Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Food

Talking Jews And Booze With Whiskey Expert Dan Friedman

Every time I hear the old saw that Jews aren’t drinkers, I scratch my head and wonder if my family, colleagues and friends are all somehow a minority-within-a-minority — or whether this little piece of conventional wisdom is all wet.

Luckily, I work down the hall from an expert in such matters, Dan Friedman, the Forward’s executive editor and resident whisky correspondent. On March 7, he hosted a whisky tasting event called Jews & Booze: From Bootleg to Brooklyn Bourbon. I was able to satisfy at least some of my curiosity just by walking into his office and asking a few questions.

Tough Job: Forward Managing Editor and Whisky Correspondent Dan Friedman puts his palate on the line at Whisky Jewbilee 2016. Image by Liza Schoenfein

Where did the seemingly false characterization come from, given the evidence that Jews and booze go together like Scotch and rocks?

There seems to be a contingent perception, a late 20th-century American Jewish phenomenon, maybe to do with class, as they reached — or aspired to — an austere middle class. It’s certainly not the reputation Jews had in Europe in the 19th century, because for a variety of different reasons, Jews were heavily involved in the distilling and inn-keeping industries.

Jews were also involved in the booze business in 20th-century America, because prohibition led to deep Jewish involvement in the distilling industries, particularly Seagram’s.

The famous reason is that for religious purposes, Jews were allowed to have wine as a sacramental wine, and they therefore became hubs for “sacramental wine procurement.”

There’s a story I tell: Thomas Dewar of Dewar’s White Label is traveling in a dry county in the early twentieth century and he’s trying to get some whisky. He asks if he can buy some whisky, and the guy says, ‘I can’t sell you any liquor. What I can do is sell you some of this cholera medicine.’ He gives Dewar the cholera medicine and when the Scotsman turns it around he sees it’s got a Dewar’s label.

So it was a bit like that with the Jews. “I can’t sell you any liquor but I can sell you this sacramental wine.” It’s the people who had existing lines of trade who were set up for it, but the Jews had a special loophole.

So what about the idea that Jews don’t drink?

Apart from the class thing I mentioned above, I really don’t know where that comes from.

Maybe Jews haven’t traditionally got drunk in public with non-Jews because you would put yourself in danger… That’s speculation.

What I can say is that right after Saturday morning services, there’s a special time when you eat bread and drink wine, and over the last 15 years, this “kiddush” has increasingly come to include not just wine but also whisky. And there’s some very good whisky drunk.

Single-malt Scotch is always kosher because it can only have barley, water and yeast in it. It’s a controlled name, so that if it’s called single-malt Scotch, the Scottish government is making sure it adheres to its regulations.

And I think, the “Jews don’t drink” and “Jews don’t do sports” stereotypes that have grown up feed a broader stereotype of Jews that the men are feminized and weak — like the weedy Woody Allen-type stereotype, or Adam Sandler is kind of a whiny mama’s boy, and there are reasons for that — but I think that whisky has a stereotype of a manly man’s drink. And drinking single malt scotch is a way of being discerning, and Jewish and also, you know, properly masculine (not that women don’t drink it — I’m talking stereotypes here). I think Jews like to drink it because it’s a way of being part of that masculine American culture, it’s like there’s a vast number of Jewish baseball fans and Jewish baseball fans writing blogs. Insofar as is possible, Jews join in with these things.

Liza Schoenfein is the food editor of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner

Engage

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.