Forced to drink alone at the Whisky Jewbilee

Haaretz 10/20/13

My wife often struggles to find me a good birthday present.But this year, while she was Googling around for different gift ideas, she came across an event of such wonderful proportions that she immediately bought tickets for a friend of mine and me, despite the fact that it would take place a month before my birthday.

The Whisky Jewbilee brings together three great Jewish loves of mine – whisky, kiddish food and cigars – in a shul in midtown Manhattan. With 350 exhibitors, four different times of cholent and three different types of cigars to choose from, all to be enjoyed with a glass of bourbon, it was heavenly.

The event was due to kick off at 7 P.M. and I arrived 15 minutes early to see 100 Orthodox Jewish men (and one or two women) already waiting in line at the entrance to the shul. Two doors down, a comic book convention was getting started and hundreds of New Yorkers dressed up as superheroes and manga characters ogled and whispered at the nature of our curious line.

At 7 P.M. sharp we were allowed to enter, and before us was the greatest kiddish club that one could ever imagine. Two full rooms of tasting and food awaited.

For three hours, I sniffed and sipped world-class scotches, whiskies, bourbons and ryes. In each room I filled up a plate of kishka, chopped liver and cholent before commencing my sampling. To top it off, I closed the evening with yet another cigar in the cordoned off shul parking lot.

While smoking and reflecting on the evening’s events it struck me at what a missed opportunity Whisky Jewbilee was. The event came about on the fringes ofWhiskyFest, a convention for whisky connoisseurs from across the city that takes place on a Friday night and the following Saturday. Orthodox Jews are excluded from the event due to its timing, so Whisky Jewbilee was created independently of the event to provide the Jewish community of New York with a similar experience.

It is no surprise to anyone that there is a significant crossover between whisky lovers and Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox Jewish drinking public in New York is a key marketing demographic for the drink’s producers. When I raised the issue with vendors, they all agreed it was illogical for the WhiskyFest organizers to plan the event in such a way that excludes such an important market sector.

But the missed opportunity that I was thinking about was not merely marketing. There are very few opportunities for the Orthodox Jewish community in New York to mix in with the rest of the city around something they share a passion for. Whisky can be a great unifier to demystify a community that does not often open up. I met wonderful Jews from across the Orthodox world while speaking about our shared love for a new 17-year-old double wood Balvenie and the growth of the small batch Bourbon market.

Whisky Jewbilee 2013.

Whisky Jewbilee 2013.Matthew Slater/Single Cask Nation
 In this case, the Jews did not choose to self-segregate; that segregation was forced upon them. WhiskyFest’s first priority of course is to its owners and there are always mitigating factors, but whether they realized it or not, they could have provided a vital societal function alongside their commercial mission.

I hope they realize this, so that next year I can enjoy my tasting alongside lovers of whisky from across the city, not just across my community.

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