How Three Jews Are Changing American Whiskey Drinking

The tasty and satisfying story of why distillers like Laphroaig and Glen Moray would want to sell off their quality stock to three American Jews.

12.05.15 5:00 AM ET

As a proud Jew and a hearty drinker, I can tell you firsthand we are not often regarded as great producers of intoxicants.

At best, you might think of Schmaltz Brewing, the solid, upstate New York brewery that makes plenty of Jew-punny beers like their He’Brew Jewbelation strong ales; at worst, though, you most certainly think of the god-awful Manischewitz Kosher wine. 

But, believe it or not, some of the finest whisky being released in America at the moment is also coming from Jews. More specifically a trio of “chosen people” who not only don’t hide their heritage—they even print it on their bottles alongside a prominent Star of David.

Even more interestingly, Jewish Whisky Company is showing Americans both Jewish and gentile a whole new way that great whisky can be bottled and released in this country.

“I think I first fell in love with scotch because its smokiness reminded me of going camping when I was a kid,” Joshua Hatton, the company’s president told me. 

“What Jews go camping?” I wondered, us Jews not exactly known for enjoying sleeping outdoors or getting dirty.

“I had a non-Jewish stepfather!” Hatton sheepishly admits.

Hatton’s initial love for scotch, though, was 100% Jewish-related, the love affair first stoked in his synagogue one day at oneg—a casual gathering for snacks and drinks after Friday services—when a congregant poured him a peaty dram of Lagavulin 16. That sip would completely change his life.

Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin at Westland distillery’s warehouse, Hoquiam, Wash.

Steve Hawley

Joshua Hatton and Jason Johnstone-Yellin at Westland distillery’s warehouse, Hoquiam, Wash.

Just a few years earlier, Hatton had absolutely no relationship with scotch...or Judaism for that matter.

Raised in Naugatuck, Connecticut, Hatton didn’t start regularly attending shul until he met his lapsed-Catholic wife and they began looking for a religion under which to start a family.

Hatton didn’t have a bar mitzvah until age 33, and he didn’t fall for scotch until just around that time either, having long been a “frou frou” cocktail drinker.

“I was never shy about getting a Cosmopolitan,” he readily tells me.

Hatton threw himself intensely into scotch, studying it almost, well, talmudically.

In 2010 he started a blog, Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society which was renamed Jewmalt after a legal dispute from the powerful Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

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His sophisticated scotch studies quickly gained an audience—not just of Jews, but of whisky lovers of all sorts. Still, his focus was always Jewish in ethos—and so the idea to produce a Jewish-made whisky formed.

“Well that’s a million dollar idea,” Jason Johnstone-Yellin remembers thinking after Hatton told him his plan. Jason Johnstone-Yellin laughs. “That was back before I fully understood how companies work.”

Johnstone-Yellin was likewise a popular whisky blogger who had become friendly with Hatton over the years. He was also a Scot who just so happened to be married to an American Jew and living in the Pacific Northwest.

He immediately understood how something as simple as a whisky company could help bring people together.

“When my wife first came over to Scotland fifteen years ago, my family took me aside and said, ‘Tamara'  Jewish? What are we gonna talk about?’ It was a striking moment,” Johnstone-Yellin explains. “So when Josh came to me and said he was going to start a whisky company, with a Jewish community built around it, it just made sense. We would bring Jews and non-Jews together...and they could always just talk about whisky.”

Johnstone-Yellin signed up as vice-president and with another friend and, yes, another Jew, Seth Klaskin, they founded the Jewish Whisky Company in 2011.

So we have a lawyer (Klaskin), a philosophy professor (Johnstone-Yelin), and an industrial components salesman (Hatton)—these guys may have known how to drink whisky, but what did they know about actually making it?

The Single Cask Nation line-up before Whisky Jewbilee NYC.

Matthew H. Slater

The Single Cask Nation line-up before Whisky Jewbilee NYC.

Oddly, that last fact didn’t really matter because they never had any interest in actually being distillers. Instead, Jewish Whisky Company is merely an LLC that purchases whisky other companies have already distilled.

“In Scotland there’s a longtime tradition of independent bottlers,” Hatton explains. These companies include notables like Gordon & MacPhail, Samaroli, and others who buy casks of already-made whisky that distilleries don’t want for themselves for whatever reason.

These independent bottlers sometimes create their own blends or add unique barrel finishes, but oftentimes they simply bottle and then release the product as is, always displaying where exactly they acquired the whisky from.

Though this business arrangement is far less common in America, Jewish Whisky Company aimed to do likewise for paid members of their club they dubbed Single Cask Nation. 

Hatton and Johnstone-Yellin knew they had pretty good palates and, thus, thought maybe they could identify some of the world’s finest whisky barrels and buy them up, all for release as single cask, limited bottlings.

“People would initially say to us, ‘Why do I need someone to select my whisky for me?’” notes Johnston-Yellin. “But there's so much whisky in the world, you need knowledgeable curators nowadays. It’s the same reason people go to (great whisky bars like) Jack Rose or Brandy Library. Your time is valuable and you only have so much money. And our readers already trusted our opinions.”

Still, why would distillers like Laphroaig and Glen Moray want to sell off their quality stock to these Jews from America? 

“Two reasons,” notes Hatton. “From our blogging, we had built relationships with people in distilleries. Like anything in businesses, it always comes down to relationships. The second reason is that we are the Jewish Whisky Company.”

What he means is, even if the company’s internal motto might be “Whisky first, Jewish second,” from a distillery’s perspective, they just wanted to get into Jews’ liquor cabinets.

“Whisky has numerous fan bases, but few are more devoted—and arguably less noticed by the press and public—than Jews, particularly observant Jews,” noted New York Times cocktail writer Robert Simonson back in 2013.

As Hatton further notes, just like there’s Jewish whisky ownership, Jews have long loved to drink whisky as well, even while studying Judaism.

“Kiddush clubs have gone back for some time,” Hatton explains. “Generally speaking, Saturdays after services a group of guys get together. They might still be discussing that week’s parsha or midrashim and they’ll have some bottles of whisky too. So they'll have a lot of fun drinking whiskey and talking torah.”

But lest you think Jewish Whisky Company is just for the yarmulke set, Hatton tells me his nearly 1000 paid members actually break down to about 45% Jewish, 55% non-Jewish.

“It’s 100% whisky geek though,” he adds.

With membership fees starting at just $36/year, they get access to the Jewish Whisky Company’s stunning offerings—about 18 just in 2015—all from a single cask, all barrel proof, all around one-hundred bucks or so.

That members are whisky geeks makes even more sense because, regardless of faith, we all care about nothing more than snagging rare and delicious bottles. And delicious these Jewish Whisky Company bottles are.

I’ve been lucky to try a few of their recent selections and they are truly sublime. I was initially excited because it’s somewhat rare to find scotch bottled at barrel-proof strength (though “Nothing too hot Uncle Moishe couldn't drink it,” Hatton tells me). Thus, I particularly enjoyed an 111.8 proof Arran 13 which finished maturing in an Oloroso Sherry hogshead. Also intriguing was the 113.4 proof “Undisclosed” Islay 7, a smoky dram which is reportedly from Lagavulin (a NDA was signed with the distillery).   

As for the future, Jewish Whisky Company is looking to expand the regions they select whiskies from, this year alone offering an Irish whisky (Cooley 13) and single malts from India (Amrut 5) and Seattle (Westland 3).

They’re also looking to possibly expand into non-grain-based spirits like mezcal that would be Kosher for Passover. Also, recently Jewish Whisky Company gave one of their rye barrels to the aforementioned Schmaltz Brewing who aged an IPA in it (along with some mustard seeds) for a beer they dubbed Manna on Rye.

And each year the Jewish Whisky Company hosts Whiskey Jewbilee festivals in New York, Chicago, and Seattle.

“Lots of yarmulkes, lots of beards, lot of black hats,” Hatton jokes. Though, with the event now in its fourth year, increasingly more non-Jews have begun attending as well.

Johnstone-Yellin thinks he knows why: “Do you have to be Jewish to join us? No. You just have to like good whisky.”