The proverbial liquor cabinet in the collective consciousness of American Jewry contains only a handful of familiar--and unquestionably eccentric, nostalgia-soaked--libations. There is, of course, Manischewitz, that syrupy sweet sacramental wine, and slivovitz, a throat-burning plum-brandy with roots in Eastern Europe. Sephardim have made their own contribution with arak, a pungent and polarizing anise-flavored alcohol indigenous to the Mediterranean region.
But often lost in this rather dispiriting history is one of the United States' most enduring--and popular--alcohols: American whiskey. With its Midwestern and Southern roots, whiskey might not have obvious Jewish cachet, but the quintessentially American beverage nevertheless carries strong tribal bona fides. Indeed, Jews have been involved in the production of bourbon and other American whiskeys since the mid- to late-19th century, and their names are deeply connected to several of the highest-profile brands and companies in the industry: I.W. Harper, Heaven Hill and the ubiquitous Jim Beam among them.
The relationship between Jews and whiskey in America did not develop entirely by happenstance. Jewish aptitude for distilling alcohol--grain-based or otherwise--dates back millennia, the product of rabbinic injunctions that forbade Jews from consuming wine made by gentiles. Over time, this expertise enabled Jews throughout the diaspora to enter the liquor market as distillers and purveyors, especially in regions across Central and Eastern Europe, establishing alcohol as a gateway to economic security. In 19thcentury Poland, for instance, Jews, mostly peddling rye-based vodka, operated the "vast majority of ... taverns and distilleries," becoming vital cogs in a vibrant Eastern European liquor trade, as historian Glenn Dynner details in Yankel's Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland.
Upon arrival in America around the turn of the 20th century, waves of Jewish immigrants would have "at least regarded alcohol commerce as something that Jews did," says Mami Davis, a historian at Georgia State University and author of Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition. And these Jews were entering a country where whiskey, fueled by a nationwide surge in grain production after the Civil War, had become a veritable boom industry.
For Jews interested in the alcohol industry, whiskey wasn't the only option on tap, but it was...