For Jewish drinkers, there’s never been a better selection of kosher spirits than there is right now. Whether you’re shopping for Hanukkah or any other celebratory occasion, or just like to keep a well-stocked home bar all year long, you’ve got plenty of options. This is what you need to know about kosher spirits, plus a list of our all-time favorites.
What Does Kosher Mean?
According to the Orthodox Union (OU), kosher means proper or acceptable and, its use in the context of consumables can be traced back to the Old Testament as well as the Talmud, which predates the Bible and is the primary rulebook for Jewish law, theology, and culture (think of it as an ethics-based guide to everyday Jewish living). Today, the guidelines for kosher food and drinks are an amalgam of both ancient and contemporary rulings. In general, per the Bible, basic factors that would render a food or drink item non-kosher include specific animal products (pork, rabbit, birds of prey, catfish, sturgeon, most insects and any shellfish or reptile). Animal products that do fall under the kosher umbrella, such as grass-eating mammals with cloven hooves and fish with scales and fins, must be prepared in accordance with dietary law outlined by the Bible.
Over the last two decades, the number of OU-approved distilled spirits has increased staggeringly, according to the New York-based organization, which is the world’s largest kosher certification authority. In order to bear the official symbol (a tiny “U” inside of an “O”), a spirit must be made from grain or sugar. It can’t be produced from grapes and can’t be aged in a non-kosher wine barrel (there are separate rules for making kosher wine and grape-based brandy). That means Scotch whisky—or anything else, for that matter—that has been aged or finished in a sherry, port or wine cask generally is not allowed. And, of course, any other ingredients used—and the distillery itself—also have to pass muster.
From major players like Absolut and Stolichnaya to boutique brands like Square One, Lucid Absinthe and Koval, there is now quite a wide range of spirits, beers, wines, liqueurs, mixers and more that have been officially inspected and endorsed. We asked a few bar experts to recommend their favorites.
Kosher Spirits, According to the Experts
For New York City bartender Paula Lukas, Tel Aviv distillery M & H is a go-to for a variety of spirits, specifically its Levantine Gin and Classic single malt whisky. “They use botanicals from a local market in Tel Aviv for their gin—it’s got a terrific mix of citrus and spice,” she says. “The Classic is aged in ex-bourbon and STR red wine casks, [so] it’s got a bit of spice and smoke, but not overly so.” Ethan Kahn, another New York City drinks expert, tends to go for a bit more old-school product. “Although it has a fuddy-duddy reputation, especially among my parents’ generation, I’ve always enjoyed slivovitz, [which is] essentially a plum eau de vie,” he shares. Kahn recommends trying Croatian brand Maraska’s kosher expression, which is made using ripe blue plums harvested from the Adriatic hinterlands.
Devorah Lev-Tov, a freelance food and lifestyle journalist, shedslight on some of the symbols and terminology you might find on a kosher bottle—and what you won’t find. “As someone who grew up observant, most spirits are kosher,” she explains. In fact, generally anything made without grapes would be kosher, according to her. “Jews love their whiskey.”
Lev-Tov notes, thought, that the terms “kosher” and “kosher for Passover” hold different meanings. “During Passover, because we don’t eat wheat and other grains for the week-long holiday, it’s much more restricted, so you need to look for the OUP symbol (which means OU [or kosher] for Passover). So, something that’s kosher the rest of the year might not be kosher during the week of Passover.”
Despite Passover’s restrictions on certain spirit categories, there are still creative ways to incorporate cocktails into the holiday. “My family makes Margaritas for Passover every year with salt rims to signify the bittersweetness of the tears of the Jews leaving Egypt,” says Ben Wald, a bartender based in New York City. His secret weapon? “[We] use Cointreau versus triple sec, because Cointreau is distilled from sugar beets and not grain, so it’s okay for Passover.”
When it comes to the tequila, Wald says Patrón is an excellent choice for kosher drinkers, not only for its certified kosher status—all Patrón products except Burdeos, which is finished in Bordeaux casks, are certified kosher by the country’s Supervisores en Calidad Kosher organization—but also given the brand’s commitment to sustainability. Patrón’s agreements with local farmers, according to Wald, involve providing free fertilizer from spent agave fibers in addition to a water and emission-reducing program, the ongoing reforestation and donation of nearly 20,000 trees within the local community of Atotonilco el Alto, and a serious commitment to providing fair wages and a healthy work environment to their employees. “They also make delicious tequila,” Wald adds.
Other Kosher Bottles to Try
Here are a few of our go-to bottles that just so happen to be kosher.
- Luxardo Maraschino
- Woodford Reserve
- Barrow’s Intense Ginger
- Jack Daniel’s (various expressions)
- Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey
- Tito’s Handmade Vodka
- Glenmorangie 19 Year
- Empress 1908 gin
- Knappogue Castle 12 Year
- Don Q rum (various expressions)
- Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year
- Ketel One Vodka (unflavored)