In the Jewish faith, one does not drink whiskey on Pesach (פֶּסַח, Passover.) Whiskey is made from a distilled grain mash, and the halakhah (הֲלָכָה, laws) of Pesach restricts Jewish people from consuming products made from chametz (חָמֵץ ) during this time.
Chametz is any food made from wheat, spelt, and barley (and according to further tradition, oats and rye) that is either leavened – or even left moist long enough to theoretically become leavened on its own. This rules out the grain mash of most whiskey. Among Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) there is a further minhag (מנהג, custom) to refrain from corn during Pesach, which could rule out even pure corn whiskey.
However, there is growing acceptance among at least some Ashkenazim to accept foods made from corn and other kitniyot ( קִטְנִיּוֹת) on Pesach. And Jews from other ethnic groups – Sephardic, Mizrahi – have no such restrictive custom. So a pure corn whiskey could be kosher l’Pesach. In the United States several such whiskeys are available.
One of these is Platte Valley 100% Straight Corn Whiskey, aged 3 years. Aging is the difference between whiskey and whitedog. When one distills whiskey, the initial product is alcohol, water, and in tiny amounts, nonvolatile organic compounds. This does not actually become whiskey until it has aged in a charred wood barrel: this lets whiskey react with the wood, creating the molecules characteristic of a good whiskey. Without the aging, the distilled spirit is just a moonshine called “white dog.” Since many corn-based products are unaged, finding something aged for 3 years is special.
To create a kosher-for-Pesach whiskey the mash bill would have to be chametz free: Either 100% corn – or corn and some other acceptable product, e.g. rice or quinoa. So I began my investigation: Is Platte Valley 100% Straight Corn Whiskey kosher for Pesach?
In the USA, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) defines Corn whiskey as any “Whisky produced at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood .”
Now, questions arise which could only be clarified by contacting the manufactuer, the master distiller, and rabbis with a detailed knowledge of the halakhot of kashrut ( כַּשְׁרוּת) (“laws of keeping kosher.) The questions were:
- Most “corn whiskies” are not completely corn-based. For instance, “Mellow Corn” is 90% corn, and 10% chametz. Coppersea New York Corn is 80% corn, and 20% chametz. Under Federal labeling laws from the American TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) , “corn whiskey” can be 80% corn, and 20% other grains (incl. wheat, barley and rye). So for this whiskey, is there any wheat, rye, barley or oats, at all? Or is it truly all corn?
- What type of barrels was it aged in? Some barrel staves are held together with a glue that uses wheat. Such whiskey would be generally kosher for year round use of course, but it may not be considered as such for Passover
- Since this corn whiskey has been aged for 3 years in used barrels, what did these barrels hold previously? Wine, bourbon? And if so, would that matter?
I sent a detailed inquiry to Platte Valley Moonshine, and quickly heard back from them. The representative contacted the master distiller, and let me know the following:
The barrels that it was stored in did not have any wheat in the glue mix. It is a pure corn whiskey has been aged for three years – in barrels that had previously held kosher certified bourbon! That bourbon liquid itself contains no wheat or gluten, but was distilled from a grain mash of more than 51 percent corn. Now, there was some amount of rye or barley in the grain mash for the original bourbon – none of which makes it through the distilling process itself:
So our pure corn whiskey entered barrels which one held kosher bourbon, that had some chametz as a source. The next question is, does that matter? No chametz enters the corn whiskey whatsoever. Is the presence of residual bourbon in the barrels annulled?
I ran this by several people, including Elie Avitan, who studied at Yeshivat Reishit/Yeshivat Bais Yisroel/Yeshivat Mir. He then spoke to Rav Haim Ovadia (who received his Semicha in 1991 from Israeli Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, after studying rabbinics at the Shehebar Sephardic Center.) The result. Elie Avitan reports:
I spoke to Rav Haim Ovadia. He said that 100% Corn whiskey that is purchased *before Pesach* is ok to drink on Pesach. This is true even if it was stored in bourbon casks because the flavor transferred from the barrel (as opposed to actual food hametz) is considered to be Halakhically nullified when its source is the same material – bourbon in this case.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first kosher l’Pesach whiskey! Granted, this is not officially certified as such: as always, on important issues consult with your local rabbi.
Given this, perhas any 100% corn, or 100% seed-based whiskey would be kosher for Passover, which would include:
13th Colony Southern Corn Whiskey
Balcones True Blue 100 Proof, 100% corn whiskey
Balcones True Blue Cask Strength, 100% corn whiskey
Fitch’s Goat 100% Corn Whiskey
Glen Thunder American Corn Whiskey, 100% New York Corn (80% Corn 20% Malted Corn)
Hudson Baby bourbon (look for the 100% corn label)
Platte Valley 100% Straight Corn Whiskey
Raymond B. 100% Corn Whiskey
Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey
Sipp’n Corn Bourbon, Coppercraft Distillery
Stillhouse Clear Corn Whiskey
Koval Single Barrel Millet Whiskey
My evaluation is that this whiskey is kosher Passover, for Jewish people who consume kitniyot on Pesach. But as always, consult your local rav.
Daniel Sayani explains the halakhah on this issue:
Following the Ashkenazi tradition, any food to be consumed during Pesah, even foods that do not contain a hametz ingredient, must be prepared or manufactured under special rabbinical supervision. Why? In other areas of kashrut, it takes normally a proportion of 1.6% (roughly 1/60) or higher of a non-kosher element (usually additives) to render the whole product non-kosher. For example: a marmalade that contains a non-kosher element in a proportion higher than 1.6% is not kosher. But, if the presence of that element is less than 1.6% of the whole product, then the product is kosher.
On Pesah, however, the rules are stricter. Even the smallest amount of hametz is enough to render the whole food prohibited. Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim agree that the presence of a non-hametz ingredient in a food renders the whole product unfit for Pesah consumption, even if the proportion of that ingredient is as small as 0.001% of the total product.
Sephardic tradition holds, however, that if a hametz ingredient is mixed, accidentally or deliberately, into that food-product before Pesah begins, it will only render the final product as unfit for Pesah if that hametz ingredient is present in a proportion of or above 1.6%.
In other words, if a food made before Pesah contains a hametz element which is less than 1.6% of the total, that food will be kosher for Pesah.
Why? Because before Pesah, we apply the standard kashrut laws of 1.6%, and not the Pesah laws of 0.001%. And once a hametz element smaller than 1.6% is considered neutralized, it never “revives” again. According to the Ashkenazi tradition, however, if a 0.001% hametz element is present, it renders the whole food-product non-suitable for Pesah, regardless of when the food was prepared.
To explain in practical terms: Usually, in the food industry, an element found in a proportion of 1.6% or higher is one of the ingredients of that food-product, most probably an additive. On the other hand, an element present in a proportion of 0.001% is probably a consequence of an accident or a cross-contamination.
Outside kashrut, the presence of a 0.001% element might probably be the case of an allergen, like peanuts-residue, gluten, etc. Therefore, while identify the presence of a 1.6% ingredient is relatively easy, making sure that a 0.001% element is not present is virtually impossible – unless we completely clean and sterilize the factory, restrict the access of any unauthorized person or product; in other words, we make a special kosher for Passover supervision. In that case, the whole area where the food is produced, the machinery, etc., must be sterilized, and a supervisor should be present in the premises to avoid any accidental access of a hametz element, etc. Following the 0.001% rule, any food to be consumed during Pesah, even foods that do not contain a hametz ingredient, must be prepared or manufactured under special rabbinical supervision.
Now we understand why Sephardic Jews are in general more lenient with non-hametz foods, provided the food-product was bought before Pesah. Based on the above mentioned principle, Rabbi Obadia Yosef writes that according to the Sephardic tradition if a food, for example a marmalade, was produced before Pesah, and we know that it does not contain any hametz ingredient in a proportion of 1.6% or above, it will be permitted for Pesah even if it did not have any special supervision for Pesah.
Note: Does this apply to Ashkenazi Jews? In Israel, the custom is for Ashkenazi Jews to follow Sephardic dietary customs when there is an Ashkenazi-Sephardic marriage. Therefore, this includes a large and growing number of religious Jews there. Outside Israel, many Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews – even those who do not eat kitniyot – allow foods with kitniyot derivatives. And internationally, the rabbinical councils of the Conservative/Masorti Jewish movements have officially ruled that Ashkenazim may eat kitniyot on Pesach.