Whisky retailers lamented when WhiskyFest, an enormous tasting event, was changed from a weekday to a Friday-Saturday event because it meant losing out on a huge part of their market.
Whisky Jewbilee started two years ago in response to the new deficit in tasting events for orthodox Jews. Within just a few weeks, Jewish Whisky Company assembled 32 whisky brands serving 150 different varieties in the first year. This year’s event featured 52 brands serving just over 200 varieties of whisky. The event was completely sold out and dozens of people were turned away.
The beverage is one of the most popular among Jews due in part to its inherent kashrut; in fact, 60 percent of all single malt purchased in the metropolitan area is consumed by Orthodox Jews according to a local wine store owner.
“Almost all whiskey is kosher by nature; there’s no concern of needing any kind of kosher hechsher on it, there’s no worries about bringing it into synagogues or kiddush clubs. It came out as a libation for everyone to enjoy without concern,” Joshua Hatton, owner and founder of of JWC, said.
Though whisky is naturally kosher as long as the casks used during maturation were not previously used for wine or sherry, many distilleries seek to have their whisky certified in order to break into the Jewish market. A number of Rabbeim even poskin that whisky made in any sort of cask is kosher because the amount of sherry or wine absorbed into the cask is negligible.
The producers of bourbon, which is American made, don’t have to worry about kosher certification because federal law requires that they use new barrels. In spite of this, Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery has certification from the Chicago Rabbinical Council on three styles of whisky.
Despite its name, JWC doesn’t have hechshers on its products. Hatton doesn’t think they’re needed and believes that the companies needlessly having them confuse consumers into believing that only the bottles with hechshers are truly kosher.
The seven varieties JWC bottle have, instead of hechshers, detailed notes on the bottles so consumers can make educated decisions on whether they feel comfortable drinking or not.
Hatton and others at his company go to Scotland each year, visit producers and select casks. They then ask for permission to purchase and bottle those casks. Some producers who don’t usually sell to independent vendors have sold to Hatton because they understand that there’s a lot of money to be had from the Jewish demographic.
“I think non- Jewish producers don’t quite understand the whys and what for’s of what it takes to sell into the Jewish market,” Hatton said.
Those producers do know that they want access to that market. As such, Whisky Jewbilee will continue even though WhiskyFest plans to move back to a weekday next year. After it was announced that WhiskyFest would be returning to its old weekday scheduling—a Wednesday this upcoming year, Hatton received many messages from whisky aficionados asking that Jewbilee be continued regardless. Jewbilee is unique in that, unlike its progenitor, it serves 100 percent glatt kosher food and is hosted in a synagogue.
“They can come in, enjoy the whiskey, enjoy the food, enjoy the schmoozing. It’s like one big kiddush club, but for men and women who enjoy whisky,” Hatton said.
Jewbilee also has cigars on offer for people who enjoy one with their scotch. This year, 50-60 people visited that section of the festival.
Early Jewish immigrants to America started the culture’s whiskey tradition because they were unable to trust the wines available at the time, but now, with reliable hechshers, the Jewish-Whisky connection is still growing. In fact, this year Israel’s first whisky distillery, Milk and Honey, was opened.
It’s clear that the beverage, a fixture in our community, is here to stay.
True whisky aficionados can join JWC’s members only club, Single Cask Nation, for access to whisky’s that aren’t available in retail environments.
By Aliza Chasan