Drinking is very much a part of Orthodox Jewish life. At a shul, for kiddush, a wedding or a bar mitzvah, one is sure to find a host of alcoholic beverages including scotches, whiskeys and cordials.
Yet, many Jews do not realize that liquor — a seemingly natural product produced by distilling grain spirits — requires some kosher certification.
Certification is necessary for a number of reasons. It is important to realize that all whiskey produced in the United States is taxed by the government. The amount of tax levied is based on the amount of alcohol in the bottle. An 80-proof bottle of whiskey, for example, will be taxed less than a 100-proof bottle. (Proof equals percent. 100-proof is 50 percent alcohol.)
Currently, distilled spirits are the most heavily taxed consumer products in the United States. Indeed, federal, state and local governments receive more than $18 billion per year in tax revenue from the beverage alcohol industry. In fact, one manufacturer told me that he pays more in taxes than he pays for the bottle, the material and the processing
In light of the high taxes levied on these beverages, manufacturers are constantly looking for legal loopholes that would enable them to elevate the alcohol content without incurring additional tax. That said, let’s go over three kosher liquors.
In the United States, vodka is made by distilling grain-derived crude alcohol, which results in an almost pure alcohol. The alcohol is distilled to a purity of anywhere between 90 and 98 percent alcohol. Next, the alcohol is diluted down to anywhere between 80 and 100 proof. This is accomplished by adding water. Since water in various parts of the country differs in taste, different brands of vodka taste different. Flavored vodka contains all kinds of flavor chemical and additives and requires kosher certification. Additionally, imported vodka is subject to the laws of the country in which it is produced. Currently, Absolut is one of the few vodkas with certification.
The traditional method of making gin was — and in some places still is — to add raw, dried botanicals to the still as the crude alcohol is being distilled. The heat and alcohol cause some of the flavor in the botanicals to penetrate into the alcohol. After diluting the mixture with water to the desired proof level, it becomes distilled gin. The botanical most commonly used is juniper berries; however, each distillery has its own closely guarded secrets as to the type and amount of botanicals used. Botanicals are generally kosher.
This is a distilled spirit made from a fermented mash containing at least 51 percent of the agave plant. There are four categories of tequila: silver (white), gold (dark), anjeo (aged) and repesado (rested). By law, nothing can be added to silver. Caramel color and blending agents can be added to the other tequilas. Anjeo and repesado are aged gold tequila. Sherry casks that are used to age tequila tend to not be kosher. Tequilas containing a worm in the bottle (Mezcal) should be avoided.
Have a happy Thanksgiving and L’Chaim.
(Uri Marcovitz, a Downtown Pittsburgh restaurateur and recognized wine expert [who also dabbles in beer] can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)