Is Scotch Whisky Kosher By @whiskyrabbi

As a rabbi who loves whisky, I am frequently asked, ‘Is all whisky kosher?’  To answer that I will focus on Scotch whisky as out of the world’s whiskies, scotch is arguably the most tightly regulated whisky.

What is Kosher?  
As a Jew, we have regulations as to what we can and can’t eat, the things that we are allowed to eat are Kosher, and the things that we aren’t allowed to eat are called treif.  Amongst the things that we are not allowed to eat or drink are grape based products that have not been supervised from the time of juicing.  So we can only have wine, sherry, port, or brandy that have been made by an observant Jew.  Even though most of today’s wines are made in the exact same way as Kosher wines, and the ingredients are the same, because they have not been made by an observant Jew, they are treif and not Kosher.  The reasons are sociological, mystical, and spiritual.

To add an extra dimension to the laws of kashrut/kosher, if an object like a sherry cask had previously held a non-kosher sherry, that cask absorbs the non-kosher flavour, and then a kosher product like a whisky gets stored in that cask, and non-kosher flavours are imparted from the cask into the whisky, then on a simplistic level, that kosher whisky becomes tainted and is not kosher, because it contains certain non-kosher flavours. If that would be the case, then why would you see on whiskyrabbi’s Instagram account plenty of sherry cask whiskies?  And how come I will drink them?

In Judaism there is never one opinion on any Jewish legality, two Jews means three opinions, and when it comes to allowing sherry casks, there have been fascinating debates over the last few decades about whether scotch is kosher or not. Before going into the debate there are a few Jewish legal rulings to consider.  

“One in sixty”
If a kosher product had a tiny amount of non-kosher flavours absorbed into it, and if there is a ratio of more than 60 parts of kosher to non-kosher product, then the non-kosher product is annulled if the flavour is not discernible, and the whole item is ok for use.  So for example I am making chicken soup for my Friday night dinner, and by mistake a small piece of pork fat falls into the pot, if there is sixty times more chicken soup than pork fat, then the soup is Kosher.  

“One in six”
When it comes to wine however, the ratio of annulment is more than 6 kosher to 1 not kosher.  The reasoning is that when you add another liquid to wine you destroy the non-kosher wine taste in a much smaller ratio.  So imagine you are hosting a kosher new years eve party and the bowl of punch is full of great kosher alcoholic drinks, but someone decides to pour in a dash of a non kosher red wine to the punch, if there is six times more punch than the non kosher red wine, the punch would be ok.

“Even a thousandth can’t be annulled”
If however, the non-kosher product was a specific flavouring that would enhance any amount of product it was added to, like something very spicy, then none of these ratios would make any difference, and the smallest amount of a non-kosher product may never be annulled, even a thousandth!

The last ruling to consider when dealing with amounts that need to be annulled is, does one annul the actual non-kosher item, or the non-kosher item plus the object that it has been absorbed into.  So for example, if 10 litres of non-kosher sherry is poured into a barrel that its staves can absorb up to 50 litres, does one measure the non-kosher product to be 10 litres, or do we measure 50 litres because the staves have now all become non-kosher?

If you are not confused by now, then have another few drams, or perhaps the whisky has given you extra clarity!!
Let us take a regular single malt scotch aged in virgin oak, bourbon, or rum barrels.  Due to the fact that Scotch legally can only contain yeast, barley, and water, with an optional caramel, all of which are kosher ingredients, then there are no kosher problems.  Even with a blended scotch, where there will probably be a miniscule amount of whisky that has been aged in a sherry or wine cask, it would have been annulled by a one in sixty ratio rule.

What about a single malt that has been aged in a sherry cask? Here are some factors to consider.

The sherry cask that is being used to age the whisky.  
Is it a solera cask that has had sherry absorbed in the cask for 40 or 50 years?   There is a lot more sherry that has been absorbed into the cask year on year, and therefore there is more non-kosher product to factor in with the ratio of annulment.  But on the other hand, a solera cask is likely to be less active as it is an old cask and therefore may not give out that much flavour into the whisky ageing in it.

Has the sherry cask been re-charred. 
Meaning that a thin layer is shaved off, and the barrel burnt by a flame, to create a carbon surface.  In doing so you have taken away a lot of the non-kosher product, because it has been shaved off, and burnt.

Has the sherry cask really had sherry ageing in the barrel? 
Has the sherry casks had sherry ageing inside them for three to ten years?, or has the barrel simply been seasoned for a few months with sherry?  If it is a seasoned barrel, not much sherry would have absorbed into the cask, whereas a young sherry barrel that has had a few years of sherry ageing in the barrel is a more active barrel and therefore would be able to impart a lot more flavour into the whisky ageing inside it.

When measuring the barrel and calculating how much sherry would have been absorbed into the cask.  If we assume that the whole barrel has absorbed sherry into its staves, is there six times more whisky than the volume of the barrel staves?  In my humble opinion, there is six times more whisky than barrel.  Even if we would calculate how much actual non-kosher product has been absorbed into the barrel, we would probably find that there is sixty times more whisky in the barrel than actual sherry absorbed into the wood, mainly because of the recharring and shaving of the barrel.
A defining factor in deciding whether whisky that has been aged in sherry casks is kosher or not, is whether you can taste the sherry or not, and whether the sherry has enhanced the flavour of the whisky.

This question has been debated over the years not by rabbis but mainly by the whisky experts.  Michael Jackson has shown in his book Whisky that when Macallan were using different sherry casks, they concluded that the wood is more influential than the sherry.  That is to say that European Oak “Quercus Robur” has a greater impact on the whisky than the sherry it previously held. Indeed, the impact of the sherry does not improve the whisky, it improves the wood which improves the whisky.

When it comes to defining what really gives the whisky its taste, we need to compare the impact of what the barrel previously held to the impact of the terroir, the impact of the water, the impact of how long the fermentation process took, the impact of what barley was used, has peat been used in the malting process, the impact of the size and shape of the stills, the impact of how long the distillation process takes, the impact of where the warehouse is located, whether it is by the sea or inland, the temperature of the warehouse, the location of where the barrel is in the warehouse, whether it is higher up, (where it may mature quicker than if the barrel was further down, where the air is colder), if the barrel is European Oak or American Oak.  

Since you cannot pin the taste of the whisky to the taste of the sherry that was previously held in the barrel, many Rabbis will allow sherry cask whiskies.

So why get a Kosher certification?
Many Jews will only eat processed products that have a ‘hechsher’ or kosher certification, rather than relying on an ingredients list. 

Getting a kosher certification allows you to enter the Jewish religious markets in North and South America, Israel and Australia, and in certain Jewish communities in the UK.  Many kosher shops will not sell whisky unless it has a certification, and many caterers will not serve whisky without certification, so having a certification allows the whisky to be acceptable to all levels of religious requirements.  

In Israel the major supermarkets will only stock items that have a kosher certification, therefore by getting a kosher certification, you will enter a large and growing market.  In 2019 Israel ranked number 10 of its Single Malt scotch whisky import.  A 14% volume and a 23% value.  So gaining a kosher certification makes economic sense.

In getting a kosher certification, the organisation that supplies the certification will give you contacts into suppliers, agents, and other ways of how to get your product into the kosher market.  They will come to visit the distillery and advise on how to achieve a kosher certification. It could be that only certain products would gain the kosher certification. 

These days, many whisky companies will strive to get a kosher certification on their bottlings, such as Auchentoshan, Tomintoul, Ardbeg, Clynelish, just to name a few.

You will also have independent bottlers who will also try and get a kosher certification, some like DS Tayman and Ben Eideann will get scotch and finish them in Israeli kosher wine barrels.  You have some Israeli whisky distilleries like Milk and Honey and Golani who produce whisky, all under kosher supervision, and use kosher wine barrels.  Milk and Honey get kosher sherry especially made to age in the casks to age their whisky in them. 

Others like Darach Whisky, a new independent bottler has managed to get a North American kosher certification for their scotch whisky, and are making inroads into the kosher market.  You will find that many whisky brands that have kosher certification are more appreciated by the Jewish public because of the effort that the distillery have made in getting their product supervised, and they will also get a larger share of the Jewish market.

To conclude, even though there are plenty opinions that would allow scotch whisky aged in sherry casks, there is a gap in the market for kosher certified scotch, and it would make business sense to go down that route.  I have always said, if you are not sure whether your bottle of scotch is kosher or not, send it to me and I will know how to deal with it!!!!

I hope that I have shed some light into the kosher status of scotch whisky, I know that there are many other factors that have not been dealt with but would be happy to answer any questions you have at my Instagram page @whiskyrabbi.