Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Tour of the Speyside region in the Scottish Highlands - Kashrus issues with whisky

Blair Athol Castle, The Highlands.

Disclaimer:

Before beginning our discussion I wish to state that I am only discussing Single Malt Whisky from Scotland. Furthermore, the purpose of this post is to lay before you my own personal (sometimes shocking) findings whilst touring Scottish distilleries so that you can, if you decide, investigate further. I am not a posek and no one should derive practical halacha from this.

Definition of Terms:

Single Malt Whisky (spelled without an 'e') can only be distilled in Scotland. The whisky is distilled in a single distillery using a specific process, often unique to that distillery. They use only 100% pure malted barley and yeast with water added from a local water source. The distilled liquid is then poured in wooden casks and matured for many years. Typical times periods are 8, 10 and 12 years but some are matured for longer. The Glenlivet distillery for instance, is just about to bottle a 50 year old.

Single Malt Multi-Cask or cask finished whisky. These are single malts that have been matured in one cask and then after a certain period of time, poured into a different cask. Typically they will start off in ex-Bourbon casks and then be "finished off" in an ex-sherry cask.

Blended whisky is a mixture of pure grain alcohol or other neutral spirit mixed and blended with one or more single malts to produce a cheaper and more consistent flavour and appearance.

Blended or Double malt is a blend of two or more single malts without the addition of pure grain alcohol or other neutral spirit.

By British law, the company is allowed to call their product whisky once it has been matured in a cask for a minimum of three years.

The Argument up until now.

When whisky is distilled it is a clear liquid with little taste. The colour and taste comes from in most part (the argument ranges from 50% to 80%) from the cask that the whisky is matured in over a period of years. Scottish distilleries either use American ex-Bourbon oak casks or Spanish/Portuguese ex-sherry/wine casks to store and mature their product.


An Ex-Sherry cask

Ex-Bourbon cask

Two ex-sherry and a bourbon behind them

The argument regarding kashrus of Scotch whisky has, up till now revolved around the use of ex-sherry/wine casks and the issue of drinking whisky that has been given flavour and colour by even tiny amounts of yayin stam (non-kosher wine). The whole sugya is dealt with in Mesechet Avoda Zara.

The position of the London Beis Din in Britain has always been that all Single Malt Whiskies, no matter in which cask the whisky is matured in, are kosher, as stated in their LBD Kosher Guide.

The distilleries claim and often state on their bottles that the use of ex-sherry casks imparts a sherry sweet flavour directly from the sherry absorbed into the wood but this is claim is disregarded as far as kashrus is concerned by the UK based Beis Din.

One would think that the argument would centre around how much actual yayin stam is absorbed into the whisky from the cask, the actual flavour and colour it gives to the whisky and the argument as to whether one can rely on the halacha of bitul be shishim – 1:60 (or even bitul besheishis 1:6) given that the use of sherry casks is not bedei avad (ie their use is not by accident) but lehatchilah (is intentionally used in order to influence the taste and colour of the whisky). In deed this seems to be the main argument being discussed by the OU in America. However the Beis Din in Britain takes a completely different approach.

The London Beis Din (LBD), generations ago, examined the technique the distilleries used very carefully. The casks that the distilleries use, having previously contained Yayin Stam (non-kosher wine), arrive by ship, flat packed (dismantled to reduce space and therefore shipping costs). At this stage the wood is considered more or less dried out. The planks are then kept outside and open to the elements for many months. The casks are rebuilt by coopers in Scotland and the casks are flame scorched inside in order to seal them.

The LBD argues (based on the Ramba"m) that it is really not even an inyan of Bitul BeShishim. According the halacha, the dry wood casks have nothing edible or drinkable connected with them. As far as kashrus is concerned, these barrels have no kosher status whatsoever.

The fact that the whisky manufacturers "claim" that the barrels give a sherry taste to the whisky is of no concern to us.

Quoting from Rabbi Jeremy Rosen's article on this question:

"As mentioned, the main value of the sherry casks lies simply in the seasoning of the wood and perhaps some coloration that seeps into the otherwise clear spirits. But the sherry casks give neither taste (Noteyn Taam) nor an essential ingredient (Davar HaMaamid), and therefore the issue of Bitul (the need to cancel out a forbidden substance) is not even relevant. These are the reasons that the late Dayan Weisz of Manchester, and later of the Edah Charedis, allowed whiskies in his responsum (Minchas Yitschok Yoreh Deah 28).
Rabbi Wosner of Benei Brak also deals with the issue of whether dried residue from the wine-making process (Shemorim veChartzonim) that is then "revived" by new liquid counts as forbidden or not. He says not. Anyway, in our case there is no definable, measurable matter derived from the original liquid, itself, only a mixture of residue in the wood."
On the other hand, the position of the OU (Orthodox Union of America) has always been that all Single Malts are kosher except those that state on the bottle that the whisky has been matured in ex-sherry/wine casks. Many, especially in Britain have found this position to be over cautious and ignorant of the true facts, especially bearing in mind that the OU's position is that all Blended Scotch Whisky is kosher! Being that all blends by definition contain single malt whisky, sometimes of unnamed source that more than likely was matured in ex-sherry casks, seems to make their position on Single Malts illogical and inconsistent.

Some have even suggested that the real problem is simply that the OU feels uncomfortable when the distilleries state on the bottle that the whisky has a sherry taste and that the OU actually have no problem with a single malt that was matured in a mixture or ex-Bourbon and ex-sherry casks but does not explicitly declare this on the label.

For a number of years now, the OU has been involved with distilleries such as Glen Morangie and more recently, Tomintoul and Bruichladdich in producing a supervised whisky or at least special batches of supervised whisky with the OU certification printed on the bottle. This has led some to cynically see this as purely a marketing ploy and money spinner for the American Kosher market.

I must admit that up until now, my personal position has been to follow the psak of the LBD and I have not been shy amongst my American friends about declaring my opposition to the position which the OU takes. Today however, after seeing with my own eyes and talking to the actual distilleries themselves, I have made a complete 180 degrees U turn and will no longer buy any Single Malts that state that they have been matured in ex-sherry casks, unless they have an OU printed on the bottle. (Ex-bourbon cask Single Malts I will of course continue to buy without a hechshir).

So why have I changed my mind? Here is my report:

Our Speyside Scottish Highlands Tour


The river Spey outside our log chalet


The bank was full of ducks, rabbits and cranes. Once we spotted what we thought might be a grouse?

Shacharis on the balcony of the log chalet


We rented out a beautiful log chalet on the banks of the river Spey in the Scottish Highlands for a week. The first morning we drove north east up the A9/A95 until the A939 turn off to the small village of Tomintoul. Tomintoul is a one street village but is worth visiting, (1) because of its stunningly beautiful winding mountain road, (2) because it takes you on the more scenic route into the heart of the Speyside whisky region and (3) because it is the home of "The Whisky Castle", a whisky/tourist shop run by Cathie and Mike Drury who will give you a very warm welcome. Conversation, expert advice and single malts flow freely there.

The road to Tomintoil

Outside the Whisky Castle shop



Tomintoul distillery
www.tomintouldistillery.co.uk/
(Pronounced "Tomintal")

As you can see from the photo above, I bought a bottle of the 14 year old Tomintoul. It was five years ago that we were last at the Whisky Castle and I bought a 16 year old then. (We finished off the bottle around a month ago). Tomintoil's light and exquisitely fruity and floral taste was incredibly even more pronounced in the 14 year old. It seemed to have more depth and the fruity aftertaste lasted for ages.

Being that Mike Drury is very much involved in the Tomintoul distillery (which is actually some distance from the village of the same name, further north on the B9136)) I asked him what casks they use to produce their exquisitely fruity and floral tasting single malts. He explained that they use American ex-Bourbon casks for their regular production but also produce a sherry finish malt which is placed in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks. He further explained (by the by) that they import the casks whole! When I asked why he explained that up until a few years ago it was cheaper to ship the casks dismantled in flat packs and reassemble them again in Scotland by one of the many coopers in the area. However they now ship them whole for two reasons. (1) Because it works out cheaper not having to pay for them to be reassembled and (2) because they make use of the wine left in the casks! Mike explained that there can be up to 2 pints of sherry left at the bottom. Even the ones that do not contain significant amounts of sherry will still contain the wet dredges of the sherry. The cask he told me arrives "wet". After examining the cask to make sure it is water proof and sound, they simply fill the casks with the distilled whisky which mixes with anything left in them.

This came as a shock to me as it contradicts all the assumptions of the LBD upon which they base their psak din.

When I asked him about the OUs involvement in Tomintoul he didn't seem to know a lot about it but later (in an email) concluded that it was probably special batches of Tomintoil that would have the OU certification and not the regular production.

See here:
http://www.ou.org/general_article/tomintoul_single_malt_scotch_whisky_announces_ou_kosher_certification
After speaking to Mike, I decided I would ask all the distilleries we visited while in the area, which type of cask they use and, if using ex-sherry, what they do with the sherry left in the casks.

From Tomintoil, we drove due north and arrived at The Glenlivet distillery by the river Livet.

The Glenlivet distillery


The thing that immediately strikes you when first visiting any distillery is the glorious strong aroma of cooking malted barley and yeast. It's very similar to the smell of freshly baking bread mixed with sweet beer.


Free samples to try. (Only a sip as I'm driving)
The jugs contain Scottish Mineral water. Just a drop in the glass brings out the flavour of the whisky.

Note: if you are in the area and for whatever reason, only have the chance to visit one distillery, then this is the one to go to.


My favourite was The Glenlivet 15 Years Old French Oak.
It was like eating warm sweet stewed fruit with a wooden spoon.
However, their whole range was excellent.

We entered the very impressive visitor's centre and after a wonderful tour (which incidentally was one of the best we went on and incredibly, is totally free!), I spoke to a factory manager there who told me that they only import flat pack casks, sometimes bourbon, sometimes sherry. He expressed his opinion that he doubted that it was economical to ship whole casks as they would take up too much shipping space and cost a fortune. He further explained that they always flame scorch the inside of the planks, whether ex-bourbon or ex-sherry in order to obtain a consistent product in both taste and colour. They certainly don't want a sherry taste in their product he explained.

A mobile made up of whisky bottles at the shop

When I mentioned what Mike Drury of "The Whisky Castle" had said regarding the use of casks that contained sherry at the bottom, the manager looked surprised and said that he found that hard to believe as it would not produce a consistent product. Every cask would be different he said. Moreover he asked that if it was the case that there was a few pints of sherry in every cask, how could someone claim that this was 100% whisky? He would have thought that if this was the case then the sherry has to be stated on the label as one of the ingredients according to UK law.

After speaking to this manager I concluded that I had either misunderstood Mike's comments somehow or that Tomintoul were unique in their use of sherry left over in the casks.

I have to say that throughout our tour of discovery, I found everyone I spoke to, to be open and very friendly. They didn't seem to mind me asking questions and even seemed to get great pleasure from answering them. From our experience, those involved in the Single Malt whisky industry love what they do and take great pride in their product. They are happy to talk about it to anyone who will listen.

Cardhu Distillery


Outside Cardhu disttillery

The Cardhu tour

From The Glenlivet distillery, we travelled further north, using stunningly beautiful and tranquil tiny little roads over rivers and streams and mountain forests until we reached the village of Knockando. Driving through the village we turned up a steep hill to get to Cardhu. Actually there is another distillery in the village by the name of Knockando but it is unfortunately not open to the public.

After a tour of the place which cost £6 for adults but free for children, I managed to speak to a manager at Cardhu. He said that they ship in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Both ex-sherry and bourbon casks come flat packed and more or less dry. They always flame burn the insides. Nevertheless, he explained that there was always sufficient sherry flavour left in the wood itself which would soak through to the whisky over time. The guy then showed me a wood segment from the barrel and pointed out how far the sherry had soaked into the wood. This he told me was what gave their single malts a sherry taste and dark red colour. It was 100% the ex-sherry wood casks.

At the Cardhu shop they had samples of their own whisky for those who had been on the tour. Just as a favour to their little sister down the road, they let us try some Knockando as it does not have its own visitor's centre. Both my son, daughter and I agreed that the Knockando with its lightly sweet and floral, almost nutty flavour was far far nicer than the Cardhu. In fact we didn't like Cardhu that much at all.


Aberlour Distillery
www.aberlour.com/
(Pronounced "Aber-louwer" - rhymes with the word "sour")



The next day we travelled further to the north west to the town of Aberlour. This town has primarily two places of interest. The distillery at the southern end and the Walkers Shortbread factory at the northern end.

There are no parking restrictions so we parked the car at the southern end and walked from one end to the other, visiting both places.



Walkers pure Butter Shortbread - absolutely delicious. (BTW, not Chalav Akum!)

We did not go on a tour of the distillery here as they charge £10 per person, but spent some time in the visitor's shop where I got to speak to one of their managers. I've had only one bottle of this fine single malt in my life. It has a medium bodied spicy fruit taste. Very well balanced.

The manager informed me that they do indeed ship over whole ex-sherry casks which sometimes do have sherry left inside them and arrive still "wet" with the remains of the sherry. However, he assured me that they always pour the contents out before filling with whisky as the dredges/muck at the bottom of the cask would be detrimental to the taste of their product. When I told him that some distilleries were not pouring out the sherry before filling with whisky, he said that he found that very strange.

Afterwards we walked up to the Walkers Shortbread biscuit factory where we bought biscuits and savoury crackers with an OU hechshir at very reasonable prices. Everyone there was very friendly and we thanked them for producing a kosher product that observant Jews could purchase anywhere in Scotland. Incidentally, they had bags of broken biscuits and crackers for sale at ridiculous prices but we decided that we would only buy something with the OU printed on the package. (Maybe this was taking a too machmir approach but that's what my wife and I decided at the time).



Aberlour shop

Walking down Aberlour High street we came across this amusing sight:

It's a Chivas Regal van filling up with Aberlour. With the ridiculously high price of petrol in Britain I suppose it makes sense.

Tomatin distillery
www.tomatin.com/
(Pronounced "tom-Ah-tin" emphasis on the "Ah" in the middle)

The Tomatin visitor's centre and shop


Travelling up towards Inverness on the A9 we took a very short detour to the Tomatin distillery. We actually wanted to get to the town of Elgin so we didn't stay for the tour and just spent the time in the visitors shop again (although it costs £3 per adult).

There were at least five salesmen and women in this relatively small shop, all extremely friendly and encouraging you to try free samples of their whisky. I tried the standard 12 year old. Unusual for a Spey Side malt, it wasn't sweet but neither was it dry with a kind of a roasted dried fruit (dates or figs?) like taste and a long lasting full bodied flavour as it went down. Very enjoyable.

Outside the shop, I spoke to a guy who fills the casks and he told me that they ship in both ex-sherry and bourbon casks but they are all flat-packed and reassembled at the cooper smith where they are flamed scorched inside before use.


Glen Moray distillery
(Pronounced "Glen Murreh" rhymes with "Currie")



Lastly, we drove north to the sea to the town of Elgin where the Glen Moray distillery is situated. We did not intend to take a tour although it they advertise one for £3 per adult. The shop was selling some thick blue fleeces with Glen Moray embroidered on the front for £10 each (reduced from £25). They also offered free tastes of all their whisky range. I can tell you that they weren’t stingy with the samples and I was embarrassed to waste so much fine whisky and only take a sip as I was driving.

The Glen Moray visitor's centre and shop

Very generous free tasting samples.
The 8 and 12 year old. (The 20 year old on the right is an ex-sherry cask which I declined.)
(BTW, notice the difference in colour between the ex-bourbon cask on the left and the ex-sherry on the right.)

Glen Moray is one of cheaper single malts and you'll find it in many super markets across Britain. Because of this, many single malt lovers turn their nose up at it. I however love this single malt. I'm on my third bottle in 20 years. It has an incredibly light and delicate taste. Slightly smoky, slightly sweet and creamy. They sell an 8 year old which is very good but the 12 year old is better and the 16 year old better still. This has a deeper richer taste (but retaining its delicate nature) and is simply superb! (I bought an 8 year old).

I asked the girl there about the use of casks and she confessed that the real expert was the manager who she immediately called on her phone. About 2 minutes later a very impressive looking man turned up.

He told me that his name was Malcolm and we began our conversation in the shop. He said that at Glen Moray they produce a regular non-sherry finish but are experimenting with sherry and Madeira finishes as well. In a very frank way, he explained that Glen Moray was a relatively small distillery that ran on a tight budget and as a result, they obtain their casks from wherever they could. Sometimes ex-bourbon flat packed, sometimes they bought ex-sherry whole casks from Spain. Quite often they buy from other distilleries such as Macallan near by. They bought mainly whole casks as this saved money of coopers. If they wanted a regular finish then they would use ex-bourbon casks as well as ex-sherry casks but they would pour out the sherry, dry and flame burn the insides before use so as to make the product consistent with the bourbon casks. He told me that after flame burning there would be no sherry flavour imparted from the wood (which contradicts what Cardhu said).

At this point he asked me why we were discussing this in the shop? Why don't I come with him into the warehouse and he'll show me first hand the ex-sherry casks and their contents. I followed him into the warehouse and there began a one to one, personal tour lasting almost an hour.


He showed me one of their massive ex-sherry casks and explained that if they wanted a sherry finish then they will leave any sherry still left at the bottom. Sometimes he informed me, there can be up to as much as 5 pints of sherry (confirming what Mike Drury had said). Then he proceeded to inform me that for consistency, they add sherry syrup to the other casks. He said that you can tell the casks that have had this syrup added to them because after a while there is a jelly that forms around the seal. He asked me to look out for this when I visited other distilleries that produced whiskies that they claim to have matured in ex-sherry casks. As it turned out, we did not get a chance to do this so I cannot confirm actually seeing any casks with jelly at other distilleries.

He told me that the only way to get a sherry finish as far as he knew, was to add actual sherry or Madeira or wine syrup to the cask and that anyone who told you that the sherry flavour of their whisky came only from the wood was not being honest! They must have added something he told me!

I apologise that this report has been a mixture of a report on whisky kashrut and a travelogue but that's the way our trip to the Highlands went.

We brought up meat and cheese from London and had BBQs every night by the banks of the river Spey. Some with the meat and some with the most unbelievably tasty ultra fresh salmon and trout bought locally.


Those lamb sausages from Kosher Deli in Temple Fortune were de-lish-ous.

We also visited very impressive castles of which there are many in the area; many of them still lived in today.



When we reached Glasgow I spoke to Rav Ruben in Giffnock shul, who was as shocked and surprised as I was and told me that he would go up to the Speyside region and investigate himself at the nearest opportunity. I have no idea if this will lead to a change in decision at the LBD but for me at least, I'll never touch another single malt that boasts a sherry flavour from ex-sherry casks on the label again (beli neder), unless of course it has a hechshir.

I stress again, please do not do anything such as pour away your bottles of single malt on the basis of what I have written. Speak to your local Orthodox rabbi if you have any questions.

*** UPDATE ***

Since writing this Blog post I have been corrected on a number of halachic points.

Please see my update here:
http://rebmordechaiwrites.blogspot.com/2010/10/speyside-whisky-tour-kashrus-issues.html

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please keep your readership informed if there is any change concerning the LBD kashrut of the whiskeys you mention in this blog.

My feeling is that the manufacturers who say that a large of amount of brandy is left at the bottom of the barrel, are exaggerating because doing this would make the product inconsistent and maybe not marketable.

Reb Mordechai said...

Thank you anonymous for your comment.

It's not actually brandy but sherry which is being used.
This is wine which is matured for many years.

Brandy on the other hand is a spirit distilled using a process very similar to whisky but instead of barley, they use grapes. They then mature that in casks for many years.

In order to produce a particular sherry finish the distilleries will buy casks that have had only one type of sherry in it. Popular examples being Madeira, Manzanilla, Amontillado or Oloroso. For instance, Dalwhinnie distillery in the Highlands uses ex-Oloroso casks and Tomintoil in teh Speyside region have been using ex-Madeira.

I will of course keep you informed if I hear anything more.

Moishe3rd said...

Oy vey.
My initial impulse was to tell you how much I am not liking you - chas v'shalom...
But that would be wrong in this fine New Year during the Yamim Noraim.
However, I shall take your advice and disdain any single malt until I am so informed by my local competent rabbi...

However... I am so incredibly envious of your travels and research...

I can trace my patrilineal ancestry back to 1296 in Scotland.
My mother and brother just took a tour of Ireland and Scotland with their main destination being Blair Athol. All I asked for from their journey's was a bottle of Scotch from the distillery there... (It is the home of the male family name.)
And, apropos of your journeys - about two years ago, I was having a discussion on the fine qualities of Single Malt Scotch with a Chassidic friend of mine from Sfas and we hit upon a wonderful idea on how I should do a tour of Scotland examining the qualities - including kashrus - of various Scotches and write it up for both Jewish and Scotch lover magazines and get paid for doing it!
Alas, this was not my field of endeavor and it remained a pipe dream.

Well done on your journeys and fine articles.
I would send it to all of my friends except that I do not want to increase their tzuris in these days over whether they have issues with their beloved single malt Scotches!
Yasher Koach.

Reb Mordechai said...

*** UPDATE ***

Not much of an update but just to inform all who asked that I did receive a brief reply from the LBD that they had passed my findings onto theue whisky expert. I wrote back saying that I would be interested in his response.

fromKosher Info
sender timeSent at 11:33 (GMT+01:00). Current time there: 22:33.

date3 September 2010 11:33
subjectRE: Kosher.org.uk - Message From Website

3 Sep (9 days ago)


Dear Mordechai

Thank you for your email which we will refer to our whisky experts.

Kind regards

Michal

Michal Eder
Kashrut Researcher
Kashrut Division

Find us on Facebook, KLBD Kosher Direct.

Follow us on Twitter, www.twitter.com/KLBDdirect

Reb Mordechai said...

Thanks Moishe3rd for your interesting comments. I apreciate you taking the trouble to write and tell me what you thought. So many people have spoken to me about my whisky post but not many bothered to post their comments so that all can see and discuss them.

irwin lowi said...

Dear Reb Mordechai:
over 10 years ago I walked your walk, on the internet and phone. I spoke with the distillers directly, and not to toot my own horn, but much of what the OU and Star K have done is because of my research. I spoke with the late MichaeL Jackson, the drunk, not the drug user) and confirmed alot of what you found- some do and some don't bring in fully assembled, some do and some don't pour in sherry. Mr. Robertson of Macallan once told me that that they ran chemical tests showing numerical differences between spanish oak with and without sherry vs. american with and without bourbon. Even those who wanted to rely on batul b sheish have a problem because someone finally did the math, and it is only 4.8 to 1. Welcome to the right side....
Irwin Lowi