Photographs courtesy of the Jewish Whisky Company.
I’m not a big whisky drinker. I’m especially not a whisky drinker at 11:30 in the morning on a workday. But that changed when I had the pleasure of sitting down with Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin, two of the three founders of the Jewish Whisky Company. (The third founder is Seth Klaskin.)
Prior to founding the JWC, Joshua and Jason had two of the most widely read, respected, followed and admired whisky blogs on the Internet. (Joshua still writes his, which is called jewmalt.com.) Readers would write in for advice and buying suggestions; distilleries would send the guys bottles and ask for their opinions. Over the years, Joshua and Jason found themselves consulting with each other, and eventually became friends.
Readers often asked Joshua, who observes kosher laws, his opinion of the “kosherness” of whisky, and where they could get good whisky that satisfied their dietary needs. That’s when Joshua called Jason and said, “Please tell me this is a crazy idea….”
Instead, Jason applauded the idea — starting an independent whisky bottling company — and thus the Jewish Whisky Company was born.
When WhiskyFest announced in 2011 that it would move to a weekend format, the Forward noted that it would be abandoning traditionally-observant Jews who made up a significant proportion of the attendees.
Into the breach stepped Whisky Jewbilee — from the founders of Single Cask Nation — providing a non-Sabbath, kosher-keeping option for Jewish whisky drinkers of which The New York Times assures us there are many.
After two highly successful Jewbilees (in 2012 and 2013), WhiskyFest has decided to move to Wednesday night October 29 for its 2014 New York event. That’s two weeks after Sukkot, for those keeping track. This sensitivity to its clientele is limited to New York — Chicago WhiskyFest will be on a Friday night and San Francisco WhiskyFest will be held on Friday night, Kol Nidre.
John Hansell, editor and publisher of Whisky Advocate — the organizer of WhiskyFest — noted that the “primary reason” for the switch:
Is that we want the New York seminar day to be the best whisky event anywhere. To achieve this, we need to have substantial quantities of incredibly rare whiskies procured for an audience of several hundred whisky enthusiasts; this is extremely difficult to accomplish on an annual basis.
Apparently the world’s premier whisky event can’t manage a two-day seminar every year without the Jews.
So WhiskyFest wants the Jews back, but will the Scotch-quaffing Heebs go back to WhiskyFest? Joshua Hatton from Whisky Jewbilee thinks the jury is out.
We’ve been here for the kosher-keeping, whisky-loving, Jewish community and, while we wish WhiskyFest all the success in the world, we hope that our community will remember us and will stick with us or go to both events.
He assures the Forward that, though the 2014 date for Whisky Jewbilee is yet to be set, it is definitely going ahead. The kosher food will be there, the cigar options will expand and the opportunities for schmoozing will be greater than ever.
I’ve got an aunt who likes to tell me that being a movie critic must be the best job in the world. You get to watch movies all day and write about them. What could be better, right? Real life film critics might add a few caveats, like the low pay, job insecurity, fierce competition, long hours and constant struggle against obsolescence, but hey, point taken. There are perks.
The same goes for most cultural journalists. Besides doing what we love, there are usually little extras that come with the job — review copies, advance screenings, press showings, and so on. It’s all pretty swell. But when it comes to freebies, one thing is certain: There’s no beat like the booze beat.
That’s something I learned when an invitation landed in my inbox to attend the winner’s circle of the New York International Spirits Competition on December 3 at the tony 3 West Club in Midtown Manhattan, a venue that happens to be in the same building as the Women’s National Republican Club. It was an especially pleasant surprise because, though I’ve done a couple of liquor-related pieces before, it’s not a regular subject of mine — yet.
When I first went to WhiskyFest New York two years ago I was astounded at how Jewish it was. Growing up in Britain, there had been whisky at Kiddush, but it was rough generic stuff, not for the connoisseur. I never saw the bottles, but it was more Manischewitz than Mouton Rothschild. At the 2010 event I saw Jews of all stripes sipping some of the finest malt whiskies available in the world. I felt surprised, vindicated, happy.
Then, after last year’s event, the organizers from Whisky Advocate magazine (until last year Malt Advocate) announced their plan to capitalize on the size and strength of the demand and move from a Tuesday night onto a weekend — the last weekend in October, 2012. Not really a weekend, but from Friday night to Saturday night. AKA shabbat. AKA it’s now muktze, or inappropriate for traditionally observant Jews.
In the summer of 2010 kosher-observant whisky drinkers were surprised to hear that the OU had just certified three scotches from the LVMH Group (Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) — Glenmorangie Original, Glenmorangie Astar and Ardbeg. These were three among many with no hekhsher that had long been enjoyed by minyans and at Jewish celebrations across the world.
There seems little halachic rationale for certification. By law, custom and practice scotch whisky must be produced solely from malt, barley and water with the intercession of some distiller’s yeast. No animals are harmed in the process, cultic practices are not invoked and adulteration of the spirit would be a shande to the distillery (though they might not use that word).
Ardbeg is on the island of Islay in the west of Scotland, but the Glenmorangie distillery is on the drier east coast. It’s perched above the swampy shore of Dornoch Firth just downhill from Tarlogie Springs from where it receives its pure, clear water. In my role as intrepid whisky correspondent for the Forward, I was happy to investigate what distinguishes an OU kosher malt from, well, a non-OU kosher malt by visiting the Tain distillery where the Glenmorangie whiskies are produced.
An account of his visit to the distillery will appear in the Forward soon but for those who are already thinking about stocking up for Purim here are my tasting notes, including some rarer whiskies below.