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By: Rabbi Dovid Cohen
cRc Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
October 2007 – Updated December 2022
Centuries ago, a monk created a flavored whisky (i.e. a liqueur) that contained a blend of 27 herbs and spices, and the beverage was produced by his successors for a few hundred years. Production was stopped around the time of the French Revolution, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a French wine merchant discovered the recipe and began manufacturing the drink once again. Although the merchant built a cathedral-like building to house his factory (which is still in use to this day) and named the beverage “Benedictine”, the production is not connected to any religious order. Many years later, a bartender created a blend of Benedictine and brandy which consumers appreciated, and in recent years the Benedictine company began producing an “official” version of that mix, which they call “B&B” (for Benedictine and Brandy). B&B is clearly not kosher as it is made with (non-kosher) brandy.1 We will now focus on whether the original/plain Benedictine is acceptable.
The reason for concern is that many websites claim that Benedictine is a brandy-based liqueur.2 When we asked the company if there was any basis to these rumors, they responded3 that:
Bénédictine is NOT brandy-based -Definitely not. Bénédictine contains exclusively Beet-root alcohol, Water, Sugar, Caramel and Botanicals (no colouring added). No wine, no brandy so, no grape origin, no dairy and no animal derivatives.
Should we assume that a company actually using brandy would proudly brag about that fact since brandy is perceived to be superior to beet-root alcohol, or should we be concerned that they have some ulterior motive for not being candid? The halachic principle of אומן לא מרע אומנתו would appear to support taking a lenient approach and accepting the company’s statement, but this requires further research.4
Two additional factors add to the intrigue:
After a few weeks of investigating, we found a person who appears to be at the center of this question. His name is Rabbi Shlomo Msika of Paris and he’s considered an expert in the field of the kashrus of liqueur.
He reported that in 1978 he visited the Benedictine factory to investigate its kosher status. During his visit he was surprised to learn that the company had purchased a cognac6 producer and was considering tinkering with the Benedictine formula by blending in a small amount of cognac (<5%). [All other ingredients were found to be of no kashrus concern].7 Obviously, this raised a concern and (a) he removed Benedictine from his local Va’ad’s list of acceptable liqueurs and (b) as a loyal Lubavitcher Chassid, he reported his findings to the members of the Rebbe’s entourage.8 [This information likely had some hand in the decision to remove it from the Rebbe’s tisch].
A few years ago, he once again visited the factory and revisited the issue with a number of plant employees. The plant administration told him that the aforementioned plan to mix in brandy was never actualized, and they even allowed him to confirm this by reviewing the Benedictine formula on the company computer. Other plant employees, including those who didn’t appear to understand the significance of their statements, corroborated this claim. This information convinced Rabbi Msika that Benedictine is not made with brandy and is acceptable for kosher ocnsumers.
In addition to this information, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Gutnick (Sydney, Australia) pointed out that our case seems to qualify for the leniency discussed in Rema YD 114:10 who rules that in specific cases one doesn’t have to be concerned that a product contains an issur d’rabannan such as stam yayin (see also Iggeros Moshe YD 1:62).
Rav Schwartz was inclined to agree that halachically the product is permitted, but acknowledged that there are those who may choose to more particular and avoid the beverage due to the persistent rumors that it contains stam yayin.
1 Brandy refers to wine which is concentrated through distillation to produce a wine-based whisky. Unless brandy is produced under special conditions, it is not kosher as stam yayin.
3 Personal communication with the author on September 20, 2007.
4 See Iggeros Moshe YD 1:55 for guidelines as to when one may accept a company statement as fact.
6 Cognac refers to brandy produced in the Cognac region of France.
7 All whisky bottlers have another issue, which is that the same equipment might be used to bottle kosher, non-kosher and stam yayin liquors. In the case of Benedictine, the issue is even more complex because the company is known to bottle a non-kosher product, B&B. However, there are a number of reasons as to why this isn’t a concern, as least on the b’dieved level, but that topic is beyond the scope of this discussion.
8 Rabbi Msika doesn’t claim that his information led to Benedictine being removed from the Rebbe’s tisch, and in fact, Rabbi Moshe Moscovitz found that in a sichah given on Parshas Noach 5727 (October 1966), the Rebbe zt”l explained that he was removing Benedictine from the tisch due to those מרה שחורה’ניקעס who have cast aspersions on it (and he expresses confidence that in the times of Moshiach, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen will confirm that it is really kosher). See a student’s notes of that sichah on HebrewBooks.org, link here (the header of the page notes that it is the 18th page of that sichah and the footer identifies it as the 132nd page of the sichos).