The second annual Whisky Jewbilee was held Thursday night in midtown Manhattan, and the only appropriate way to describe the event is to call it what it was: the perfect kiddush club.
Nearly 400 enthusiastic attendees crammed into the two-floor venue, Zanger Hall, to live every Jewish man’s dream: a three-hour whisky tasting accompanied by a cholent, kugel, herring, kichel, and cigar bar. The event, a brainchild of Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin of the Jewish Whisky Company, was a response to New York’s celebrated Whisky Fest, which has been scheduled on Shabbat for the past two years, alienating religious Jews (so much so that the New York Times covered it).
“This is an absolutely wonderful event for our community, especially during this time of year when it’s whisky season and Jews can’t attend the most popular event. It’s always good to be able to drink with my fellow Yidden,” Adam Levy, a 44-year-old Hoboken, NJ resident who blogs as the Alcohol Professor, said. “Whisky has always been huge part of Jewish lifestyle, even since a boy sits down to get his first cup for kiddush. It’s common to have three generations of Jews sitting together at a family event or Shabbat table with four to five bottles of varieties.”
The event boasted 45 brands and more than 200 whiskies from Japan, Ireland, America, and Scotland available, all kosher. While most whiskies are naturally kosher—unless they are aged in wine-lined barrels—some companies have sought kosher certification in recent years to attract the increasingly visible Jewish market.
Many local and newly-established whisky companies presented their latest brews, and the Jewish Whisky Company brought a full array of their Single Cask Nation beverages—from their four-year Kilchoman to 17-year BenRiach. Favorites like Glenmorangie, Four Roses, and Tomintoul flowed, while kilt-clad Europeans poured Scottish blends like Douglas and Maltman. Representatives from the Yonkers, NY distillery behind Mahia, a Moroccan-inspired fig brandy, handed out recipe cards with trendy cocktail suggestions, while the smoky and peaty Ardbeg drew a large crowd for their 10-year single malt Scotch whisky, for those looking to garner some hair on their chest.
Several college students told me they enjoyed Compass Box’s spicy Peat Monster, Auchentoshan Three Wood, and Isle of Arran Distillers Devil’s Punchbowl. One proud father took mental notes to purchase Nikka Japanese Single Malt Whisky 15-year Yoichi for his son’s bar mitzvah later this year.
“Jews are heavy whisky drinkers because there were no good kosher wines available in the early 1900s and people wanted to get their drink on,” said Shlomo Blashka, a 35-year-old representative from Royal Wine Corp., one of the country’s largest kosher beverage distributors. “The rabbis ruled that anything non-grape-based was okay, and so began the relationship. Here’s where there was a development of the feinschmecker—a whisky connoisseur which could be a good or bad nickname, all depending on which dialect of Yiddish you spoke.”
I asked Blashka’s coworker, a New Jersey resident in his fifties manning the pour, which bottle was best for a bar mitzvah boy’s first drink, but the choices were apparently too hard to narrow down.
The event featured a predominantly older Jewish male demographic, which Alice Silverstein of the Upper West Side said was a real shame.
“Ladies are really missing out,” she said. “A palette for scotch is really hard to come by if you don’t drink it often and this is a good event to learn as I go.”
Back behind the whisky display laid a smorgasbord to behold, and between the mob wolfing down the cholent and the hands all over the cracker assortment, it was hard to decipher which precise attraction the average attendee preferred. Apothecaries held three different colors of caviar and enormous glass goblets encased an impressive selection of herring: pickled, beet-infused, spicy, and creamy “oneg shabbas,” and a salty matjes. Boards of sliced deli, liver, fried chicken skin, and baby hot dogs were sprinkled throughout the spread, while bowls of mixed greens and peppers went noticeably untouched. Countless trays of all-you-can-eat cholent kept appearing, as well as with long salvers of kugel—the crowd most definitely preferred the greasy potato kugel, based on its fleeting appearance.
“We’re looking for some good additions to our kiddush club,” one of several rowdy members of the Murray Hill Adereth El synagogue hiccupped. “There’s some real top-shelf stuff here, but there’s also a lot of garbage. That’s the beauty of this event, though. You get to try the good stuff and avoid the garbage!”
The five men had attended as a group to decide which new bottle could join their posh collection, but a heated argument over how good the cholent actually was erupted before they could tell me which bottle had triumphed.
“For the real kiddush club, you have to come to Teaneck,” Alex Schudrich, a computer software manager from Teaneck, NJ, said after the city folks skipped away. “We have a solid group of 12 guys who gather for kiddush club every week after davening, and we move around shuls, because some places don’t allow booze. We used to be hooked on Gentleman Jack, now we like tequila. I think I’m going for Larceny 92 proof, it really impressed me.”
Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.