By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
Welcome back 1950’s. Although most of us don’t really admit it, regarding a number of products, our great-grandparents (or grandparents depending upon how old the reader is) relied heavily on ingredient lists to determine what was kosher or not.
Times, of course, have changed and now, most people only consume products with reliable hechsherim– at least in regard to most areas. But, shockingly enough, the one area where we are still in the 1950’s mindset is alcohol. Dubious alcohols are found in our shuls, at our weddings, our frum-owned kosher liquor stores, and in our liquor cabinets at home.
In this column, the focus will be only upon bourbon – but there are others that need to be addressed as well. We will also discuss some of the heterim – but it should be known that most Poskim do not allow use of these heterim as will be discussed.
Many people assume that bourbons are kosher because of the famous WCBIIA question. (WCBIIA stands for “What could be in it already”) The answer to WCBIIA is – plenty. On account of Jewish ownership of many distilleries – there is a problem of Chomez Sh’avar alav Hapesach – that the Bourbons while they were developing and forming – were under Jewish ownership over Passover and were not sold.
Before we get to the nature of the halachic problem – let’s get some background into Bourbon.
Bourbon, of course, is America’s native alcoholic drink by law, no different than Tequila is legally native to Mexico. The Bourbon law was passed in Congress in 1964. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but it’s alcoholic content must be made out of at least 51% corn. Most distilleries make it from 65% to 75% corn, however.
Legally, nothing may be added to bourbon during the distillation except for water. The flavor, therefore, comes only from the charred oak barrels. When Wild Turkey wanted to add honey to their Bourbon – they had to name it, “Wild Turkey Liqueur” and then renamed it again to “American Honey.” Jack Daniels wanted to filter their bourbon through maple charcoal for flavor. They had to call it Tennessee Whiskey – not bourbon. 95% of Bourbon is made in Kentucky.
The law is also that the barrels must be entirely new – never used for anything else. So there is no yayin nesach of sherry casks issues. It is also a legal requirement that Bourbon must be aged in the barrel for two years.
HOW WIDESPREAD THE PROBLEM MIGHT BE
The three largest bourbon distilleries in Kentucky are 1] Jim Beam, 2] Heaven Hill, and 3] Buffalo Trace. Jim Bean is not Jewish owned, – but the latter two are. There are perhaps four or five other smaller distilleries that are also Jewish owned – and only a handful of people are keeping tabs on it. The CRC had been working with Buffalo Trace in 2010 to produce a line of Kosher Bourbon. In 2020, they made available a kosher line. Buffalo Trace is owned by the Goldring family (are they related to Suki and Ding?).
According to an interview given by Rabbi Litvin a Chabad Rabbi who lives in Kentucky there are about four or five distilleries in Kentucky that are Jewish owned. The problem is that just like in other industries – there are something called “jobbers” – where a label actually has it manufactured in a different plant. Heaven Hill is owned by Jews, and actually manufactures over 3000 products.
Barton is one of the distilleries that allows jobbers, so to speak, it is Jewish owned, and does not take care of the chometz issues. New Riff Distillery actually used to sell their Chometz, but forgot to do so this year. There is another company that is Jewish owned called Southern, which is being sold perhaps, thus creating possible complications. There is Lux as well, which is a Jewish owned company.
Heaven Hill, a distillery that is Jewish owned, has the labels for Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Larceny, and William Heaven Hill – and even more. The CRC has a three-tiered list regarding bourbons: Not recommended (3), Certified (23), and Approved (30). They write that certified is, of course, preferable to approved. Other Kashrus agencies and organizations also have lists where Approved is one of the categories – even though there is no hechsher per se.
The problems are that the underlying issues of Chometz Sh’avar alav haPesach are so rapidly changing that the Approved list (which we will call – List #3) is often wrong, or misused and quite, quite, often – outdated. The outdated nature of things is just passed along from year to year. Below are the three lists of the CRC.
- Trader Joe’s – Kentucky Bourbon Straight Whiskey
- Wild Turkey – American Honey Sting
- Woodford Reserve – Frosty Four Wood
- Black Dirt Distillery – Bourbon Star K*
- Buffalo Trace – Kosher Bourbon Rye
- Buffalo Trace – Kosher Bourbon Wheat
- CH Distillery – CH Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Dead Drop – Bourbon
- Jim Beam – Apple
- Jim Beam – Honey
- Jim Beam – Kentucky Fire OU
- Jim Beam – Maple OU
- Jim Beam – Peach OU
- Jim Beam – Red Stag Black Cherry OU
- Jim Beam – Red Stag Hardcore Cider OU
- Jim Beam – Red Stag Honey Tea OU
- Jim Beam – Red Stag Spiced OU
- Jim Beam – Vanilla OU
- Journeyman Distillery – Feather Bone Bourbon
- Koval – Bourbon OU*
- Laws – Four Grain Straight Bourbon
- Laws – Straight Corn Whiskey –Bottled in Bond
- Laws – Two Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Lion’s Pride – Bourbon OU*
- The Josephs Brau Brewing Company -Heller Bock
- The Josephs Brau Brewing Company -Hofbrau Bock
Approved [Which generally means, let’s let it slide]
- Baker’s – Unflavored
- Basil Hayden’s – Unflavored
- Black Maple Hill – Unflavored
- Bookers – Unflavored Bourbon
- Elijah Craig – Unflavored
- Evan Williams – Unflavored
- Four Roses – Unflavored
- Heaven Hill – Unflavored
- Hirsch – Unflavored
- Jim Beam – Black
- Jim Beam – Devil’s Cut
- Jim Beam – Signature Craft – 12 years
- Jim Beam – Unflavored
- Knob Creek – Unflavored
- Larceny – Unflavored
- Maker’s 46 – Unflavored
- Maker’s Mark – Unflavored
- Michter’s – Unflavored
- Noah’s Mill – Unflavored
- Old Crow – Unflavored
- Old Fitzgerald – Unflavored
- Old Grand-Dad – Unflavored
- Old Pogue – Unflavored
- Parker’s – Unflavored
- Prichard’s – Unflavored
- Rhetoric – Bourbon
- Rowans Creek – Unflavored
- Wild Turkey Bourbon – Unflavored
- Willett – Unflavored
- Woodford Reserve – Unflavored
A MULTI-LAYERED HETER PERHAPS
There is a rationale to be lenient to allow the drinking of these spirits, but in this author’s opinion it is not something that we probably should NOT be doing. The Mishna Brura (449:5) cites a view that when there is a doubt, one may eat Safaik Chometz Sh’avar alav haPesach. It is, however, a debate among the Poskim. Many Poskim have, however, ruled that when there is a need – one can rely on the lenient view.
It could be that the slight research that the Kashrus agencies have done in regard to list #3 – can at least be qualified as a “Safek” – a doubt, in as far as the afore-mentioned Mishna Brurah (in 449:5) is concerned.
There is also a debate among the Poskim as to the nature of a Jew who is not observant. It is possible that, according to some Poskim the prohibition of Chometz Sh’avar Alav HaPesach, a Rabbinic prohibition, may not have been enacted on someone who has thrown off Torah Judaism.
Both the Mishna Brurah (OC 347:7) and the Vilna Gaon (YD 151:7) reject this view, but it very well could be the view of the Shach in YD (151:6). The Dagul Mervavah understands this Shach as permitting a Rabbinic violation when this is the case. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe YD Vol. I #72) writes that one may rely on the Dagul Mervavah’s reading of the Shach only in conjunction with another factor.
THE SNIFIN APPROACH
Perhaps one could combine both of the above issues in what is known as the snifin approach to Halachic rulings. In that approach, multiple mitigating halachic factors and even minority opinions, are combined to create a heter. It is also interesting to note that there is a great debate as to the nature of the snifin approach as well. May we also include minority halachic opinions that have been out and out dismissed by the Poskim? Or may we only include views that are actually correct, it is just that the more stringent approach has been adopted?
ANOTHER ISSUE REGARDING ALCOHOL AND SPIRITS
There is another debate between the Rashba and the Noda BiYehuda of which most people are unaware. It pertains to the issue of Bitul B’Shishim, something becoming nullified in a 60 to 1 ratio.
The debate can be called, “Ikro Kach” and it refers to an item where it is normally part of the process of production. If this is the case, the concept of bitul of the non-kosher ingredient does not apply according to the Rashba. The Noda BiYehuda (Mahadura Tanina #56), however permits it.
What do we do? The custom is to follow the Rashba (See Bais Yoseph YD 134 and Mogain Avrohom OC 446) when we have a kosher infrastructure in place, but when we are new to an area, we follow the lenient view of the Noda BiYehudah (Melamed L’ho’il Vol. II #29).
Many people used to rely on the Noda BiYehudah’s view in the 40’s and 50’s. Nowadays, however, we no longer rely on this view because we consider the United States as an area where we have an infrastructure. Few people rely on the Noda BiYehudah’s view in the United States nowadays, except perhaps in regard to non-kosher wine casks.
In this author’s view, it is time to finally say goodbye to the 1950’s. There are enough bourbons and whiskeys that are supervised so that we can consider ourselves as having an infrastructure. It would also be a benefit to the kashrus agencies to let go of this leniency. It will also put more pressure on the companies to seek truly kosher supervision. This is, of course, the author’s suggestion and should be a question that is posed to our own shul Rabbonim, Poskim, and Kashrus agencies. The author did consult with a number of Rabbonim and Poskim, however.
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