Saturday, August 5, 2017

:: jews & booze ::

One of the talks that I really enjoyed but skipped over in the first pass was "Jews & Booze" by moderator Noah Rothbaum (DailyBeast, The Art of American Whiskey), Allen Katz (NY Distilling Co.), Jason Horn (, and Max Watman (Chasing the White Dog) to cover the forgotten history of Jews and Distilling. I was somewhat surprised that this topic would covered in New Orleans until the person next to me in the media line on that Friday afternoon was a reporter for a New Orleans Jewish newspaper; the eye-opening topic of Jews in the South was later discussed.

Noah began by describing how while researching his book on American whiskey, it was not the good ol' American boys doing the work, but a lot of immigrants. Jews have always made their own wine and spirits and oversaw the process to provide Kosher certification, so the skill set was there. Jason continued by mentioning how as Jews filtered around Europe, Russia, and North Africa, they were not allowed to have high standing occupations, but they could become merchants. Jobs like tavern keeping and distillation were jobs that Christians or Muslims did not want to do. For example, in 1492, the year the Jews were kicked out of Spain, the Jews took their anise-flavored spirit recipe with them. Whether it was called ouzo, arak, raki, or mahia, it was all the same thing with brandy distilled with anise and fennel under different names. Since Muslims did not distill, it was the Jews who made it (although the Muslims did purchase it).

Noah confronted the rumor that Jews did not drink. Max later added that one "can only appear drunk [in society] if they are secure in the world." Noah continued that governments relied on Jews to distill for taxation purposes, and Jews were also running bootlegging operations using Christian fronts to sell it. Max was surprised in America how much of the Jewish population moved South; however, given that Jews are linked to peddler tradition, the rural South was an obvious market for them. The Jews utilized their outsider status to sell to both blacks and whites, and they were well known for treating blacks with respect. As for the whites, the South is full of Baptists who do not want to be associated with making spirits, but many of them love drinking it. Eventually, the peddler tradition centralized into stores.

Allen discussed some of the more famous Jews in distilling in America after mentioning Chris Blackwell along with other Sephardic Jews moved to Jamaica to become one of the earliest owners of Appleton Rum. In America, I.W. Bernheim came to the country as a teenager with no money so he started as a peddler. By 1872, his family joined him and the Bernheim brothers started in the whiskey business as I.W. Harper; the company name shed the Jewish surname and instead opted for perhaps the name of his favorite horse trainer. Later, Heaven Hill would produce a straight wheat whiskey called Bernheim in honor of I.W. The book The Bourbon Empire suggested that a quarter of the whiskey business was Jewish despite Jews only making up 3% of the populations. At Prohibition, 25% of all distilleries were owned by Jews. And during Prohibition, Jews frequently became Rabbis to get access to sacramental wines. In fact, one town in Ohio has 27,000 rabbinical licenses.

The five brothers who opened up Heaven Hill in 1934 were the Shapira brothers from Lithuania. The parents progressed from peddling up to owning stores and their sons opened up a distillery. The money came from family members since banks were worried that Temperance would return plus they were unlikely to give money to Jews at that time. Jews were also the ones to help the Beams after they lost their brand Old Tub. Given the Beam family's amazing distilling knowledge but lack of money, they turned to outside investors.

There was a discussion of Jews in the modern spirits world including NY Distilling, Few Spirits, Koval, and Milagro. Moreover, there are companies who got Kosher certification to gain favor with Jewish communities such as Glenmorangie, 209, Absolut, and Johnny Walker (in Israel). And at the end of the talk, we all raised a glass of I.W. Harper Bourbon now produced by Diageo but as a continuation of the 1872 brand (that up until 2015 was unavailable in the States for a 20+ year span).

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