“Get the Kosher meal.”
An observant Jewish friend once counseled me thus, on hearing that I was embarking on an airplane flight with meal service. His reasoning was that the meals were prepared specially and would therefore be of a higher quality than standard airplane fare. I took his recommendation; while I don’t recall whether the components of my Kosher meal were noticeably better than the usual rubber chicken slathered in a gelatinous brown sauce, I have remembered his advice to this day.
Why does this matter? Today, I’ll be reviewing three whiskeys from Buffalo Trace’s Kosher range. To get more info on Kosher restrictions pertaining to whiskey, I reached out to Maggie Kimberl. Maggie is a whiskey writer and can be found at her LouGirl502 website, as well as in numerous publications. She has also recently been named the president of the Bourbon Women organization. Maggie has spoken frequently to synagogues and religious gatherings about the Kosher rules pertaining to whiskey, and she was kind enough to answer my questions:
Malt: What determines whether or not a whiskey is Kosher?
Maggie: The Kashruth is the text that lays out all the rules for Kosher living. Where whiskey is concerned it is partly straightforward and partly complex. For the most part, if you are a person who keeps Kosher the best rule of thumb is to look for Hecshers or consult the lists put out by certifying bodies such as the Chicago Rabbinical Council or The Bourbon Rabbi.
As far as the rules of Kosher whiskey go, there are some simple guidelines. Technically speaking, all of the ingredients and processes for a straight bourbon whiskey should be Kosher. Anything that grows from the ground is pareve, or neutral. So the grains, water, and yeast that are supposed to be the only process are all neutral. The charred new oak barrels are also pareve – one Rabbi recently told me you could technically eat them!
There are a few different ways this gets complicated from there. The Kashruth has considerably more rules for grapes and wine than it does for everything else, so whiskeys that are finished in a wine barrel require additional rules and supervision. Also, any equipment that makes anything other than straight bourbon or straight whiskey, such as brandy, would not be able to be Kosher certified. There may be a process I’m unaware of there, but for simplicity’s sake, I would generally rule out anything from a distillery that makes anything other than straight whiskey and other grain-only spirits.
After that, the transportation and packaging come into play. While NDPs could be certified as Kosher, how the whiskey gets to their packaging plants and the packaging plants themselves come into play. The barrel, as mentioned before, is neutral if it’s new charred oak, so transporting an already Kosher spirit to an already Kosher bottling line in the original packaging should not become an issue. Every step of the process has to be overseen, and the rules are not generally simple for Gentiles to understand.
Malt: Which governing bodies are responsible for making these determinations?
Maggie: Across the world, there are several different certifying bodies for food and spirits. The Chicago Rabbinical Council is a big one in our region of the country, and they maintain a list of Kosher beer, spirits, and mixers that is updated yearly and is often used by Kosher bartenders and mixologists.
The Orthodox Union is another one that covers a larger swath of the world – they recently certified the entirety of Angostura’s offerings, making it a lot easier for folks to find Kosher mixers for cocktails. But as with many things, Kosher observance is a spectrum.
Some folks follow different levels of strictness and adherence, so some will look for a particular Hecsher, or Kosher symbol, when buying food and beverage. Here in Kentucky, we even have a Kentucky Kosher certification for spirits, smoked fish, cheese, and other things.
Malt: I also understand that Kosher laws forbid Jews from owning whiskey during Passover, and that there are ways to comply by selling whiskey in advance of the holiday?
Maggie: If my recollection and understanding is correct, during Passover you can’t have anything that is leavened, which is another word for fermented. I do know that whiskey is not Kosher for Passover because of this. But the requirement is meant to keep the observant Jewish person in good standing with their observation of the Kashruth and of their faith. The practice of temporarily transferring ownership of barrels to a non-Jewish person during Passover is something I am a little murky on.
My thanks to Maggie for providing this information. To her last point: Buffalo Trace informs us “Kosher law mandates that whiskey should not be owned or consumed by Jews during passover.” As Buffalo Trace’s parent company Sazerac is owned by the Goldring family (themselves of the Jewish faith), any whiskey owned by Buffalo Trace during the Passover period would presumably no longer be Kosher.
To clear up that point, I got in touch with The Bourbon Rabbi, Chaim Litvin:
Malt: Can you please clarify the Kosher rules relating to Jewish ownership of whiskey producers during Passover? Would this also apply to public companies in which Jewish investors own shares?
Rabbi Litvin: Whiskey owned by a Jew over the week of Passover becomes forbidden. Heaven Hill sells their company for the week of Passover and has for nearly 30 years. New Riff does as well. Sazerac only sells the portion designated for the kosher release. This is why a kosher symbol is so important, it lets consumers know that what they are drinking is all on the up and up. If a Jew owns stock in a company, it does not affect the kosher status if they own it over Passover because in reality they own a portion of profit, they can’t walk into the distillery and take their shares.
Thanks once more to Rabbi Litvin for sharing his time and insights. In order to comply, Buffalo Trace (in partnership with the aforementioned Chicago Rabbinical Council, or cRc) came up with a workaround. “[T]his Kosher spirit was aged in specifically designated Kosher barrels. In order to satisfy Passover requirements, these barrels were sold to a non-Jewish executive in a ceremony witnessed by a representative from the cRc.”
The letter accompanying the release further clarifies the non-Jewish executive in question was Buffalo Trace president and CEO Mark Brown. After cleaning the bottling line to ensure no mingling with non-Kosher spirits, these whiskeys were bottled and certified Kosher, being released after the end of Passover in April 2020. These will be sold until Passover 2021 (March 27 – April 4), at which time sales will be discontinued.
It’s worth noting that plenty of non-Jewish folks in the whiskey community rushed out to procure these on release. Why? Novelty was perhaps the principal motivator, though deeper digging reveals that we have a bit more information about these whiskeys than is standard for Buffalo Trace.
First, explicit reference is made to the component mash bills, though no numerical specifics are offered. In addition, these come to us with a stated age, in this case seven years. They’re also of a uniform bottling strength. Thus, tasting three of these side-by-side offers the opportunity to isolate at least one of the variables that causes other Buffalo Trace expressions to have distinctive flavors, while also allowing us to look for similarities between them. Going back to my friend’s initial guidance, there’s also the hope that these whiskeys will be an improvement over standard Buffalo Trace fare, having benefitted from all their special treatment.
We’ll start with the wheat recipe bourbon. This is “[m]ade with the same high quality grains as W.L. Weller Bourbon Whiskey,” per Buffalo Trace. It is seven years old, as mentioned above, and 94 proof (47% ABV). SRP for this was $40.
Buffalo Trace Kosher Straight Bourbon (Wheat Recipe) – Review
Color: Medium toasted orange.
On the nose: Immediately appealing, this has a pleasant mix of nutty, floral, and fruity scents. There’s a meaty note of Brazil nuts, a bouquet of spring flowers, as well as a sweet-tart whiff of freshly squeezed orange juice. Immediately underneath all these cheery notes are some richer aromas of apricot marmalade as well as a minty and mineralic note that acts as a firm foundational underpinning. Setting aside the lack of any musty funk, this is the most reminiscent of old Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon of anything I have had from Buffalo Trace.
In the mouth: Far more austere and less generous than on the nose. This starts very dry, with a mouth-puckering echo of that stern limestone note. There’s some potpourri and ground nutmeg at the middle of the palate, where this takes on a tannic texture accompanied by a sharply woody flavor. Through the finish, this recedes back into a stony shell, leaving a lingering dryness accented by a subtly spicy heat.
If the palate had followed through on the nose’s characteristics and proportions, I would have been running out to secure every bottle of this I could get my hands on. For a moment there, I thought I was being visited by the ghost of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, so much did this resemble the wonderful Wellers of days gone by. Alas, it was not to be, as the mouthfeel on this was altogether more taciturn and hard-edged, especially surprising given this is a wheater. In all, though, it’s performs solidly for the price and presents some conspicuous high points, garnering a score above the midpoint of the range.
Next, we have the Rye Recipe Bourbon. Like the wheated mash bill bourbon, this comes to us at an age of seven years. Unlike the wheated bourbon, it is from “the same high quality grains as Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey,” implying the distillery’s low-rye (<10%) mash bill. It is also 94 proof (47% ABV) and carries the same SRP of $40.
Buffalo Trace Kosher Straight Bourbon (Rye Recipe) – Review
Color: Amber with tinges of chestnut.
On the nose: The immediate impression is of an abundant platter of smoked sausages: kielbasa, hot links, you name it. There’s another juicy citrus note here, this time recalling the first bite of a wedge of navel orange. I also sense the wintery, woody nuance of a pine wreath and, curiously, a creamy and rich scent of unsalted butter. It definitely smells like Buffalo Trace, though, and I might have guessed this as a single barrel pick if I were forced to nose it blind.
In the mouth: This enters the mouth with a thin and soft-spoken whisper of dried fruits and nuts, though these flavors are very subtle and hard to distinguish. There’s a candied note of confectionery just before this hits the middle of the tongue that stands out as a high point of the entire presentation. In comparison to the wheat recipe bourbon, this one fades fast and doesn’t really linger meaningfully in any noticeable way.
A let down compared with its predecessor, this showed a different but distinct character on the nose. There was no real follow-through on the palate, however. The whiskey wasn’t marred by any flaws or off notes, but the flavor elements were very restrained and mostly muddled together in a way that made them difficult to pick out. This tastes like a slightly-below-average batch of Buffalo Trace, which is my archetype of an average bourbon for SRP. As this carries a premium, I am forced to dock a point from the mean.
Finally, we’re rounding out the collection with the straight rye whiskey. We’re left to presume that this is produced from the Sazerac rye mash bill, rumored to be the legal minimum 51% rye. Like the others, this whiskey is seven years old, 94 proof, and has a suggested price $40.
Buffalo Trace Kosher Straight Rye – Review
Color: Comparable to the rye recipe bourbon, this is a chestnut-tinged amber.
On the nose: Citrus galore. Sometimes straight rye whiskey is just densely packed with firm, nearly underripe fruit aromas, and this has exactly those notes. Clementines and key lime meet another meaty sausage-like aroma, this time of beef franks (Kosher, of course). There’s an elegant and serious note of vanilla intertwined with spicy accents of cayenne pepper, paprika, and cinnamon.
In the mouth: This is fairly unbalanced toward the front of the mouth, where a sense of complete, monolithic rye whiskey sits firmly between the tongue and incisors. This softens significantly as the whiskey fades toward the middle of the mouth, becoming entirely mute as it fades into the finish. There’s a slightly creamy texture with a mild vanilla flavor, but otherwise this disappears without a trace.
I was hoping for something akin to the E.H. Taylor Bottled-in-Bond Rye which, though not distilled at Buffalo Trace, comes from its sister distillery (Barton 1792) in the Sazerac portfolio. As with its immediate predecessor, the nose held lots of promise which was left unfulfilled by the disappointing palate. Overall, this was no worse – but no better – than the rye recipe bourbon, thus I am scoring them consistently.
Looking back, the wheat recipe bourbon was the only one of these three that stood out positively. It is good whiskey on its own, but also has the distinction of being different and better than anything else I can get from Buffalo Trace without undue effort or expense. It fulfills my hope of the Kosher treatment yielding superior product, whether or not the Almighty intervened directly. So, would I be a repeat buyer?
The answer is no, but not due to any cost/benefit calculation of my own. Rather: I don’t need these whiskeys in the way that some others do, in order to fulfill religious restrictions. Like all Buffalo Trace products, these Kosher whiskeys exist in finite quantities; every bottle I buy is a bottle that is not available to the next Sarah or Samuel Q. Customer when they enter the store. However, if you’re keeping strictly Kosher, I’d recommend making the wheated bourbon your Chosen Whiskey.
Lead image kindly provided by Buffalo Trace.