April 3, 2017

Bourbon no Longer an Automatic, Faces Kashrus Issues

What happens if a Jew owns a share of the ownership in a bourbon company? Must the company have “sold” the products for Passover, as Jewish law requires and if it did not would it render all of the products as chametz that transgressed Passover? Why it is that bourbon once considered inherently kosher now needs kosher certification? The first issue was faced by the Orthodox Union which ultimately ruled that the 665 barrels in the company could be used. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic authority for the OU, came up with a resolution that segregated the 5% ownership of the Jew and ultimately concluded that the remaining product would not have to be destroyed. (Daf Hakashrus, April 2017).

The larger question was addressed in a front page article of the Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2017).  “Companies that once distilled just a few barrels of bourbon every year are now churning out dozens of other drinks—Sherries, brandies, flavored vodkas—which might not be kosher. They can contaminate the bourbon, Rabbi Litvin said, if the liquors are run through the same pipes or tanks.” The Litvins, a family that lives in Louisville, “have taken it upon themselves to keep bourbon kosher.”

Despite the fact that Jews are proportionately poor Bourbon consumers (it is an $8.5 billion industry), there has been a dramatic increase in demand in recent years, particularly by younger kosher consumers. “Alcohol consumption has definitely increased manifold,” said one kosher wine and spirits expert.  Heaven Hill, one of the largest liquor companies in the world, is owned by a Jewish family, but only a few of the bourbons—Evan Williams, the company’s largest brand, and the high-end single-barrel whiskeys—are still guaranteed to be kosher. The others are run through the same pipes and storage tanks as other products, including untold flavors of vodka, spiced rum and mint whiskey.

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