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Kosher alcoholic choices for Passover widen

Jews today can follow strict dietary laws and drink upscale wines and spirits, including a premium vodka, a $200 Cabernet Sauvignon and a pure agave tequila.

April 04, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

How about a margarita with that matzo ball?

Until recently, syrupy sweet wine was a staple of the Passover Seder, the ritual meal that celebrates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But now Jews who observe the stringent food restrictions of the holiday have climbed a culinary Mount Sinai to find more kosher alcoholic choices than ever before, including a premium vodka, a $200 Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous To Kalon vineyard in Napa Valley, and even specially prepared pure agave tequila from Mexico.

The offerings are part of what "Kosher by Design" cookbook author and food maven Susie Fishbein calls a "renaissance" in kosher foods and drinks in America.

"Upscale drinks have a place at a table where you are serving lamb shanks and osso buco instead of the traditional brisket smothered in onions and cabbage," Fishbein said.

Sales of kosher products grew 41% from 2003 to 2008 to $12.5 billion, according to market research firm Mintel International in Chicago, driven by a rising number of observant Jews as well as gentiles who perceive the kosher designation as a stamp of quality.

A good chunk of that spending is on foods formulated specifically for Passover, when, with the exception of unleavened bread known as matzo, anything made from grains is off-limits. Most Jews of European ancestry also refrain from eating food containing rice, peanuts, beans or corn.

That's bad news for schnapps lovers. Passover prohibition extends to most forms of hard liquor -- including whiskeys and many vodkas -- fermented from grains. Because it is made from agave, tequila would seem to be kosher for the holiday. But to make the grade for Passover, the spirit must carry a seal or symbol that certifies rabbis have supervised the preparation to ensure that it does not contain any grain alcohols or flavorings from prohibited foods.

As for wine, only kosher vintners are permitted to make wine that's drunk during Passover. It too carries a kosher seal of approval.

No one tracks sales of wine and spirits produced especially for Passover consumption. But there's no doubt that many Jews will offer up a mazel tov to the widening selection.

Better Passover alcoholic offerings will improve what's consumed during the Seder, but will have even more use for the "kiddush clubs," informal drinking groups that meet during and after Saturday morning and holiday services at Orthodox and traditional synagogues across America, said Gary Landsman, a 35-year-old writer who frequents the West Side International Synagogue in Manhattan.

"The options have just not been that great previously," said Landsman, who plans to bring Casa Vieja-brand tequila made from blue agave in Mexico's Jalisco state to a kiddush club this year. "This fills a real void for Jews."

Landsman now can follow Casa Vieja's recipes for the Moses Margarita, the 10th Plague -- with tomato juice and horseradish -- and the Egyptian Sunrise, a haimish take on the classic resort drink.

Kosher, also called kashrut, is a set of dietary restrictions observant Jews adhere to year- round. For example, they don't mix milk and meat products in the same meal. Foods from animals such as pigs and shellfish are forbidden. Cattle and sheep must be slaughtered by a cut with a sharp knife to the neck. Even then only some portions of the animal are kosher.

The rules at Passover are even more complicated. During the eight days of the festival, Jews refrain from eating any leavened breads. Matzo, the flatbread, is eaten to commemorate the hurried fashion in which the Israelites escaped the Pharaoh's bondage; they fled without waiting for their bread dough to rise.

"Kosher for Passover" tequila is a godsend for Laura Kerr of Orange, who developed an allergy to wine about six years ago that prevents her from drinking the traditional four cups of wine Jews are told to consume at the Seder. That limits Kerr to drinking grape juice instead of wine -- which rabbis say allows her to fulfill the commandment -- but left her without the celebratory kick to remember the Jews' freedom from captivity.

This year, Kerr said, she will buy a $43 bottle of Casa Vieja from Glatt Mart in Los Angeles.

"It's a little pricey for tequila, but if it's very good tequila, then it's worth it," Kerr said.

Marty Kairey, owner of Atlantic Bottling in Ocean, N.J., hopes to make a few shekels off increasingly sophisticated kosher palates.

Intrigued by a former landlord in Brooklyn who made liquor in his basement, Kairey developed a sugar-cane-based vodka and started marketing it to observant Jews under the Zachlawi label.

"It is a very niche market and new. Most people won't even know to look for it," Kairey said.

But thanks to word of mouth, the sleek glass-bottled Zachlawi Premium Vodka -- which brags "seven times distilled" on the label -- has caught on.

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