By Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech
Reprinted with permission from Vaad Ha’ir of Montreal Volume 1, Issue 8 Adar Sheini 5760 / March 2000
© 2000 Rabbi Blech
For each of the past two thousand years, the Jewish people have observed the holiday of Purim to celebrate their deliverance from the evil decree of the Persian King Achashveirosh and his minister Haman. Our sages tell us that the Jewish people had chosen to participate in the heathen banquets hosted by the King. Although the Kashrus of their food was indeed maintained, the Jewish people were called to task for being even tangentially involved in the parties noted for their drunken licentiousness and riotous behaviour. When confronted with the consequences of their actions, however, the Jewish people repented and Hashem effected their deliverance through parties of wine and drink arranged by Queen Esther. To commemorate this miracle, we drink a bit more wine than accustomed. It is in this spirit that we embellish the festivity and recognition of the salvation we continue to enjoy. [The Shulchan Aruch O.C. 695:2 quotes the Talmud, Megillah 7b, that “One is obligated to drink (wine) on Purim to the point where one is not cognisant of the distinction between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.” Halachik authorities, however, hasten to comment that any such inebriation must never rise to the point where one behaves in an inappropriate manner [see Beir Halacha, ibid.]. The Ramah (Ibid.) quotes earlier authorities that one may fulfil this obligation by drinking a bit more than he is accustomed to and taking a short nap. The main point is that one should celebrate the miracle of Purim in good spirits in a manner that creates a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name).]
The oldest alcoholic beverages – wine and beer – are mentioned in the Torah. Distilled spirits, on the other hand, are of a more recent vintage. All are based on the same chemical reaction – the fermentation of sugar into alcohol. This process involves the growth of specific strains of yeast, which convert different types of sugar into ethyl alcohol. The difference between the different drinks stems from the source of the sugar, the method by which the fermented brew is processed, and the flavours and additives they may contain.
Wine is fermented fruit juice. Generally, the term “wine” refers to fermented grape juice; while wine produced from other fruits is labelled with the name of the specific fruit (e.g. peach wine). Grape wine, as well as grape juice, is subject to specific rules of Stam Yaynam, which dictate that in order for it to be considered Kosher, Torah observant Jews handle all aspects of its production through final bottling. Any pouring or handling of opened bottles of grape thereafter be handled as any other product. Grape wine (and juice) is the only alcoholic product subject to the rules of Stam Yaynam.
Beer is the fermented broth of grains and other starches. In order for the yeast to produce the alcohol, however, the starch in the grain must first be converted into sugar. This can be accomplished by germinating, or malting, barley. As the barley begins the malting process, the germ in the grain produces a strong enzyme called amylase, which converts the starch from the main part of the grain into sugar. This sugar can then be converted by the yeast into alcohol. Most beer manufactured today uses a small amount of malted barley along with other less expensive types of grain such as rice and corn. The finest types of beer still rely on malted barley. The characteristic carbonation in beer comes from the carbon dioxide that is produced during the fermentation process. The sharp flavour of the beer comes from the addition of hops (the flower of a vine grown specifically for this purpose). Beer is generally considered Kosher without special certification. However, since beer generally contains a certain amount of barley, it is considered Chometz and may not be used on Passover. In addition, beer that has been improperly owned by a Jew on Passover may not be used even after Passover has passed (Chometz She’Avar Alav Ha’Pesach).
Both wine and beer are essentially the products of the fermentation process – the fermented broth serves as the basis of the product. Other alcoholic beverages fall under the category of distilled spirits. Distillation is the process by which the alcohol is removed from the fermented broth (or wort) by heating the wort until the alcohol vaporizes, after which it is condensed. When almost pure alcohol is distilled from fermentation, the product is called grain neutral spirits (GNS). The purity of such alcohol can be as high as 95% (or 190 proof in the United States and Canada,) contains virtually none of the flavour of the grains or other material used in the fermentation, and is often used as the base for other alcoholic beverages. Vodka, is merely a diluted form of this alcohol, and as such can be made from virtually any fermentable carbohydrate without concern of residual flavour. While potatoes were the traditional source of Russian vodka, most vodka today is made from cereal grains. However, lactose (milk sugar) is also used to produce alcohol in some countries, and such a product raises significant Kashrus and Dairy concerns. Flavoured vodka has now become popular and such products require Kosher certification due to Kashrus issues relating to the flavours themselves.
When the distillation takes place at lower proof, the condensed liquid contains more components from the original fermentation than just pure alcohol. When cereal grains are used to produce such products, the resulting product is called a whisky. A number of Kashrus issues can be found in whisky. First, since the grain from which whisky is produced is often Chometz (fermented wheat, rye, oats, barley, or spelt), it may not be used or owned on Passover. [A slight Halachik distinction between beer and whisky has been made by some authorities, in that beer contains the actual Chometz while whisky is merely a condensed vapour – Zeiah B’Almah. While this distinction is not used to permit the use of whisky on Passover, it may be factor in dealing with issues relating to the sale of Chometz before Pesach.] Second, many whiskies are blended with other ingredients, some of which may be non-Kosher wine. Much Halachik discussion has been published concerning whisky in which a small amount of wine has been blended (see Igros Moshe Y.D. I, 62-64), and many are careful to avoid blended whisky unless the absence of wine has been verified. A third issue relates to the casks in which some whisky – notably Scotch and Irish whisky – is aged. In order to enhance the flavour of some of these whiskies, they are aged in barrels that had been used to store non-Kosher sherry wine. This again raises questions as to the possible taste of non-Kosher wine in the whisky, and has been the subject of much Halachik discussion (see Minchas Yitzchok II:28). While many authorities have concluded that the use of such casks is not Halachikally significant, those whiskies that actually claim that they are aged in sherry casks pose more of a concern. Interestingly, American bourbon (named after Bourbon County in Kentucky) is free of such a concern, since by law such whisky must be aged in new casks.
Gin is merely a GNS that has been flavoured with juniper berries and other botanical herbs and flowers. The Kashrus concern of gin is essentially the same as for grain neutral spirits.
Brandy is produced by distillation of wine, thereby concentrating the alcohol content of the product. The term is generally applied to the product manufactured from grape wine, although other brandies (such as blackberry brandy) can be made from wines of other fruits. Cognac is merely brandy produced from wine of a certain region in France. Brandy produced from grape wine is subject to the Kashrus concerns attendant to wine. Brandies from other fruits (such as slivovitz from plums and kirschwasser from cherries) have long been the source of alcoholic drinks that can be made Kosher for Passover.
Liqueur differs from the previous types of drinks in that it is generally not a directly fermented product but refers to blended drinks. Although many famous liqueurs are based upon very old and secretive recipes, most are mixtures of alcohol, sugar or corn syrup, and flavourings. The following Kashrus concerns should be noted when dealing with liqueurs. First, the alcohol base is often grape brandy and is not Kosher unless produced specifically as a Kosher product. Even pure alcohol may pose Kashrus concerns, since a significant amount of alcohol produced in Europe is distilled from off-grade non-Kosher wine. Second, the flavours used in the product require Kosher certification, just as do flavours in any other Kosher food product. Third, glycerine is commonly used as a sweetener and emulsifier in such liqueurs. Glycerine is often produced from animal fat and Kosher certification for this ingredient is essential. Clearly, liqueur can only be considered Kosher when it bears an acceptable Kosher certification.
We celebrate the holiday of Purim in many ways. We read the Megillah, send Shalach Manos (gifts of food), contribute Matanos L’Evyonim (gifts to the poor), and eat the Purim Seudah (banquet). As we discussed, one is commanded to celebrate at this meal and to partake in the varied spirits available to us. In our quest to fulfil Ad D’Lo Yadah, we must be careful to remain cognisant to the Kosher status of the nectars that may bring us to that level. One should never drink so much that he fails to notice the worm in his Tequila!
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