Jewish life cycle events be it a Bris, a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding are special occasions that we anticipate eagerly and celebrate with joy. At any Simcha, we fill our cups with wine, raise our glasses of schnapps, and with great fervor pronounce a resounding l'chaim in honor of the blessed event. This custom of melding alcohol with Simcha has been a Jewish practice from time immemorial. The cup that is raised today, however, bears very little resemblance to that of yesteryear.
The single fleshel of schnapps has given way to a sprawling bar, complete with every imaginable alcoholic beverage. The drink combinations abound. All too frequently, the names, as well as the kashrus, of these selections are difficult to discern. To the uninitiated, all spirits look alike. Who knows the difference between a liquor and a liqueur, a tequila or a sombrero?
This article will attempt to lead the kosher consumer through the maze of alcoholic beverages, their original sources, their unique processes and the various kashrus issues inherent in this fascinating and complicated industry.
Beer and wine are produced through a fermentation process. In beer production, the yeast converts a barley based blend of ingredients, called a wort, into beer. In wine production, yeast converts sugar in grape juice into wine. (Interestingly, when wine is naturally fermented, the necessary yeast is actually found on the frost on the outside of the grape skin, as opposed to being added from an outside source.)
The two fermentation processes involved in wine making and beer making were dealt with in detail in previous Kashrus Kurrents articles. [See " The Art of Kosher Wine Making," (Vol. XII No. 4) and " Is Something Kosher Brewing," (Vol. XVI No. 3).]
Liquor fermentation combines grains, plants, fruits, or vegetables with water to create a liquid blend mash. Yeast is added to the mash to convert the natural sugars present in the mixture into ethyl alcohol and CO2. Barley malt is also added because it is richer in amylase that helps convert starch into sugar. This fermented product is now ready to be distilled.
Distillation is a process that separates two or more combined substances through heating. If one of the substances in the solution (e.g., Substance A) boils at a lower temperature than the other component (e.g, Substance B), when the boiling temperature of Substance A is reached, it will evaporate out of the solution (see figure). The vapor is then captured and collected in a separate part of the distillation apparatus, called a still. When the vapor cools, Substance A condenses as a separate substance.
In the alcohol distillation process, Substance A refers to the alcohol vapors that are separated from the fermented mash (Substance B). These vapors are collected and are condensed by cooling them over cold water pipes, to form a separate liquid called ethyl alcohol, the fundamental ingredient for all alcoholic beverages.
Percentages in alcohol commonly range between 40% and 50%. The term proof indicates the percentage of alcohol present. The higher the proof, the more alcohol present. The percentage of alcohol in a beverage can be easily determined by dividing the proof in half. Hence, an 80 proof whiskey contains 40% alcohol, 100 proof, 50%, and so on.
After distillation, the whiskey's unique flavor and color is developed through aging. Whiskey must be aged a minimum of two to four years in wood barrels. The different tastes of these spirits depends on a number of factors: the raw ingredients, the amount of alcohol present, and the type of wood used for aging.
Different types of wood casks are used in the aging process. Bourbon, by definition, must be aged in oak barrels. Scotch can use a variety of wooden barrels. Some casks used for aging scotch were originally used for wine and sherry. Sherry casks are wood barrels that were originally used for the storing or aging of sherry wine. Similarly, port casks used in some Scotch selections were barrels originally used to store or age port wines.
The barreling of whiskeys has Halachic ramifications. In general, can we assume any Scotch to be sherry cask-free? According to Michael Jackson, a world renowned author and an expert in the wine and spirit industry, "Most distilleries have over the decades acquired a 'mishmosh' of casks from different sources. The distillery manager or group blender orchestrates what is available to try and achieve consistent bottlings. It is therefore difficult even in a single malt to be sure that not a drop came from a sherry cask. The best bet among malts would be Glenmorangie (10 years old), which is aged entirely in Bourbon casks. So is the rarer, stronger Balvanie Single Barrel. In my view, no blended scotch could be guaranteed innocent of sherry." Macallan Scotch, in fact, boasts that their scotch is exclusively aged in sherry casks. From a Halachic standpoint, even if the scotch is aged in sherry casks, the scotch is more than six times the volume of the wood, and it is Kosher. If people would like to avoid any sherry wine flavor, and it is not clear whether the scotch was stored in sherry wine casks, they can be .
Whiskey. The broadest category of alcoholic beverage. Whiskey is a term derived from the Scotch Gaelic, meaning "water of life." Whiskeys include the following types: Bourbon, Rye, American, Tennessee, Canadian, Irish, and Scotch.
To elaborate, Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn (maize) and 49% other grains, such as rye, barley, oats, or wheat. Rye is made with 51% rye and a blend of other grains. Scotch is predominantly barley based with a blend of other grains. Single malt Scotch and straight whiskey are produced from one distillery, while blended whiskey combines whiskeys from various distilleries.
All American varieties of whiskey (e.g., American, Bourbon, Rye, and Tennessee) use oak barrels. Canadian whiskey is aged for six years, often in used wood casks. Irish whiskey, as with Scotch, can use a combination of barrels, sherry casks included. Middleton Rare Irish whiskey uses regular wood barrels, and tends not to use sherry barrels at all.
Vodka. Derived from the Russian term "voda," meaning waters. Vodka is a distilled beverage usually made from barley, corn, or rye. It is sometimes made from potatoes, sugar beets, or whey. Vodka is known as a neutral grain spirit, meaning that it has no taste or color. Sometimes vodka can be sweetened with sugar.
Vodka is used primarily in mixed drinks. If other flavors or sweeteners are added to vodka it can no longer be called vodka. Flavored vodka is known as a distilled spirit specialty beverage, which requires strict Kosher certification.
Gin. A distilled neutral grain spirit is flavored with juniper berries and other seed oils, such as coriander oil. Gin, too, is used in mixed drinks and is combined with both alcoholic and non- alcoholic mixers. There is no kashrus problem with gin.
Rum. Distilled from fermented sugar or molasses. It too is distilled and aged. Depending upon the length and process of aging, rum color can be light (light rum) or dark (dark rum), and present no kashrus problem. Flavored or special rum is known as flavored rum, or spiced rum.
Brandy. A Dutch derivative meaning distilled wine. Brandy is distilled from fermented grape wines or other fermented fruits, such as plums or cherries. It is then aged from two to eight years. Cognac is grape brandy originating in the Cognac section of France. Although brandy is derived from grapes, the brocha on grape brandy is shehakol because brandy no longer tastes like wine.
Tequila. A distilled spirit made from a fermented mash containing at least 51% of the aquave plant. Tequilas containing a worm in the bottle should be avoided.
If manufacturers followed the strict and simple rules of liquor production, liquor kashrus would not present major concerns. However, as in all industries, nothing is simple, as we will soon see.
Caramel color. Although the aging process can darken liquor naturally, often caramel color, a kosher ingredient, can be added as a coloring. Color is commonly added to whiskeys, rums, and brandies.
Enzymes. These are sometimes used to expedite or standardize the fermentation process. Enzymes, which create kashrus problems, can be used in the fermentation of American or Canadian whiskeys, vodka, or in a batch of neutral grain spirits.
Off Standard Wine. It has been said there are two constants in our lives that never go away: death and taxes. The only difference between the two is that death can't be avoided and taxes we try to avoid. Since whiskey is a highly taxed commodity, the liquor industry looks for different legal avenues to lower their tax while not compromising the quality of their product.
How is this accomplished? It is a common practice in both American and Canadian whiskey blends to add a small amount of wine to a distilled blended spirit, so that the spirit can now be considered a wine product, which is taxed at a significantly lower tax rate than whiskey. The "wine" added for this purpose is called O.T.S. wine, a mnemonic that stands for other than standard wine. O.T.S. wine is added in minuscule volumes, less than 1%.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between the American and Canadian O.T.S. wines. American O.T.S. wine is a citrus wine made from orange peels, while Canadian O.T.S. wine can be, and usually is, made from grapes. We will discuss the Halachic implications later in the article.
Blenders. The Canadian government allows wine to be used as a flavoring in their blended whiskeys. By law, no 'blender wine' can be added beyond 1% of the total volume. In actuality, the standard quantity of flavor blenders added is generally less than « % of the total volume of product. Blenders are used to cut the harsh taste of the whiskey in order to improve "mouthfeel," an industry term that refers to the mellowness of a particular spirit.
Chometz Sheavar Olov HaPesach. As is the law with private Jewish consumers, Jewish merchants or Jewish manufacturers may not own chometz on Pesach. Included in this prohibition are grain derived beverages (i.e., those derived from barley, rye, oats, wheat or spelt). These products must be consumed or destroyed before the Pesach holiday. In the event that the volume of Jewish owned chometz is too great to be consumed or destroyed, the chometz can be sold to a non-Jew in a bonafide sale so that the chometz will be fully transferred out of Jewish ownership. Failing to do so will render the unsold chometz forbidden for Jewish consumption after Pesach. These laws apply equally to any chometz, whether it is simply owned by a Jewish merchant, or produced by a Jewish manufacturer and was in his possession during Pesach.
How does this prohibition impact on the alcoholic beverage industry? Most authorities are of the opinion that alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, which is derived from wheat, barley or rye, are Chometz gamur and a person must not own these products on Pesach. If a Jew did not sell his liquor, the prohibition of Chometz she avar alav haPesach would apply; the whiskey cannot be used, nor can any benefit be derived from these beverages.
What about the whiskey manufacturers? My close friend and colleague, Rabbi Yosef Eisen, Rabbinic Coordinator of the OU, after years of research on this topic, writes, "Since most of the companies producing spirits sold in America are publicly owned and managed by non-Jewish executives, there's no need to be concerned whether their chometz was sold. There is a proliferation of private label companies, which represent a small percentage of the market, where the possibility of Jewish ownership has not been clarified. Based on past experience, and on rov (the majority of America is non-Jews), keeping in mind that at worst there is no more than a safek di'Rabanan (because Chometz she avar alav haPesach is an Isur d'Rabanan), one may drink from any source unless he is aware of Jewish ownership."
The question is, can we, in accordance with Halacha and in good conscience, consume beverages that do not have any hashgocha? Obviously the best case scenario would be to purchase alcoholic beverages with a reliable Hechsher. There are, in fact, a few selections that have reliable kosher certification, but these are few and far between.
When research into ingredients and production practices indicates that there are no apparent kashrus problems with the product, then Halacha permits us to follow the concept of Holchin Achar HaRov, that we may assume that the majority is the scenario with which we are dealing. The following assumptions can therefore be made:
Canadian whiskeys present a fundamental kashrus question. Does the possibility of grape O.T.S. wine or blenders added to Canadian whiskeys for tax reduction or mouthfeel at percentages of 1% or less create real kashrus concerns? Can we rely on bitul Halachic nullification or do we need concrete information about each beverage? As stated before, since the O.T.S. wine is added in less than a sixth, it is Batul . Furthermore, there is a doubt whether the O.T.S. wine is indeed grape, or whether blenders are used altogether. Canadian whiskeys would therefore be acceptable.
Kashrus Kurrents hopes that this article will our readers greater
insight, understanding, and appreciation of this industry. L'Chaim!
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