Wine Talk: The Jewish spirit

Without doubt, whiskey has become the Jewish alcoholic beverage of choice.

Whiskey 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Whiskey 311
(photo credit: MCT)
The Forward newspaper commented “there were more kippas than kilts” at Whiskey Fest 2010. It is a constant surprise how many whiskey mavens there are within the Jewish community.
What is the Jewish fascination with whiskey? Maybe, like Chinese food, with which American Jews are said to have a love affair, whiskey has become another sort of “safe treyf.” Both Chinese food and whiskey were considered exotic, sophisticated and almost un-Jewish! Lenny Bruce considered it another way; whiskey was Jewish and beer was goyish! I suppose the connection started because Jews were more comfortable drinking whiskey compared to cognacs or brandies, which had to be certified as kosher. The best whiskeys could therefore be enjoyed without worrying about kashrut. What began as an aspirational status symbol, became the playing field for a raft of new connoisseurs.
Historically in Eastern Europe, Jews were always associated with liquor. By the late 18th century, it was said that 15% of Jews living in towns and no less than 85% of Jews in the country were engaged in the manufacture, distribution or sale of alcohol! It was one of the few industries they were permitted to take part in and Jews were abstemious enough to be unaffected by the lures of their product.
In the new country, the relationship with alcoholic drinks continued. During Prohibition in the US many Jewish families found their foothold in the new country by bootlegging whiskey. They came from an immigrant community and were hungry for success and acceptance. Bootlegging was high risk. Daring and ingenuity was required, but it was highly profitable. From such beginnings, countless Jews entered the drinks industry as distributors.
The Bronfman family of Canada created Seagram, which became the largest drinks company in the world.
Chivas Regal was their greatest creation. Gradually whiskey became the aspirational American upgrade from schnapps and vodka. Whiskey became ever present on the kiddush table for Shabbat. Now we have kiddush clubs. These started as informal groups that would quietly filter out of the synagogue after the Haftara reading, to enjoy an early kiddush over some prestigious whiskeys.
Some rabbis have banned them deeming them inappropriate, while others have quietly ignored them, seeing it as a Shabbat attraction. The interest in whiskey that started in America has spread to Jewish communities worldwide.
The thorny question of whether to bring a blended whiskey or a single malt to a simha depends how greatly you esteem your guests. Basically, a single malt is one produced by one distillery, whilst a blended whiskey is from more than one distillery. An aged or de luxe blend is one with a higher proportion of aged malt whiskey in it.
To simplify matters, Glennfiddich, Glenmorangie, Macallan and Glenlivet are single malts. Ballantines, J&B, Grants and Johnnie Walker Red Label are blends. Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label are de-luxe blends.
For those that find Scotch whisky too smoky and peaty, try Irish whiskey. (Irish is with an E, Scotch without it!). Irish whiskey is rounder and smoother. Jameson and Bushmills are the two main brands.
There are numerous whiskies on the market. Some of them are collector’s items. A recent example is the beautifully packaged Glennfiddich Snow Phoenix. A total of 45 bottles only of this limited edition have come to Israel.
This is a special expression to commemorate the particular tough winter of 2010 in Speyside. The unusually heavy snowfall damaged the cask cellar where the whisky was maturing. The regular Glennfiddich is the world’s largest-selling malt whisky. It is the one in the triangular bottle.
A malt whisky should be drunk on its own or with just a splash of mineral water.
If it is in a rich after dinner style, like Macallan or Glenlivet, I would even drink it in a brandy balloon glass. Failing that, a copita or thistle shaped glass is fine.
Blended whiskeys are best drunk in a whiskey tumbler with ice, water or a mixer. The Americans will add ice to everything, the English will add ginger ale and the Scots will even add lemonade.
Each to his own! Scotch is made from water, yeast and barley, so there are no kashrut issues with the malting, mashing or distillation process. It is maturation which is a potential problem because the whiskey may be aged in used sherry or wine casks. If you disregard this because of bitul b’shishim, which nullifies the unkosher aspect, then Orthodox Jews may enjoy whiskeys like everyone else. My favorite malt whiskeys are Balvenie and Macallan from Speyside, Bruichladdich from Islay, Springbank from Campbeltown and Highland Park from the Orkneys.
The whiskeys either with kosher certification or finished in kosher wine casks are listed below.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes on wine for both international and Israeli publications.
Kosher whiskies
The whiskies either with kosher certification or finished in kosher wine casks are as follows:
Ardbeg, 10 years old Ardbeg is one of the greatest malt whiskies from the south coast of Islay. This is a powerful brew. A smoky, peaty, salty nose, with a whiff of iodine and seaweed. An outstanding dram. Kosher.
Bruichladdich 1994, 12 years old A Carmel wine finish whisky. It is a delicately balanced, without the exaggerated peatiness normally associated with Islay. Not certified kosher, but aged in casks used for kosher wines.
Bruichladdich 1989, 18 years old Limited release with a taste of Israel, being aged in Carmel’s wine casks. Elegant and sophisticated. A must for the whisky collector. It is a magnificent whisky. Bruichladdich and Carmel Winery were founded in 1881 and 1882 respectively.
Glenmorangie Original, 10 years old This is one of the classic drams, from the Northern Highlands. Perfectly balanced, medium bodied. Floral and citrus notes backed by a sweet smokiness. Kosher.
Tomintoul Speyside whisky, light in style, with a pleasant sweetness. This is an excellent brand for beginners. The full range is kosher, apart from the one aged in Oloroso Sherry casks.