A historical appreciation

A historical appreciation

Learning about the Jewish history of American whiskey

Thoughts from... | 04 Dec 2020 | Issue 172 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Being confined to my home territory has given me the chance to learn new things. I recently reconnected with a former professor of mine from university on LinkedIn, and in the course of catching up I mentioned I’ve become somewhat of an expert on Kosher whiskey. He asked me to speak to his congregation about it and the Jewish history of the distilling industry, with a Kosher cocktail demonstration.

To say I am an expert in Kosher whiskey does not mean I am an expert on Kosher laws in general, but rather that I understand the production of whiskey on a level where I can understand when a whiskey might cease being Kosher. Generally speaking, American whiskeys, particularly Bourbon, should always be able to be Kosher-certified, but as the practices change with newer distilleries oversight is increasingly needed. The grains, yeast, water, and even the new barrels are all pareve, or neutral. Where issues arise is when secondary wine casks are used, where tankered whiskey is transferred to a bottling house, or where equipment to produce or bottle non-Kosher items is used. As whiskey goes, it’s pretty simple to determine whether it is Kosher.

Cocktails are a little more complicated. I spoke with some really great folks who helped me learn more about Kosher cocktails and the process of keeping Kosher in the context of spirits and cocktails. There’s still a whole lot about the Kashruth that remains a mystery to me, but I now feel confident enough to make a Kosher Old Fashioned or to recommend Kosher cocktail ingredients to folks.

There are a lot of lists out there, which is extremely helpful because even though there are a load of Kosher-certified whiskeys, they don’t usually have a Hecksher, or Kosher certification symbol, on the label. The Bourbon Rabbi is a great source for this. He maintains a Kosher Bourbon list on his website, and if you aren’t sure he’s also got a button to connect with him on WhatsApp to ask. The Chicago Rabbinical Council also maintains a list of Kosher spirits and mixers that is updated yearly.

When it comes to the Jewish history of the American whiskey industry, though, it can be surprising for folks who believe the myth that early distillers all came from Ireland and Scotland. Sure, there were early distillers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but there were just as many from places like Germany and France, according to the Bourbon historian Michael Veach.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim is probably one of the most notable Jewish distillers of the early days of Kentucky, and his legacy has been one of the longest-lived and most prolific. His I.W. Harper brand is still sold internationally, and here in Kentucky we have a lovely nature preserve that was once his home.

Henry Kraver was another Jewish immigrant who came to Henderson, Kentucky. He started his life there sweeping up in a bar in exchange for room and board and within a few years owned the second-largest distillery in Kentucky – Kentucky Peerless.

According to Reid Mitenbuler, by the late 1800s a quarter of the whiskey-related businesses in Louisville, Kentucky were Jewish-owned.

The Jewish history of the distilling industry did not end with Prohibition. Heaven Hill was started by two of the five Shapira brothers immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, and the remaining brothers joined the company shortly thereafter.

During the same time period, it was a Jewish family called the Blums which helped get the Beam family back into the distilling business. Schenley and Seagrams were also Jewish-owned. Today, Sazerac, which owns Buffalo Trace, is another major Jewish-owned American whiskey powerhouse.

The American distilling industry is a melting pot. Because distilling was just part of the normal duties in the kitchen for so long, we can be assured that people from all walks of life, including women, participated in what was simply a method of preserving crops.

Today we’re starting to see the diversity of the industry being uncovered and celebrated, and I’m delighted to be able to open new eyes to whiskey’s diverse history.
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