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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
Q. Can you give me a quick rundown on potential kashrus issues with liquor and beer?
A. Before we get to the specific issues, it is worth noting two things which complicate the kashrus of these items: there is typically no legal requirement that they list ingredients, and the vast majority of alcoholic beverages do not bear kosher certification. This makes it difficult to know what you can drink. Bearing this in mind, let’s get to the four potential issues.
First is that although the basic recipes for bourbon, beer, tequila, and other alcohol beverages are pretty straightforward, companies add all types of ingredients to improve and distinguish their products from those of the competition. Traditionally, the concern was that non-kosher wine (i.e., stam yayin) was added, but in more recent years producers have been adding flavors, lactose (milk sugar), oysters, clam juice, and other unexpected ingredients. A strong working knowledge of the regulations and practices in each particular industry (Scotch, sake, etc.) is necessary to evaluate how serious of a concern this is in each case.
The second issue is that even if a particular beverage is free of any problematic ingredients, it might be produced or distilled on equipment used for a different beverage that is not as “pure”. This concern is more pronounced with small manufacturers, such as craft breweries, where they have multiple products made in small batches on shared equipment.
A third issue is that it is a longstanding practice that liquor is aged for many years to mature the beverage’s taste. Aging, per se, does not pose a kashrus issue, but many companies have developed an affinity for aging their products in barrels which previously held (non-kosher) wine, such as sherry or port. There is significant halachic debate as to whether the wine absorbed in the barrels affects the kashrus of the liquor. A simple reading of the Gemara and earlier Poskim implies that it should not, but some contemporary Poskim have argued that (a) there are alternate ways to understand those sources, and (b) the company’s specific desire to use wine barrels, affects the outcome of the halacha.
The final issue is an outgrowth of the previous one. Namely, since whisky is aged for extended periods of time, it means that if the owner of the company is Jewish, he must perform mechiras chametz for all the whisky before each Pesach. If he does not, the liquor is permanently forbidden as chametz she’avar alav haPesach. One might think that issue is uncommon, but in fact, it turns out that several prominent whisky companies are owned by Jewish people. Some dutifully perform mechiras chametz each year, but others do not. Once again, knowledge of the industry is crucial to determine which beverages are subject to this concern and which are not.
For all the reasons outlined above, it is clearly best for a person to consume alcoholic beverages which bear reliable kosher certification. Alternatively, one should consult the lists of approved items produced by reputable hashgachos, such as the cRc Alcoholic Beverages List to know which items are acceptable.
This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, June 16, 2023.