Matthew Spinozi might be somewhat of a spectacle on the corner of 31st and 10th. The contrast of his shoulder-length, chestnut curls against his pressed white linen suit and leather loafers, stands out against the clean-cut commuters gathered just a few blocks away at the bustling Penn Station.
But upstairs, in Studio 450’s spacious Midtown loft, the young native New Yorker — who is pursuing a master’s degree in brewing and distilling in Edinburgh, Scotland — appeared to be in his element, standing among a sea of mostly married, middle-aged men in suede kippot carrying cigars and shot glasses at last week’s annual Whisky Jewbilee event.
Now in its fourth year, Whisky Jewbilee was founded after many observant Jews were unable to attend the bigger, and very popular New York WhiskyFest, due to a timing conflict with Shabbat.
This year Whisky Jewbilee attracted 450 people, up 100 people from last year. That growth is prompting talk of expansion to other cities, including Chicago, according to organizers.
The term “Jewbilee” is more than just a punny title. It highlights the long history of involvement that Jews have had in the whiskey business, beginning in 1872 with German immigrant Isaac Wolf Bernheim’s founding of the I.W. Harper bourbon company and continuing today with The Jewish Whisky Company, the host organization responsible for the sold-out booze-filled extravaganza.
The festival spanned two floors and spilled onto the venue’s open-air balcony, which boasted panoramic views of the city. For a $125 ticket, guests enjoyed unlimited samples poured by more than 80 whiskey exhibitors, as well as cigar and beer booths.
“We built this festival around conversation,” said Jason Johnstone-Yellin, co-founder of The Jewish Whisky Company. “We want our attendees to be able to ask questions and engage with our exhibitors. We don’t want this to be an arms out fill my glass with your oldest, smoothest, most expensive whiskey.”
What was the favorite whiskey brand of Spinozi, a man seeking a higher education in the field of booze? He chuckled and looked down into his empty, complementary shot glass.
“That’s not a fair question. There’s too many great whiskeys here. It really just depends what you’re after, what you’re in the mood for. The most important thing is the whiskey you enjoy — drink it.”
And drink they did.
Guests shmoozed and ate cholent, kugel and herring, while perusing the products of the various vendors, and of course, sampling goods.
“They’re a friendly bunch,” said Teeling Irish Whiskey brand’s ambassador, Gabriel Corcoran, in a lilting Irish accent. “Everyone really loves their whiskey here. Everyone seems to know what they’re talking about.”
The rooms were filled with many whiskey aficionados, some of whom — like Wild Turkey employee Sarah Haims — claim to have been drinking the product for some time.
“Literally they dunk your pacifiers in it,” said Haims of her Kentucky hometown. “It makes your teething experience a little different as babies.”
Others attendees had less experience with the drink but expressed enthusiasm about the event nonetheless.
“I’m not a connoisseur, I just go with what I like,” said Dina Arnold. Surprised but not discouraged by the small female turnout, her sister Elka chimed in, “It seems like the men left their wives at home and they came out here for a boys’ night out. Well, we left our husbands at home for a girls’ night out!”