American Whiskey’s Jewish Spirit

September, 12 2016

by Josh Tapper

The proverbial liquor cabinet in the collective consciousness of American Jewry contains only a handful of familiar—and unquestionably eccentric, nostalgia-soaked—libations. There is, of course, Manischewitz, that syrupy sweet sacramental wine, and slivovitz, a throat-burning plum-brandy with roots in Eastern Europe. Sephardim have made their own contribution with arak, a pungent and polarizing anise-flavored alcohol indigenous to the Mediterranean region.

But often lost in this rather dispiriting history is one of the United States’ most enduring—and popular—alcohols: American whiskey. With its Midwestern and Southern roots, whiskey might not have obvious Jewish cachet, but the quintessentially American beverage nevertheless carries strong tribal bona fides. Indeed, Jews have been involved in the production of bourbon and other American whiskeys since the mid- to late-19th century, and their names are deeply connected to several of the highest-profile brands and companies in the industry: I.W. Harper, Heaven Hill and the ubiquitous Jim Beam among them.

The relationship between Jews and whiskey in America did not develop entirely by happenstance. Jewish aptitude for distilling alcohol—grain-based or otherwise—dates back millennia, the product of rabbinic injunctions that forbade Jews from consuming wine made by gentiles. Over time, this expertise enabled Jews throughout the diaspora to enter the liquor market as distillers and purveyors, especially in regions across Central and Eastern Europe, establishing alcohol as a gateway to economic security. In 19th-century Poland, for instance, Jews, mostly peddling rye-based vodka, operated the “vast majority of…taverns and distilleries,” becoming vital cogs in a vibrant Eastern European liquor trade, as historian Glenn Dynner details in Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland.

Upon arrival in America around the turn of the 20th century, waves of Jewish immigrants would have “at least regarded alcohol commerce as something that Jews did,” says Marni Davis, a historian at Georgia State University and author of Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition. And these Jews were entering a country where whiskey, fueled by a nationwide surge in grain production after the Civil War, had become a veritable boom industry.

For Jews interested in the alcohol industry, whiskey wasn’t the only option on tap, but it was the most accessible. The German-run beer trade had a long history of excluding Jews, and most forms of alcohol production at the time operated with closed supply lines from producer to retailer, making it difficult for outsiders to find a niche. The whiskey business, by contrast, was less vertically integrated, so entrepreneurial Jews could find opportunity in any number of positions.

Davis suggests that low barriers to entry were not the only reason Jews turned to whiskey. At the time, “there was something deeply American about the whiskey industry, even patriotic,” she says. Unlike beer, bourbon whiskey was a homegrown drink, distilled by Americans. For those like Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a German-Jewish immigrant first to Pennsylvania, then Kentucky, the whiskey trade became a vehicle for Americanization. His Bernheim Bros. company, founded in 1872, grew into one of the country’s largest whiskey distilleries. While it was common for whiskey men of the era to assign their brands a family name, Bernheim chose to replace his European-Jewish surname with an American-sounding one on his company’s signature bourbon, I.W. Harper. As Davis explains, whiskey “was not just a way to mach a leben [make a life], it became a way to enter the civic arena, to acculturate, to prove one’s American bona fides.”

While it is unclear just how many Jews dealt in whiskey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Davis posits that Jews made up 25 percent of the alcohol industry when Prohibition was introduced in 1920. Their prominence drew the ire of Temperance advocates who saw Jews as conduits for the deleterious effects of alcohol. As historian Daniel Okrent points out in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, a 1909 issue of McClure’s Magazine highlighted the “acute and unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country.”

Prohibition gave rise to some of the liquor industry’s most famous (and disreputable) Jewish characters, many of whom got their start as bootleggers. After Prohibition, which devastated the American whiskey trade, Jews were instrumental in rebuilding the industry, says Noah Rothbaum, a liquor expert and the author of The Art of American Whiskey. “That’s when you see Jews helping save the whiskey industry and helping it become an internationally recognized product,” he says.

In the wake of Repeal, Cincinnati-born Lewis Rosenstiel bought up a slew of ruined distilleries under the newly formed Schenley Distillers Corporation and eventually grew the outfit into one of America’s “Big Four” liquor giants before selling it in 1968. Rosenstiel, an indicted bootlegger and associate of the Jewish Prohibition-era gangster Meyer Lansky, was also an early advocate of classifying bourbon under federal law as a beverage produced only in the United States. Alongside Schenley in the “Big Four” was Seagram’s, the liquor empire launched in the early 1930s by the Canadian Sam Bronfman, who also had ties to Prohibition-era bootlegging.

Chicago-based Philip Blum also capitalized on the struggling post-Prohibition industry, investing heavily in Jim Beam, which he owned from 1934 to 1967. But perhaps the greatest success story is that of the Shapira family, which founded Heaven Hill in 1935. Since then, the Kentucky-based firm, still owned by the family, has become a top-10 producer of distilled spirits in the U.S. with a lengthy roster of labels that includes Elijah Craig Bourbon and Evan Williams Bourbon. The two Stars of David embedded in the ceiling rafters of the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Kentucky are a nod to its Jewish heritage. 

While American whiskey’s Jewish past is often overlooked, the liquor has become a stalwart of today’s Jewish drinking scene. Bourbon, which U.S. law requires be aged in new, unadulterated casks, is naturally kosher, and major Scotch whiskeys, such as Glenmorangie and Glenrothes now carry hechshers. Since 2012, the Connecticut-based Jewish Whisky Company, which bottles kosher single-cask whiskeys from other distillers and sells them under its own label, has staged annual “Whisky Jewbilee” tasting events in New York, Chicago and Seattle as part of an effort to push whiskey on the kosher market. Even Israel, a country hardly known for its grain production, is home to at least two whiskey distilleries—the Golan Heights Distillery, which began selling its whiskey in Israel earlier this year, and the Jaffa-based Milk and Honey, which expects to see its three-year-old whiskey on U.S. shelves by 2018.

Jewish Whisky Company cofounder Jason Johnstone-Yellin, a Scottish transplant who is married to a Jewish woman, suggests that Jews, no strangers to adversity, have a special appreciation for the extreme patience and care that go into producing a bottle of whiskey. Waiting a few years for a finely crafted, mature whiskey? “It’s a drop in the ocean compared to everything else.”—Josh Tapper 


Honey Cake Cocktail

A Rosh Hashanah recipe adapted from the Jewish Food Experience

  3 ounces whiskey of your choice
  ½ teaspoon crushed fall spices, such as cinnamon, star anise, clove, allspice, etc.
(You can also buy a package of mulling spices and use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to crush them.)
  2 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice
  ¾ ounce honey
  1 teaspoon water
  Orange peel

Stir the spices into the whiskey and allow it to sit for several hours or overnight to infuse. Strain the whiskey through a strainer with a coffee filter to remove the spices. Add the water to the honey and stir to dissolve it into a slightly thinner syrup. Add the spiced whiskey, juice and honey to a cocktail shaker with several pieces of ice. Shake for 10 to 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass or rocks glass. Garnish with an orange peel, twisting before you toss it into the drink to release oils in the peel.

One thought on “American Whiskey’s Jewish Spirit

  1. Harry Freiberg says:

    My father’s great-grand father and his 3 brothers, all coopers, came to the US (Cincinnati) in the early 1850s from Saxony. Some stories say they fled for political reasons, others say for criminal reasons. Regardless, they soon decided that the best way to advancement was to distill whiskey to fill their barrels. They flourished.

    When my grandfather decided to marry my grandmother, she and her family said yes, but only if he got out of the whiskey business, which he did. My oldest first cousin has the last know bottle of Freiberg Whiskey. We all want to taste, but are afraid to open a 100+ year bottle…

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