Is Johnnie Walker Whiskey Still Kosher? Maybe, Maybe Not

Israeli Rabbinate claims Black Label importer bringing in whiskey with fraudulent kosher certification. But it gets more complicated than that.

Bloomberg

The Internet has lit up with warnings that Johnnie Walker scotch whiskey is no longer considered kosher.

On Monday, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's Kashrut supervision department issued a warning that "the kashrut certificate for Johnnie Walker had been removed." However things are quite a bit more complicated than just that.

It seems the Rabbinate is accusing a major Israeli importer of alcohol of fraudulently labeling the bottles they import as kosher - but there are still bottles of Johnnie Walker with a proper kosher certification imported by the brand's official representative; they just may be harder to find.

Blacklist for Black Label

Various versions and production runs of Johnnie Walker whiskey (there are dozens) are certified as kosher by the OK Kosher Certification organization (known as the OK), and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's Kashrut department relies on this supervision for allowing imports of the whiskey to be labeled as Kosher.

In Israel, a company named IBBL Spirits is the official importer of Johnnie Walker (and many other alcoholic products) and is authorized by Diageo, the British multinational alcoholic beverages company that owns the Johnnie Walker brand - the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Another Israeli importer, Paneco Group, has been importing and selling Johnnie Walker (in particular the Black Label edition, and at a lower price). The bottles it sells bear a label stating the whiskey is kosher and under the OK's supervision, and has the approval of the Chief Rabbinate.

But in a letter sent two weeks ago by Rabbi Aharon Haskel, the head of the OK's Israel branch, to the head of the Rabbinate's Kashrut enforcement department Rabbi Rafi Yochai, Haskel states that the organization does not supervise all Johnnie Walker whiskey produced, only certain batches produced in certain facilities - and which are imported to Israel only by IBBLS. Rabbi Haskel says that all other bottles are not certified as Kosher - including those imported by Paneco.

As a result of this letter, "an investigation was conducted in which it was found that the documents submitted by the importer Paneco Group for receiving a kashrut certificate for importing Johnnie Walker brand whiskey, was given originally to the importer IBBLS only, so that  they are not appropriate for the drinks imported by [Paneco]," writes Yochai in the Rabbinate's announcement.  

As a result, the Rabbinate's imports department has canceled its kashrut certification for Johnnie Walker whiskey given to Paneco, he added. Yochai instructed all Israeli Kashrut supervisors not to allow any stores, restaurants or other businesses they supervise to receive such whiskey - only that from IBBLS.

On Sunday the Rabbinate's imports department officially informed Paneco it was cancelling their Kashrut certification for the whiskey.  

Rabbinate announcement: 'Johnnie Walker's kosher certificate rescinded'
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It seems Paneco imports Johnnie Walker Black Label in particular, the 80 proof blended whiskey that is aged for at least 12 years - though the ban applies to all Johnnie Walker products imported by Paneco.

Paneco says all the whiskey it imports is kosher, and its competitor was trying to damage its business. It recently launched a major website, Paneco.com, for selling alcohol in Israel, and highlights Black Label, which it says is kosher.

Interestingly enough, IBBLS, the official importer, is a private company owned by the Central Bottling Company - better known to Israelis as Coca Cola Israel.

So if it is important to you to make sure your scotch is kosher, here is what you should do. You can identify these kosher certified bottles in two ways: First it states clearly who the importer is; and second the OK certified bottles have their approval stamped on the original label, and not just on the label stuck on the by the importer.

Of course there are many who continue to disagree on the issue - in both directions. There are those who say that Johnnie Walker is kosher because of how it is made - not from wine, but from grain - and the company is extremely strict as to how they produce their whiskey. But in the past there have been other controversies about the kashrut of such whiskey - even that with proper certification and supervision. Not all rabbis accept the OK's halakhic rulings on the matter. For example, there are those who say that because come of the whiskey is aged in sherry casks, which previously contained non-kosher sherry and wine, even the supervised and certified product is not kosher - even though a many rabbis disagree.