Keeping it kosher for passover

TOMORROW MARKS the beginning of Passover, the Jewish festival that commemorates the story of the Exodus, when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

“Let my people go!” commanded Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments.” Well, Pharaoh didn’t and what followed were the Ten Plagues of Egypt as dramatized by Cecil B. DeMille, the last of which was the coming of the Destroying Angel who “passed over” the homes of the Israelites if their door posts were marked with the blood of a spring lamb. If they weren’t, the firstborn of every household, including Pharaoh’s died. As a result Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go.

Passover traditionally begins on the 14th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and it is celebrated for seven or eight days. It is one of the most widely observed of all Jewish holidays.

What does all of this have to do with bartending? Well, during Passover some people become more observant of kosher laws. And when it comes to kosher alcohol, one taste of most kosher wine and one will begin to look around for a miracle.

Enter distiller Arne Hillesland and a miracle courtesy of No. 209 Gin, kosher for Passover, and made in San Francisco.

As Hillesland tells it, founder Leslie Rudd asked him about making a kosher for Passover version of their 209 gin.

“Mr. Rudd is Jewish and highly respectful of his faith. He wanted to keep kosher for Passover and I believe was tired of not being able to get a decent cocktail during the holidays,” he says.

Regardless of belief, who doesn’t need a good cocktail during the holidays? But what disqualifies normal grain alcohol from being kosher?

“During Passover, it is forbidden for observant Jews to consume any risen (fermented) grains,” he says. “This is in memory of the quick bread made as the Jews fled Egypt. So, I could not use the same base spirit of our gin, which is distilled from corn.”

Hillesland sourced a sugar cane-based spirit from South Africa produced in one of only four kosher for Passover-approved distilleries in the world. This is the base for the kosher gin.

Simple enough, right?

Perhaps not. Cardamom, a flavoring agent in the company’s original gin, is on the list of kitniyot (forbidden items), a cultural tradition specific to certain communities by their overseeing mashgiach (kosher supervisor/rabbi) who, of course, is another requirement for kosher status.

Ever the innovator, Hillesland substituted bay leaf and “a couple other herbs and spices” to replace cardamom’s unique flavor.

The result is still the less piney and more citrusy flavored gin that 209 is known for, but the bay leaf adds just a touch more savory to the finished product. Hillesland admits to between eight and 11 botanicals that all adhere strictly to kosher dietary law: bergamot, lemon peel, cassia bark, angelica root, coriander seeds and juniper among them.

“It’s been fascinating to delve into a tradition that is over 2,000 years old and bring it into the 21st century, while keeping the tenets of the faith with upmost importance. It’s an honor to be the only distillery in the world creating a kosher for Passover gin,” says Hillesland.

Launched in 2010, 209’s kosher for Passover gin is a niche product. As such it represents about 3 percent of the company’s total production and runs about $4 more a bottle than the original. But considering that there are no alternatives, it’s kind of hard to beat.

Which begs the question: Can a gentile prepare a kosher martini during Passover?

Yes, if it is an extra, extra dry martini, as there is no kosher vermouth. Furthermore, only a gentile can make one because, in Leviticus, God commands observant Jews, “Ye shall do no manner of servile work.”

Just remember what happened to the last guy who ignored him.