Kosher drinkers have more to cheer about this holiday season as a growing number spirits producers seek -- and receive -- the seal of approval from Jewish dietary authorities.
"It's an additional process and expense that raises the bar on quality," said Ralph Mizraji, a Miami-based branding specialist who this year brought out a new vodka that is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, the largest certifying body in the world.
Called L'Chaim -- Hebrew for "To life!" -- Mizraji's vodka is a corn-based product imported from Israel and made according to a generations-old Russian recipe brought to that country by Jewish immigrants.
L'Chaim is distributed in Florida, New York and New Jersey and within the first three months sold 2,400 cases, says Mizraji. He's now in the process of developing kosher wine, tequila and rum.
"We celebrate life," said Mizraji. "This is not a kosher-only or Jewish-only project. It celebrates everyone, everywhere."
Mixologist James Shearer of Miami's Zuma restaurant heard of L'Chaim from a friend and has been serving it for a few months.
"My first sip was after we had made a dry martini out of it. I was shocked as to the crisp, rich taste it gave," he says.
And he likes the idea of having something new behind the bar. "I am a firm believer and supporter of products with a creative background. I love the ideas behind L'Chaim," he said.
Among those appreciatively watching the trend is Joshua Hatton, president and founder of the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society. He was pleased to see single malt whiskeys from producers Ardbeg and Glenmorangie recently achieve kosher certification.
"You're seeing it more and more," he said, noting that there are two trends intersecting. More producers are discovering that there's a market for kosher liquors. Meanwhile, more Jews are becoming interested in keeping kosher, something that seems to be related to the general increased interest among Americans in what they're eating and drinking.
Hatton recently helped pour Glenmorangie at the Kosher Fest event in Secaucus, N.J. The tastings were popular, "not just because they were pouring booze, but some of the comments I heard were, 'It's so nice to see that this is certified kosher. It's nice to know that someone's watching my back.'"
At the New York-based Orthodox Union, Rabbi Moshe Elefant is seeing strong interest in kosher spirits, with certified alcoholic products growing by about 10 percent a year.
Unlike wine, which has to pass a number of regulatory requirements before being certified, liquor made from grain or sugar starts out relatively close to kosher. For certification, the equipment must be inspected to make sure it meets standards -- for instance if a tank held a product containing dairy ingredients for more than 24 hours, it would have to be sterilized -- and there also are business procedures which must be followed.
Flavored liquors require more scrutiny, since the ingredients may not be kosher. With whiskeys, the aging process has to be reviewed since use of nonkosher sherry, port or wine casks would be a problem.
Elefant finds that people are more interested in keeping kosher these days. But unlike earlier generations they're not willing to sacrifice premium products. "They want the scotch and they want the liquor and they want the highest level of kosher," he said.
The result, says Elefant: "Kosher liquor is hot."
Hatton's site, http://www.jewishsinglemaltwhiskysociety.com
Orthodox Union, http://www.ou.org