If the notion that Jews have a rich heritage in America’s bourbon industry surprises you, you’re not alone. Bourbon, the whiskey created and made only in the United States (primarily in Kentucky), has a rugged American frontier aura about it; any signs of Jewish presence are subtle and easily missed. I had overlooked them entirely until I simply glanced up while in the tasting room at Heaven Hill Distillery’s campus in Bardstown, Kentucky, last summer. Visiting bourbon country to learn more about this popular American spirit, one thing I didn’t expect to see was right over my head. Nestled among the high rafters and skylight were two large Stars of David.
It turns out the ceiling sculpture honors the Jewish heritage of the distillery’s founders, the Shapira family. Their involvement in bourbon started back in 1934 following the end of Prohibition, when five Shapira brothers invested in a distillery. Decades later, the business remains in the family, holds the second-largest inventory of aging Kentucky whiskey in the world and produces popular bourbon labels including Elijah Craig (named for a Baptist minister sometimes credited with creating bourbon), Evan Williams and Larceny. They recently added a new brand—Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey. And that name took me to another layer of Jewish involvement going way back even further.
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a Jewish immigrant, arrived from Germany in 1867. After working as a bookkeeper for a liquor wholesaler, he partnered with his brother on Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. The company produced what would become a massively successful and globally popular brand of bourbon that uses Isaac’s first initials in the name, I.W. Harper (a brand recently reintroduced by Diageo). By the way, the Bernheims also had good Jewish company in their liquor business success. According to Jews and Booze by Marni Davis, although Jews made up about three percent of the population of Louisville in 1900, they made up 25 percent of local whiskey distillers.
Prohibition shook up the industry, and although Bernheim continued to produce bourbon with a medicinal license through the period, in 1937 he sold his business to Scheneley Distillers Corporation. This led me to still another significant Jewish piece of bourbon history you don’t usually hear about.
By all accounts, Scheneley’s Jewish founder Lewis Rosenstiel was not a model figure (his past included bootlegging charges and links to gangster Meyer Lansky), but he “was at one time the most powerful figure in the distilled spirits business,” according to his New York Times obituary. Most significantly, Rosenstiel formed the Bourbon Institute, through which he lobbied Congress to lengthen the time distillers could age their bourbon before paying taxes on it (which gave producers more flexibility to create longer-aged and prized brands) and convinced Congress to pass a resolution in 1964 declaring bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” which protected it from foreign competition and led for it later to be declared “America’s Native Spirit.” Standards were also established, such as requiring bourbon be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.
What I thought was a trip along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail to learn about (and of course taste) bourbon ended up revealing a surprising Jewish thread to bourbon’s great American story. The contributions of Jewish entrepreneurs helped pave the way for bourbon to become what it is today—an $8.5 billion industry and the largest export category among distilled spirits.
Now, bourbon aficionados will tell you that just about any time is a good time to enjoy this spirit. But I wanted to incorporate bourbon into Purim—and not just because the holiday welcomes some celebratory imbibing. The Purim story, in which Esther foils Persian minister Haman’s plot to kill Persia’s Jews around the fourth century BCE, is full of secrets, mysteries and surprises. Accordingly, foods for the holiday often have hidden fillings. Perhaps none of these foods are more beloved in the United States than hamantashen, the filled pastries shaped like triangles for Haman’s hat. Using an iconic American ingredient with its own somewhat hidden aspects of Jewish heritage seemed a natural fit.
For my sweet pastry featuring bourbon, I turned to complementary flavors of vanilla, butter and caramel and aimed to incorporate bourbon into each component of the hamantashen. A little in the dough gives more of an aroma than anything else, and I was surprised at how it reminded me of the sweet corn mash fragrance you notice on distillery tours. For the filling and focal point, I created a bourbon salted caramel sauce and blended in cream cheese to achieve just the right body and lusciousness. For the topping, I loved both a bourbon glaze, which enhanced the cookie’s whole bourbon flavor, and a salted caramel drizzle that emphasized more of the caramel notes.
Either way, the result is a sophisticated, grownup hamantash that fits the spirit (and spirits aspect) of Purim. It serves not only as dessert, but also as a memento to Jewish contributions to the success of a famed American industry.