Simply put no, not all whiskies are kosher, however pinning down exactly which whiskies are allowed under the Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut derived from the Hebrew root Kaf-Shin-Reish, meaning fit, proper or correct) can be difficult as it depends heavily on how this is defined. Some whiskies are produced under rabbinic supervision, others are merely recommended and others are not. The issue arises not during the brewing or distillation of the spirit but rather during the maturation or blending process where the whisky is introduced to barrels which previously contained drinks made using grapes and the interpretation of kashrut.
I can honestly say that the concept of kosher whisky had never occurred to me before, however with the recent news that (some) Jonny Walker Black Label has lost its kosher certification in israel my interest peaked. Unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, the bulk of the coverage is either aimed towards those already familiar with Jewish law or extremely superficial providing little insight into the subtle nuances of this rather complicated question inspiring me to create this article.
Defining a product as kosher does not require or imply that it has been overseen or ‘blessed’ by a Rabbi or other religious official, home grown vegetables for example are automatically kosher.
Certification is required where the production process may result in accidental or intentional contamination with non-kosher ingredients or materials.
Simply put kosher food is any food which it is permissible for an observant Jew to consume under the laws of Kashrut. However this is issue is far more nuanced that it may initially appear as what constitutes kosher depends on both the time of year, not all kosher food is considered kosher during Pesach (Jewish Passover) and whether the adherent follows Haredi Judaism, sometimes pejoratively referred to as “ultra-Orthodox” or another similarly conservative branch.
Kosher for Pesach
The Jewish festival of passover recalls the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, during which it is prohibited to consume “leaven” foods or drinks, food made with water and grain and permitted to rise for more than 18 minutes. Whisky, being a form of distilled beer, is considered Chametz and not permitted to be consumed, or even owned during passover.
Forms of Judaism
The distinction between the distinct branches Judaism must also be understood in the context of this differentiation. For those following the more liberal form of Judaism the concept of nullification in 60 (batul beshishim), whereby a non-kosher ingredient may be ignored so long as it is less than one 60th of the total volume, may apply* and thus the finished product can be considered 100% kosher. A number of American Rabbi’s have also suggested that that the process of charring and vaporisation, which the barrels undergo, removes the wine taste restoring kosher status. For those following the stricter more traditional path the application of batul beshishim is less liberally applied and may not be applicable.
*It should be noted that even here differences of opinion arise as nullification is often applied only where contamination is accidental and the non-kosher taste is masked by the 60 to 1 ratio.
Differentiating Kosher and Halal
It’s also important to note that while popular understanding equates kosher to halal this is far from accurate. Technically speaking whisky, as an alcohol, can never be halal though it can be kosher. A more detailed analysis of the distinctions is out with the scope of this article but you can find an overview of the differences over at sound vision
Contamination During The Maturation Process
Out with passover festival whiskies are generally considered kosher prior to maturation, the issue arises not from the ingredients or the distillation process but instead when the spirit is aged in used oak. As wine was, and is, often associated with idolatrous worship wine has a unique status in Jewish law, consequently any grape based beverage or resultant flavourings or additives produced or handled by non-Jews are not fit for consumption.
Whiskies, particularly those produced in Scotland and Ireland are often aged or finished in barrels which previously held other wines or spirits, or are subsequently blended with those which have. Any whiskies aged, partially or fully, in barrels previously containing wine, port sherry or other grape based spirits are consequently not considered kosher. As a rule any whiskies not aged in port, sherry or similar casks, such as bourbon being aged by law in new American oak barrels, are exempt from this concern.
The Nullification of Wine
For some branches of Judaism the treatment of the barrel, or the ratio 1:60 are considered sufficient for the grape product to be considered nullified. For others the very fact that the barrel is used to ‘finish’ or flavour the whisky means that the offending taste cannot be nullified. For this reason a number of certification bodies exist around the world which offer guidance for the respective denominations.
Whisky Kosher Certification
The problem facing Jonny Walker is not so much that it’s not kosher, so much that it’s not all certified kosher. While all of their whisky may be kosher, only those bottles imported to Israel by IBBL Spirits are certified, bottles imported by the Paneco Group are not directly supervised by a Rabbi and thus do not qualify for certification.