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think that there are many misconceptions about what being kosher entails,” said Ryan Burchett, owner/distiller for Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa. “People think it’s some kind of a blessing or religious ceremony. That’s not the case at all… It goes back to the ancient Old Testament purity rules that Orthodox Jews follow, especially during holy times, because we know these ingredients are clean according to Jewish tradition. Most everything used in distilling is inherently kosher because it comes from the earth.” The word ‘kosher’ comes from the Hebrew word for ‘fit’ or ‘appropriate’ and describes the rules for food consumption found in the Torah. Kosher divides food into three categories: Dairy, meat, and pareve. Pareve is Yiddish for neutral and refers to items neither meat nor dairy, mostly plants. Since grains, fruits, and spices are distilling’s main ingredients, it’s relatively easy to achieve kosher status. To understand kosher’s connection to distilling, I spoke with one of the country’s foremost craft distilleries, Koval in Chicago. The independently owned Koval is both certified kosher and organic. The certification is important to owners Robert and Sonat Birnecker because their products are highly personal. “For us kosher means something else,” explains Sonat, who spent over a decade as a professor of Jewish studies in the US and Europe. “It’s not just about what you can or cannot eat. There’s a spiritual component too. It means you’re thinking about what you’re eating. The spiritual element was we want to be thinking
about our identity in our work life in addition to our private life. We are a Jewish company and we care about our heritage and culture.” To become kosher, producers can choose from over 75 US certification organizations, the largest being Orthodox Union, OK Kosher, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council. Companies pay a fee and receive an inspection of their ingredients and equipment. Follow ups are in the form of quarterly unannounced visits by local rabbi. “The rabbis inspect us more than the government,” joked Crystal Barrios, tasting room and events manager of Laws Whiskey House in Denver. Laws opened to the public in 2014, but didn’t become kosher until 2017. Barrios says since Laws buys ingredients direct from farmers, certifying the supply chain was simple. A bigger adjustment was changing staff habits like eating lunch in the break room and not allowing outside food or drinks on the production floor. Sonat warns that distillers who use items like flavorings and colorings need to review them carefully. “There are certain things to consider, because some additives, colorings, and flavorings — we don’t use any of these — but some contain ingredients that would render them not kosher. For example, a lot of gelatins, like those used in candy, are made from fish, which is kosher. However, some come from pork, obviously not kosher. Sometimes colorings come from bugs, rendering it not kosher,” she said. There are separate kosher laws for wine production, so grapebased spirits like brandy are difficult to certify. Also, since dairy and meat cannot be combined, products like bourbon cream need to be labeled appropriately. However, for a majority of distilleries, becoming kosher is a simple process that can introduce more people to their products. Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Mich., is also both kosher and organic. “It’s good for us,” said distiller Joe Biggs, who oversees the company’s organic and kosher certifications. “Our numberone commitment is quality. That starts with quality ingredients and quality processes. Being organic and
“For us kosher means something else. It’s not just about what you can or cannot eat. There’s a spiritual component too. It means you’re thinking about what you’re eating. The spiritual element was we want to be thinking about our identity in our work life in addition to our private life. We are a Jewish company and we care about our heritage and culture.” — SONAT BIRNECKER, Koval 126
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