Specialized booze festivals are nothing unusual — there seems to be one every other week dedicated to craft beer, artisanal cocktails, Bourdeaux wines, or whatever people want to drink. New York hosts at least two major whisky events each year: Whisky Fest in the fall and Whisky Live in the spring. But now there’s a new show in town for lovers of brown spirit, and it approaches the festival format with a deliberately inclusive attitude toward Jewish imbibers: This is the Whisky Jewbilee.
The Jewbilee is the brainchild of Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin, two self-described whisky geeks and bloggers who founded the Jewish Whisky Company in 2010. “We saw an opportunity to not just market to the Jewish consumer but to really have their back, educate them on whisky, because there are kosher questions and things like that,” says Hatton. Besides the annual tasting event, the Company runs whisky tours and coordinates Single Cask Nation, a members-only arm that buys one-off barrels from distilleries and bottles them for sale.
In October 2012, the popular Whisky Fest unintentionally excluded observant Jews when it moved from a weekday to Friday and Saturday, the Sabbath. Hatton and Johnstone-Yellin noticed the disappointment among Jewish whisky fans and decided to do something about it. With the blessing of the organizers of Whisky Fest, the Jewish Whisky Company put together a tasting event for the preceding Thursday, just five weeks in advance. Despite the last-minute scramble, the inaugural Whisky Jewbilee was a success and returned for a second year in 2013. This year, the Jewbilee has moved from October to June — a much easier time to schedule, since the Jewish High Holidays cluster in the fall. (It also gives the organizers additional pun material, spelling the month as “Jewn.”)
The question of whether whisky qualifies as kosher obviously comes up a lot, since many whiskies are matured or finished in casks formerly used for wine. According to Hatton, “We as the Jewish Whisky Company align ourselves with Scottish Rabbinical Council. Their view is that all whisky, regardless of how it’s matured, is kosher by nature. At the same time, we understand that not all people may subscribe to that.” For that reason, at least 50 percent of the Company’s bottlings are matured exclusively in non-wine casks “because we want to make sure we’re looking out for everybody, kosher-keeping or not.”
You don’t have to be a member of the tribe to attend and enjoy the festival — though if you are, you’ll find an environment that strives to put Jewish consumers at ease. All the catering is glatt kosher, and glassware is put through a mikvah according to kosher guidelines. But the event’s attendees comprise a diverse group of people: male, female, Jewish, gentile, all different ethnicities, which Hatton sees as an encouraging extension of the company’s inclusive attitude. “If you ever peruse the Single Cask Nation website, it’s all about inclusivity. It doesn’t matter if you wear a kippah, if you’re black or white or whatever, it’s all about the whisky.”
Even the Jewbilee’s festival bottling — a special bottle offered to event attendees — incorporates deliberately inclusive imagery. Styled as a comic book panel, and building on the 2013 bottle, which showed a hipster Jewish guy on a stoop, the 2014 label puts the guy at a table with a woman, sharing last year’s bottle together. “Part of that is this subliminal message to people that this is for everyone to enjoy,” says Hatton. “Whisky is not a man’s drink, it’s a whisky lover’s drink.”
The organizers take another step to make all people feel welcome by prohibiting promotional models — a gimmick often rightfully characterized as sexist — asking that brands send only knowledgeable representatives to pour their whiskies. “What should be bringing people to a table is not a pair of boobs or legs or a pretty face,” Hatton points out. “It is the whisky and it’s the knowledge about that whisky. I want to turn people into whisky geeks, and boobies don’t help that.”
Tickets to this year’s Whisky Jewbilee are already sold out, but a few slots remain for a special afternoon blending class led by David Perkins of High West, which you can purchase on the event website. Membership in Single Cask Nation and access to bottlings (they’ll put out 9-12 in 2014) are available on the website starting at $36 per year.