In The Spirit of The Holiday
When enjoyed responsibly, liquor and liqueur products can enhance the Purim (Shulchan Aruch O”C 695:2) and Yom Tov “spirit” (O”C 529:3). While it is certainly preferable to consume alcoholic beverages with a reliable hechsher, during Pesach it is essential to use only such reliably certified drinks. Let us examine this a bit further. Liquor is defined as an unsweetened distilled alcoholic beverage, while liqueur is the aforementioned liquid, with added sweeteners and other flavoring agents. The common denominator between liquor and liqueur is that the major ingredient, and arguably most important component, is the alcohol.
HOW IS ALCOHOL MANUFACTURED?
The starter material for alcohol is carbohydrates. As one might imagine (and as many on low-carb diets keenly know) the list of carbohydrates is seemingly endless. For alcohol production the primary source of carbohydrates are sugars – cane, beet and fruit (most prominently grape). Additionally, grain starches can be converted to sugar, often with addition of enzymes. In some countries with an abundance of dairy products, alcohol is also derived from milk lactose (the sugar found in milk). It is important to note is that this lactose-derived alcohol is considered a dairy product.
The sugars then undergo a natural fermentation process with yeast that converts them into alcohol. The fermentation will normally stop when the alcohol reaches the level of about 14% (though it can sometimes go slightly higher), at which point the alcohol sterilizes the alcohol-producing bacteria. Wine and beer are the direct result of this fermentation process. To produce a higher proof (a measure of alcohol by volume) liquor there is an additional step: the distillation of the fermented material. Distillation occurs in a metal still which boils off the alcohol, separating it from the other components to achieve a higher alcohol content in the liquid. Products like vodka, or neutral spirits, are distilled to almost complete alcohol purity (96%). Whiskeys and others are distilled to lower alcohol levels leaving non-alcohol “impurities.” The different flavor profiles of various liquor products are primarily due to the residual components that did not separate from the alcohol during distillation.
Other contributing factors are the aging process and flavors that may be added. Sometimes, colors are added to enhance the appearance of the finished product.
The first and most important criterion for Pesach alcohol is the source of the sugar. Grains like wheat, barley and rye are actual chametz and can never be Pesach-approved. While the Mishkenos Yaakov (Y”D 34) argues that distilled alcohol is only vapor from chametz and not actual chametz, this position is not accepted by many poskim (see Aruch HaShulchan O”C 442:20). Corn, rice, and buckwheat are considered legumes from which kitniyot-approved liquor can be produced. Sugar (both cane and beet), fruits (e.g. grapes, apples, plums, agave etc.) and potatoes can be converted into Pesach-approved alcohol as well.
Certain additives often used in the manufacture of alcohol may prove problematic for Pesach consumption. Enzymes are frequently added to aid in the processing for optimum sugar yield. Laboratory yeast may also be added to enhance and standardize the fermentation process. While the yeast may be batul (nullified), a chametz davar hamaamid, that causes a significant chemical change to a product, would not be batul even when used at less than a 1:60 ratio (see O”C 442:5). Therefore, each additive requires Pesach approval to insure against the use of chametz in its cultivation.
Alcohol and other fermented products are subject to additional halachic stringencies because of their strong taste and smell. Although the laws of kashering utensils for Pesach are fairly strict, those regarding equipment that process alcohol are that much more so. Not only must the equipment be completely cleaned in advance of any kashering, but the smell must be completely purged as well (see Mishna Berura 451:120 & 122). To accomplish this, the tanks must be boiled with a caustic or strong detergent as many times as necessary until deodorized. Under normal circumstances, if cold liquid chametz is stored in a tank for less than 24 hours, the tank does not become chamatzdik. While, the tank must be thoroughly cleaned, there is no need to kasher it with boiling water. In contrast, alcoholic liquids are considered charif (sharp), and even a few minutes of contact will necessitate a full kashering (see Y”D 105:1 and Mishna Berura 447:42).
Liqueurs can be produced for Pesach, when utilizing kosher l’pesach alcohol and ingredients. Sweeteners that are added must be sugarbased as opposed to corn-based, and flavors and coloring must be especially approved for Pesach. For cream liqueurs, the cream base (dairy or pareve) must be approved for Pesach which guarantee it to be free of non-Pesach emulsifiers and other additives.
KOSHER LIQUORS AND LIQUEURS
Due to these sensitivities, special Pesach supervision is always required. In today’s global market, many liquors are bulk shipped internationally for bottling. Often, the transport equipment such as trailers and shipping containers must undergo special kashering. The liquor is then bottled in a multi-use facility, which must also be kashered to avoid chametz or other non-kosher contaminants.
As with many other products, liquor manufacturers and marketers often respond to the expressed interest for kosher certification by kosher consumers — for Pesach and all year round. If you want it kosher, ask them for it to be kosher.