Many of them had fallen in love at synagogue — with whiskey, that is.
So perhaps it was fitting that last week’s Whiskey Jewbilee, the second annual installment of the popular Scotch taste-athon, was held at the West Side Jewish Center on 34th Street in the Garment District. In fact, the event’s creator, Joshua Hatton, seemed to be speaking for many of the 350 patrons in attendance when he told The Jewish Week that he first developed an appreciation for whiskey at shul.
The president and co-founder of the Jewish Whisky Company, an independent bottler of both Scotch and American whiskies, said that first sublime sip came at erev Shabbat services seven or eight years ago when he was in his early 30s. “One of our congregants, who is now a rabbi in his own shul, used to bring in whiskey all the time,” Hatton said. “I tasted Lagavulin,” he said of the single malt Scotch whiskey distilled on the island of Islay in the United Kingdom, “and I fell in love.”
The scene along 34th Street last Thursday night was a study in contrasts. A large crowd, composed largely of women in their teens and 20s, was crowding behind steel barricades, waiting to attend a sold-out Two Door Cinema Club concert at the Manhattan Center. A few doors down the block, in front of the West Side Jewish Center, a very different queue — this one composed largely of yarmulke-clad men in their 30s and 40s — was forming to attend another sold-out event.
The Whisky Jewbilee was a food fair-like event, where 350 patrons, who each paid an $110 entrance fee, were able to sample approximately 200 whiskies provided by 52 different exhibitors, all while “noshing” on a kosher buffet dinner.
Hatton created the event, in large part, in reaction to Whiskyfest — the whiskey trade’s premier tasting event — being moved last year from a Tuesday night to a Friday night and Saturday schedule; the move was made by M. Shanken Communications, which acquired Whiskyfest, and its parent, the Malt Advocate Magazine (now the Whisky Advocate Magazine) in 2010.
Last year, said Hatton, as Sabbath-observant whiskey enthusiasts became aware that Whiskyfest was moving to its new weekend format, “I started receiving requests from importers, distributors and readers of my blog (jewmalt.com). They said, ‘I can’t go to Whiskyfest, can you do something.’ … So in about four-and-a-half weeks we put together an event on the night before Whiskyfest for all those who couldn’t come.”
In part because there are limited kashrut concerns in whiskey production, high-end whiskey has become a significant luxury good in the Orthodox Jewish community, and more and more whiskey producers are trying to cater to this growing segment of their consumer base.
“I think the fact that the Sabbath-observant Jewish consumer is such a valued consumer to the industry that it would support an event like Whisky Jewbilee is a truly amazing thing,” said Jay Susman of the Upper West Side, who attended Whisky Jewbilee last year and again this year.
The 2013 Whisky Jewbilee, again held the night before Whiskyfest, was a larger event than last year’s installment, with both more exhibitors and more attendees than on the previous year. (Hatton had also tried to organize a second Whiskey Jewbilee event, which was to have been held in Westchester County’s Mount Kisco, on Wednesday evening, but it was canceled due to poor ticket sales.)
According to Karl duHoffmann, who was representing Anchor Distilling (importer of Glenrothes and Glen Grant) at the event, “Jewbilee is more intimate [than Whiskyfest, with a] smaller venue, lots of excitement, lots of energy. … There’s always a lot of enthusiasm for the whiskey with the Jewish community, whereas some of the guys at Whiskyfest are looking to get drunk or are more hesitant” to try new whiskies.
Stephanie Ridgeway, the brand ambassador for Highland Park, said that she found that the patrons of Whisky Jewbilee were “seeking more education [on whiskey]. … They’re coming here for the knowledge, for the experience, and want that interaction with the brand representatives.”
The three-hour event occupied two floors of the West Side Jewish Center, along with a small outdoor pavilion set up as a cigar lounge. Co-sponsoring Whisky Jewbilee this year was Kosher Artisanal, a new online kosher food purveyor whose website will be launched later this year.
Its CEO, Aaron Menche, had for several years been the largest single ticket buyer for Whiskyfest; he organized a kosher outing to Whiskyfest that included dinner afterwards at a nearby kosher restaurant. Menche also helped come up with Whisky Jewbilee’s “kiddush-themed” food menu, which included cholent, herring, charcuterie, and a variety of salads and kugels.
Menche said that after last year’s events, one of his clients suggested, “Why don’t you do it as a kiddush — we all learned how to drink in kiddush clubs, why don’t you try to make it the best kiddush in the world.”
The kiddush connection came up again and again at Whiskyfest.
“After I got married I started going to a shul with a big kiddush club,” said one attendee who asked for anonymity. “Every week about 30 of us would sneak out to make kiddush on single malt and tuna fish. Every week someone would bring a different bottle. “That’s how I learned to like Scotch,” he continued. “Five or six years ago the shul banned our kiddush club, but by then I was hooked.”
Like a kiddush, the Whiskey Jewbilee seemed to have a strong social element, as many of the attendees seemed to know each other through other whiskey events and websites. The event was a “chance to see friends from New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and closer to home, said Shai Franklin, who lives in Westchester County. “It a real cultural vortex.”
Gamliel Kronemer writes the paper’s Fruit of the Vine column about kosher wines.