Religious Jews have practices to sanctify each area of life by creating sanctifications/distinctions. For eating, drink & food is sanctified by dividing it into kosher (acceptable to eat) as opposed to treif (not acceptable). Days are sanctified by dividing into Shabbat (Sabbath) vs weekdays, and holidays vs. regular days.
When it comes to drinking/eating, Jews follow the spiritual practice of Kashrut, כַּשְׁרוּת. This brings up the question, is all whiskey kosher?
Shouldn’t it all be kosher? Whiskey generally is only made from grain, yeast, and water. But in today’s modern world drinks often contain additional ingredients, so one often looks for a hekhsher – certification of kashrut – to know if an item is kosher. (Although, outside of meat, vegetarian kosher food does not usually need a hechsher.)
So is all whiskey and Scotch kosher, even without certification? If we restrict ourselves to whiskey made in Scotland, Ireland or the United States of America, all such whiskey is kosher.
Before we continue, let’s carefully define the scope of this article. We’re only covering Irish, Scottish or American whiskey. Not products from other nations.
When referring to American whiskey, we specifically mean straight whiskey. American whiskey not labeled as straight requires a closer look, and is outside the scope of this article.
A few whiskeys are aged in sherry casks. Some Orthodox rabbis are concerned about the wine that may be absorbed by the whiskey, if aged in sherry casks. That’s because the rules for wine are stricter than for other foods.
Nonetheless, the amount of wine absorbed so small that Jewish law views this as nullified. Most Orthodox rabbis hold that this type of whiskey is kosher even without a heksher. However, we may note that this position is not accepted by all congregations, so you may want to ask your local rabbi.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ״ל wrote about blended whiskey which, in rare cases, might contain small amounts of glycerine. He ruled that “Kol ha’rabbonim shosim zeh” – all the rabbis drink it. – Igros Moshe: Yoreh Deah 1:62-63
To address this in more depth, here is Rabbi Chaim Cohen, Rabbi of Netzach Yisrael and Yavneh Girls High School, Manchester.
Question: I have noticed that certain Scotch whiskies now have a hechsher on them. Does whisky need a hechsher?
Answer: The poskim agree that ordinary Scotch whisky (whether single malt or blended) which has no mention of any wine casks is perfectly Kosher. The question arises when whisky has been matured in wine casks, such as the Macallan Sherry Oak. R’ Moshe Feinstein famously addresses this issue in 2 responsa: Igros Moshe YD 1:62-63.
While the Shulchan Aruch (YD 134:13) forbids drinking a gentile’s beverage when it is customary to add non-Kosher wine to it, R’ Moshe follows the more lenient Rema. Providing the wine is nullified against 6 parts whisky (as opposed to the usual 1:60 ratio), the wine is Kosher.
While R’ Moshe advises that a baal nefesh should best avoid such whisky, seemingly he was specifically referring to a scenario where wine had actually been added to whisky. As Scotch Whisky Regulations dictate that Scotch may only contain water, grain yeast and caramel colouring, we can be assured that wine is not added.
Many American poskim are concerned that as the entire sherry (or port, Madeira, etc.) cask is saturated with non-Kosher wine, the wine is no longer battul 1:6 in the whisky. Others, including R’ Akiva Niehaus (Sherry Casks, A Halachic Perspective) argue that R’ Moshe wasn’t referring to Scotch, but to American or Canadian whiskey. Accordingly, they forbid Wine Cask Finishes, arguing that the wine adds a recognizable taste to the whisky.
Nonetheless, Rabbanim in the UK (including the London Beis Din) maintain that R’ Moshe’s rulings apply to Scotch, and follow R’ Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss’s permissive ruling, too (Minchas Yitzchak 2:28). Note, that distilleries outside of Scotland (including Ireland) are not bound by the same regulations, and their whiskies may be problematic. Thus one must consult their Kashrus authority.
Chaim Cohen is Rabbi of Netzach Yisrael and Yavneh Girls High School, Manchester.
Flavors, Finishes and Fireball: Understanding the New Age of Whiskey and its Halachic Implications, Source Sheet by Adam Miller
Rabbi Asher Weiss’ teshuvah allowing whiskey from sherry casks
Question: What is the Rav’s opinion about whiskey which is aged in Sherry Casks?
Answer: The flavor in the casks is considered insignificant in halacha and poses no kashrus concern for the whiskey. This is due to the fact that the flavor is halachically indiscernible, and presumed by chazal not to significantly improve the whiskey in any tangible way. See the attached teshuvos for elaboration [taken from Shu”t Minchas Asher chelek aleph]