As the Forward’s international whisky correspondent I was hoping for some modest representation of the tribe at the 2010 New York WhiskyFest this Tuesday. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was a minyan davening maariv in the lobby just before the doors opened for the non-VIP guests.
That sense of hevruta set the scene for an evening where, among the 2,000 or so attendees sipping, sniffing and talking whisky there was a disproportionate presence of Jews with kippahs, Jews without kippahs and, in a couple of cases, even Jews wearing shaytls. A relative dearth of Jewish women, though, was entirely in keeping with an event that was an almost exclusively male affair.
One person who had taken advantage of the $160 VIP tickets allowing early access to the 80 booths featuring free samples of hundreds of single and blended whiskies, was Joshua Hatton — President of the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society. I caught up with him at the Black Grouse booth. We were both surprised at the visibly high Jewish attendance — “There’s more kippahs than kilts” he pointed out.
He started the society in 2009 because of his own love of Scotch and had been amazed at the response. “People from all over the country are asking how they can join,” he told me. “Last night I spoke at a gourmet meal of the Kosher Wine Society. It’s clear that Jews love whisky.”
At the meal the previous night, Hatton had served Glenmorangie Original and three whiskies from the Usquaebach range. Since I’d read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which chronicles the first inklings beyond Scotland of the fiery liquor known as “Usquebaugh,” I had wanted to try some. As it turns out, the Usquaebach blends are fine and fun (especially the 15 year old which had an intriguing pepperiness), but they depend too much on nostalgia: The “Old Rare Flagon” comes as advertized, in earthenware with “Over 225 years of tradition” painted on the front.
Distillers like to cite King James IV’s 1494 provision for 8 bowls of malt to go to a Friar John Cor to make whisky, but drinking before the 18th century was a physical risk. And illegal. In fact legal, safe scotch only dates back to 1823 when the English decided to tax it. So, although “whisky” comes from the Gaelic words “uisge beatha” meaning “water of life,” suggesting its elementality, the rough and beautiful amber firewater we know has only been available for sale since the emancipation of the Jews of Europe.
So why have the chosen people chosen whisky? Perhaps because it is a religiously acceptable segment of a constellation of gentile macho activities that have for varying reasons been closed off to us. More likely it’s because its an American upgrade from the rough vodkas of Eastern Europe, while its lack of a cultic past (like wine) along with the simplicity of process and ingredients (water, barley, yeast) make whisky kosher by nature.
I started my tastings at the west of Scotland — drinking the peaty and evocative Laphroaig and the slightly more delicate Caol Ila to warm my palate — and ended with the prince of Speyside, the Glenlivet XXV. Many of the exhibitors represented Scottish distilleries, but Amrut from Bangalore, India (the Fusion is surprisingly good and caramelly) and Suntory from Osaka, Japan (whose Hibiki is matured in plum wine casks, for a unique and interesting flavor) were a couple of surprising international entries. There was of course no representation from the Holy Land. The lack of water makes Israel an unpromising source of whisky but perhaps, given time, that figurative desert too will bloom.