it goes really well after a latke.

A: This is a total tangent, but Caroline Schiff is the pastry chef at Gage & Tollner and has an Instagram handle called @pastryschiff. She posted a video of herself showing people how to make donuts this week. And I’ve been really tempted to do it, but it really, really intimidates me.

Z: The thing about donuts is it’s really hard to do them at home if you don’t have a deep fryer. If you have a really thick enamel pot, you can fry it in there. But you really need to have enough oil that you can turn them comfortably. We’ve tried before without a deep fryer, in a cast iron skillet, and it’s a huge mess. I don’t think it’s worth it.

A: What do you pair with them?

Z: With donuts? I would have some whiskey, it’s a good time for us to do that. So I think we each have a different kosher beverage. I have Ardbeg 10, which is one of my favorites, and it’s single malt. As you mentioned, it’s definitely a peatier Scotch. And therefore, why waste sherry barrels on that? That’s what I’ll be drinking. Joanna, what do you have?

J: I have Journeyman Distillery Last Feather Rye Whiskey, which I got from the office and drank most of it before realizing that it is kosher. So I’ll be drinking that.

A: Journeyman has some affiliation with Sazerac, but I’m not sure what it is. I met them at BCB, and it was at the Sazerac booth. I think Sazerac either naturally distributes them or whatever. The only reason I say that is because Sazerac has so many whiskeys that are turning kosher. So I wonder if that’s why.

Z: Where’s Journeyman?

J: Michigan.

Z: What do you have, Adam?

A: Mine does not say kosher on it, but it is a Larceny Single Barrel. As I mentioned, it was owned by the Shapiro family out of Louisville, Ky. So we all have different things. I have a bourbon, we have a rye, and a Scotch. Sweet.

J: I wish I had some donuts, though.

A: Yeah, I do, too.

Z: I would send them, but I don’t think they’d hold up very well.

A: Who already took a sip? It sounds like someone’s already drinking.

Z: Look, it’s a holiday, man, what do you want?

A: Well, cheers, guys. Happy Hanukkah. Zach, tell us about yours first since you already pre-sipped.

Z: Once I get it in the glass, I’m not waiting very long. I’m going to be honest. I love Ardbeg. We’re not going to have a long conversation about peated Scotches and how I enjoy them. But I do like my Scotch on the peatier side a fair bit of the time. It’s smoky, it’s got a little bit of a caramel note. If you haven’t had a Scotch like this, then I don’t know how to describe it to you. It’s not ashtray, which I really appreciate. It has a challenge of being very acidic on top of being peaty. I would say my favorite of the Islay Scotches is probably Lagavulin, which is even richer than Ardbeg. But the bottle I have is not kosher, so I went with Ardbeg, which is a delight. But they’re not things I drink a ton of; one every few weeks is probably enough for me most of the time. What about you, Adam?

A: I got Larceny. It’s really good. It’s a wheated bourbon, so it wouldn’t be OK at Passover, but no bourbon would. I find it really sweet and rich, and dare I say smooth. It’s a really great sleeper-value bourbon. Larceny’s bourbons are all in the $20s and $30s. But I do think this is one of the potentially new cult brands people will start grabbing, and they’ll be harder and harder to find. Because eventually, people who are bourbon hunters are going to run out of brands that Buffalo Trace makes. Then you start realizing there’s other great brands out there. Larceny is one of them. One of my favorite bourbons that Heaven Hill makes is Old Fitzgerald or Old Fitz, and there’s a connection between that brand and Larceny. It’s the same kind of connection between Pappy and Weller. It’s great bourbon, though. Joanna, what about you?

J: This is really delicious. It’s big banana bread on the nose and palate for this one. The mash bill is 60 percent rye, 40 percent wheat, so I’m definitely getting a lot of the sweetness of the wheat. Not too much spice. It’s really delicious.

A: They make another great whiskey that I had at BCB, which is 100 percent wheat, which I had never had before. It was really cool.

Z: So it’s labeled as an American whiskey?

A: Yeah, it’s got that really sweet, in-your-face flavor. Just like with all these kinds of smaller distilleries that have built reputations, it’s heavily allocated. I’m not in that game.

J: It’s called Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey.

A: Buggy Whip. Nice. Well, Joanna, Zach, Happy Hanukkah.

J: Happy Hanukkah, have a wonderful holiday.

Z: Same to you.

A: Take it easy.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.




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