There’s no reason the prohibition against consuming chametz means having to spend another Passover restricted to Manischewitz Concord, Golan Heights Cabernets, or the one-off slivovitz. A holiday that requires adults to down at least four cups of wine at the start ought to pack at least as much punch as St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, or Cinco de Mayo.
Any beverage produced from one of the five grains—barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat—is off the table for Passover. In practical terms, that means no beer, Bourbon, Scotch, Irish or rye whiskeys, most vodkas and gins, or any other drinks made with grain neutral sprits can be consumed during the 192 hours of Passover. Ashkenazi Jews add another layer of self-deprivation by foregoing legumes, corn, rice, and various spices.
The good news is there’s plenty of decent alcohol available for drinking over Passover.
Thirsting for a Classic Martini? There’s an app—and grain-free gin—for that. A Perfect Manhattan? Simply substitute Cognac for Bourbon. Rum and cola? Make it with Mexican Coca Cola (cane sugar instead of corn syrup) and you have a festive Ashkenazy Hebe Libre. Sake and sushi? You already know the answer.
To help make this Passover different from all others, here are 10 pretty-much-OK for Passover cocktails, one for each of the Biblical plagues. Where ingredients with a Pesach hekhsher on the label could be found, they are listed and so designated. Also included, however, are products that are ingredient-consistent with Passover but—for want of a mashgiach’s approval—cannot be guaranteed 100 percent not to have come into direct or indirect contact with chametz or trayf. How dangerously to live will be up to you.
A Guide to Grain-free Ingredients
Absinthe: This cult spirit was banned from the U.S. for many years because of its purported hallucinatory properties. Over the past decade these prohibitions have been lifted and many brands of authentic absinthe are readily available at your corner liquor store. I could find none with a Pesach hekhsher, or kosher symbol, on the label, but those listed here are made with a Passover-friendly grape spirit base (eau de vie), including Leopold Brothers (Colorado), St. George (California), Jade Nouvelle Orleans and Jade Esprit Edouard (France), CF Berger (Swiss) and Pernod Original Recipe Absinthe Superieur (France). Ironically, Lucid, the first absinthe with a regular kosher hekhsher doesn’t pass muster for Passover because it’s fortified with grain neutral spirits.
Arak: With Hekhsher: Arak Askalon Extra Fine Special (Israel), molasses spirits base, strips paint, swallows like liquid crushed glass. A couple of rungs down the ladder from grappa.
Chambord: A French raspberry liqueur from a Cognac base. No hekhsher, but grain free.
Chartreuse: Chartreuse (both yellow and green) is an herbal liqueur made by French monks, which may be problematic in terms of process but not ingredients. There is no pesach hekhsher, but its components, including herbs and botanicals in an eau de vie base, are ingredient-consistent with Passover.
Cognac: The appellation “Cognac” is strictly controlled by the French government and can be applied only to brandies produced from specific strains of white grapes in the region around the Town of Cognac in southwest France. Brands with a pesach hekhsher include: Dupuy VSOP and XO, Godet XO, Louis Royer VS and XO, and Montaigne Napoleon and VS. But by definition any popular Cognac or brandy will be produced without grain or grain alcohol.
Crème de Cassis: A black current liqueur from France fortified with a brandy (eau de vie) base. Leroux Crème de Cassis carries a regular kosher hekhsher, but not a special one for Passover. Another popular brand, L’Heritier-Guyot, has no hekhsher at all but most likely is as ingredient-consistent with Passover as Leroux. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Fig Brandy: Boukha Bokobsa Fig Brandy, which bears the pesach hekhsher of the Beth Din of Paris, is a step above slivovitz and several rungs higher, on a very low ladder, than Arak. Let’s call it an acquired taste.
Gin: Your only option with a pesach hekhsher is San Francisco’s Distillery No. 209, which produces a specialty seasonal sugar cane sprit based (different from its year round grain spirits) gin. Cold River is a gin produced from a 100 percent potato base in Maine, and G’Vine gin from France is produced from a 100 percent grape spirits base, but both are made with cardamom, a botanical that is prohibited by Ashkenazi tradition, but not Sephardic. It shouldn’t be too hard, however, to find a genealogical loophole for those so inclined.
Grand Marnier and Cointreau: Orange flavored cordials from France, one distilled from Cognac, the other from sugar beets. No hekhsher, not a speck of grain.
Kahlua: This rum (or molasses-based) coffee liqueur does not carry a Passover hekhsher, but its Israeli counterpart—Sabra—does. Both are ingredient-consistent with Passover.
Rum: Unflavored rum is distilled from a molasses spirits base, but I could not identify any brand with a Passover hekhsher. Since rum is ingredient-consistent with Passover, chances of encountering chametz are tiny. Angostura, Bacardi, and Flora de Cana Grand Reserve are pretty safe bets.
Sparkling Wine: Sparkling wines with Passover hekhshers aren’t hard to find in all price ranges, from Laurent-Perrier Brut at $90, to Louis De Sacy Brut Champagne N.V. at around $60, to the ever-popular Baron Herzog Brut at $12.99 and the haimish Kedem Sparkling at just under $10. If you’re looking for reasonably priced domestic alternatives, try Washington State Domaine Ste. Michelle or New York’s Great Western: while neither carries a hekhsher, both are produced and brought to market by employees protected by a union contract, which means they are not being exploited, a relevant consideration for this particular holiday.
Tequila: Tequila Casa Vieja, in both Anejo and Blanco varieties, carries a Passover hekhsher. A safe bet for tequilas without a hekhsher are those with a 100 percent agave spirit base, so avoid varieties to which other types of alcohol, colorings, or flavor enhancers have been added.
Vodka: Colorless, flavorless spirit commonly distilled from grains, corn, potatoes, and some root vegetables. Vodkas with a Passover hekhsher include Israeli import L’Chaim (distilled from beets), Moses Vodka from Finland, as well as one from San Franciso’s Distillery No.209 ($32.95), which also produces a Passover-certified gin. Popularly priced Luksusowa and the more expensive Chopin Single Ingredient Potato Vodka are traditional Polish vodkas that are ingredient-consistent with Passover. Domestics include Alaska’s Permafrost (at $45 a bottle probably the costliest you’ll find), Portland Potato Vodka from Oregon, and Idaho’s Teton Glacier (both in the $20 range). Since all vodkas are supposed to have no taste, go with smoothness (the greater number of distillations, the easier it goes down) and price.
Bar Mixers, Syrups and Garnishes: Non-alcoholic products included in these cocktail recipes do not include a Passover hekhsher unless so-identified. All products mentioned are ingredient-consistent for Pesach.
Plague 1: Blood
Cocktail: Red Nile
The original eye-opener. Great way to start the plagues, perfect for weekend brunch of fresh fruit, coffee, matzoh brie, and Sephardic dried-fruit-and-cumin haroseth.
2 oz potato vodka
4 oz tomato juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
1 oz Arak
1 tsp white horseradish
6 drops Texas Pete
3 drops Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Cocktail Bitters (no corn syrup)
Carrot stick for garnish
Directions: Fill a burgundy glass with ice. Combine ingredients in dry shaker. Shake until well-mixed, then pour into ice-filled glass. Garnish with 6-inch carrot stick.
Plague 2: Frogs
Cocktail: Paris in April
Passover occasionally coincides with April, the month when Parisians experience more showers than during the whole rest of the year combined, which is reason enough to celebrate with this languid cocktail comprised entirely of ingredients from France.
A musky accompaniment for firing up the vaporizer, cranking up “La Vie En Rose” and inducing a lazy nostalgie de la boue for “The Sparrow” and amnesia concerning her activities during the war. Smugly satisfying with a toasted matzoh and grilled gruyere.
1 1/2 oz Cognac
1 oz green Chartreuse
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
4 oz Perrier
Instructions: To a chilled rocks glass (preferably a Bonne Maman jam jar), add Cognac, Chartreuse, and Grand Marnier, then swirl with minimal effort. Using fingers drop two ice cubes into the mixture, then fill to rim with Perrier. No garnish.
Plague 3: Vermin
Cocktail: The Cockroach
A perfect nightcap for an urban Seder. Enjoy several with macaroons. Just when you think you’re done, pour another. Leave the dishes overnight and don’t bother clearing the table or sweeping up the crumbs. Maybe you’ll awaken to a Passover miracle.
2 oz Tequila
1 oz Kahlua or Sabra Coffee liqueur
Instructions: Pour Tequila into a brandy snifter. Without stirring, add Sabra or Kahlua. Add 1 ice cube.
Plague 4: Beasts
Cocktail: Zion King
Very pronounced bite on the front end with a tart finish. Perfect with rare shoulder of lamb. Drink one with each required cup of wine, closing each Kiddush with a roaring Hakuna Matata. After four of these, not everyone invited will be coming back from Seder.
1 1/2 oz fig brandy
1 1/2 oz non-grain spirits gin
2 oz fresh squeezed orange juice
3/4 oz Chambord
Instructions: Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a Burgundy glass. Garnish with Tilden Farms Bada Bing cherry (no corn syrup).
Plague 5: Pestilence
Cocktail: Buffalo Fly Shooter
A competition beverage in the Bitterness and Pain category. Good whenever more than one willing drinker can be found. Store breakables and good linens, but let the kids stay up to watch. Chasers not allowed. Suitable palate cleansers between shots include leftover gefilte fish, three-day-old hard boiled eggs, and any item (non-refrigerated) off the ceremonial seder plate. Winner gets a box of Barton’s Fruit Flavor Jelly slices and taxifare home.
1/2 oz potato vodka (freezer temperature)
1/2 oz Arak
3 drops Texas Pete hot sauce
Instructions: Add freezer temperature vodka to shot glass. Add Arak without stirring. Add 3 drops of Texas Pete until each coagulates. Knock back quickly in one gulp. Repeat ad infinitum.
Plague 6: Boils
Cocktail: Bumpy Eruption
The go-to drink for when the afikomen surprise at your sister’s seder turns out to be the recently-divorced sweetheart you broke up with badly in high school and haven’t seen since. Swell for slow grudge-nursing throughout the evening, but for a truly memorable Passover meal you may want to down three in quick succession just before the partaking of the bitter herbs, all the better to bring to an explosive head every pustule of sibling rivalry, personal betrayal and unfulfilled promise that’s tormented your soul since the day you entered this vale of tears.
Especially satisfying with a big steaming pile of tsimmes.
2 oz Cognac
1/2 oz Crème de Cassis
1 oz tequila
1/2 oz Cointreau
Instructions: Shake all ingredients in ice. Strain into martini glass. Garnish won’t help.
Plague 7: Hail
Cocktail: Hailfire and Brewski
Great for long afternoons watching ESPN classic baseball reruns with buddies. A perfect what-could-go-wrong self-service drink. Pleasantly unpredictable. Start early and refresh every inning or two. Great with hot chicken wings, chopped liver, or cold hunks of salami. Sure to leave you feeling pounded. Penance may require recitation of a dozen Hail Moishes and several go rounds with the vacuum cleaner or sponge mop.
2 oz 151 proof white rum
4 oz Fever Tree Ginger Beer (no corn syrup)
Orange wedge for garnish
Instructions: Pack a highball glass half-full with crushed ice. Add rum. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with orange wedge.
Plague 8: Locusts
Cocktail: Desert Swarm
This frothy throwback to classic cocktail culture gets lots of damage done in a short amount of time. Just the drink for when unexpected guests arrive from out of nowhere. Serve with cornichons and onion Tam Tams. Prepare in portion-controlled batches, then after two rounds sweep everyone out the door in a nimble Classic Reverse Elijah.
2 oz white rum
1 oz non-grain spirits gin
1 oz RW Knudsen Organic Pear Juice
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh egg white
1/2 oz Domino Organic Blue Agave Syrup
2 dashes Fee Brothers Orange Bitters (no corn syrup)
Club soda (preferably fresh-made SodaStream)
Fresh parsley for garnish
Instructions: Add all ingredients, except soda and parsley, to cocktail shaker. Dry shake (without ice) for 10 seconds. Add ice, then hard shake for another 10 seconds. Strain contents into old fashioned glass. Top off with soda. Garnish with parsley sprig.
Appetizing Note: While most insects are trayf, locusts and grasshoppers aren’t. This bit of news may inspire additional snack options for your guests to try. Let them know what they’re eating, or not.
Plague 9: Darkness
Cocktail: Elysian Dream
This is an adaptation of the New Orleans Sazerac, America’s first cocktail, which was
originally made with Cognac instead of rye.
By now someone should have drawn the shades, lighted a small candle, and unwrapped a 71 percent or higher cacao content chocolate bar. Keep the lights low and the music playing. Best prepared in batches divisible by two. Be sure, at some point, to blow the candle out.
2 oz Cognac
3/4 oz Stirrings Simple Syrup (no corn syrup)
1/2 oz absinthe
3 drops Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
Orange peel for garnish
Instructions: Fill an old fashioned glass with ice. Into a second glass add Cognac, simple syrup, and bitters, ice, then stir or gently shake. Remove ice from first glass, then rinse with absinthe until inside is coated completely with a thin film. Discard, reserve, or swallow the excess absinthe. Strain contents of second glass into first. Garnish with sliver of orange peel folded lengthwise over the rim.
Plague 10: Slaying of the first born
Cocktail: Pharaoh’s Lament
An adaptation of Hemmingway’s Death in the Afternoon cocktail, one of these should be enough to carry you through to next Passover; two will transport you to another dimension. Presents an other-worldly hypnotic display, so take your time. There’s a lot going on in this glass. Licorice sweet at first, but then the salt and bubbles do their miraculously complex work. Taste changes and improves with every sip.
Don’t plan on doing much the rest of the day. Break out the reclining pillows and stay clear of open flames, extreme temperatures, electrical appliances, traffic, your phone and the internet. But not to worry. Wherever you are, you’re almost home.
4 1/2 oz very dry sparkling wine
1 oz absinthe
2 dashes Fee Brothers Orange Bitters
Instructions: Rub the rim of a champagne flute with lemon wedge, then salt as you would for a margarita. Pour in the sparkling wine. Add absinthe. Add bitters. Reserve the lemon wedge for re-salting refills.
Louis Nayman occasionally writes for In These Times and the Times of Israel, works as a union organizer, and is considered by many to be a pretty good judge of bad whisky.