Drinking wine for ‘lone soldiers’


Scott Harris — founder and general manager of Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. in Loudon County — offers some of his Catoctin Creek Rye at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
Scott Harris — founder and general manager of Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. in Loudon County — offers some of his Catoctin Creek Rye at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.

The Lone Soldier Project connects those who serve in the IDF with people and organizations that can offer support through letters, packages and donations. It has centers in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv dedicated to the memory of Michael Levin, a Philadelphia native who perished in Lebanon in 2006 while serving as a paratrooper in the IDF. The centers provide counseling and other programs to address the social, physical and emotional needs of the Lone Soldiers before, during and after their service. For more information: http://israelforever.org/programs/thelonesoldierproject/
The midweek event was gratifyingly well-attended, and all the Israeli wines served were well received. One of the favorites of the evening was produced by the Arza Winery from grapes grown in the Galilee. Their value-priced Ariel Sauvignon Blanc 2012 displayed abundant and crisp citrus aromas and flavors, predominantly grapefruit and lime with some pear notes, bright acidity and a clean finish. It is an ideal summer wine that would pair well with grilled chicken, fish and salads.
Arza is one of the Shor family-owned wineries that include HaCormin and Zion. Originally a single enterprise that began in Jerusalem more than 150 years ago, Arza was created from a branch of the business that initially focused on distilled spirits and liqueurs. Now Arza makes a number of value-priced and premium kosher wines that are appearing on U.S. shelves.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d turn our attention to two worthwhile American “craft distillers” of whiskey: Catoctin Creek Distillery in Virginia and Koval Distillery in Chicago. Both of these distilleries are small-scale producers, and both are kosher certified. Interestingly, both also have a Washington metro connection — must be something in the water.
One day a few years back, Scott Harris — founder and general manager of Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. in Loudon County — was sitting at his desk at one of the various Washington, D.C., defense contractors when he had an epiphany. As he puts it, “I was working on the 30th revision of a Powerpoint package which I knew nobody would ever read. I said to myself, ‘There has to be something more to life than this.’ ” So after 20 years building a software career in telecommunication systems and government IT solutions, Harris wanted something more rewarding.
“At that moment,” he says, “I was swept back to a quarter century earlier, when I was a 15-year-old intern working in a winery. That was a job that I really enjoyed — the satisfaction of working with my hands, producing something, and having people appreciate what I had produced. It was this kind of job that I now felt myself seeking. But this time, I thought, I’d focus on spirits. I wanted to start a distillery.”
After an awful lot of due diligence and planning, Harris persuaded his wife and sole investor, Becky — a chemical engineer, specializing in industrial processes and production systems — to sign off on the project. So they liquidated their life savings and, amidst a bad recession, these two highly educated professionals launched a new and totally different entrepreneurial venture. In 2009 they began distilling the first legal alcohol in Loudoun County since before Prohibition. Their spirits are certified organic and certified kosher under the auspices of the Star-K.
Similarly, also near Washington, D.C., Robert and Sonat Birnecker were growing tired of their situation and their commute. Robert was the deputy press secretary at the Austrian embassy while his wife Sonat was in academia — associate professor of European Jewish history at Baltimore Hebrew University. Once they were expecting their first child, they both decided a change was necessary. The bottom line was they wanted to work together, have time with their son, and be in a city they both loved. So they moved to Chicago, and in 2008 launched the Koval Distillery — the first legal distillery in Chicago since Prohibition.
Why distilling? Well, Robert is now actually a third-generation distiller. His family had been distilling spirits for over a century in Austria and Robert, born in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, used to help out in his grandfather’s artisanal distillery. Robert Schmid, Birnecker’s grandfather, even came out to Chicago to help get them started with pure grain spirits.
Once he turned to the family trade, Robert dove into the science and art of distilling with real gusto. He received a certificate from Austria’s leading university program for distilling technology, and worked with one of Europe’s foremost spirits expert Dr. Klaus Hagmann developing fermentation techniques for craft distilleries. Now a recognized expert himself, Robert is a key lecturer in distilling at the Chicago-based Siebel Institute of Technology.
The name Koval was the nickname of Sonat’s great-grandfather (Emmanuel Loewenherz) who was considered the black sheep in her family for emigrating from Austria to Chicago in the early 1900s. Koval is the Slavic-Yiddish word for “smith” or “blacksmith,” but it also has the connotation of “to forge” or “starting new ventures.” It was thus chosen as the name of their distillery as homage to her great-grandfather and also to Robert’s grandfather, Robert Schmid — Schmid is German for “Blacksmith.”(In Yiddish, “shmid” is also the primary word for “blacksmith”.) Their spirits are certified organic and certified kosher under the auspices of the OU.
Without further ado, here are two fine hooch recommendations to seek out from their large and growing respective portfolios:
Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye Whisky (40 percent abv; $38): Lovely, brash, and oily, with aromas and flavors of spicy rye, dried walnuts, vanilla, sliced banana, caramel, butterscotch and oak. Water adds to the creaminess, but detracts from the complexity. Additional maturation will likely improve future expressions of this already fine, clean, vibrant rye whisky. Yum.
Koval Single Barrel Four Grain Whiskey (47 percent abv; Barrel #203; $50): Distilled from a mash bill of oats, malted barley, rye and wheat, and aged briefly in heavily charred new oak, this intriguing, delicate whiskey is obviously young and spirity, but offers wonderful flavors and even finesse with an up-front and clean fruitiness and vanilla, a creamy body, and a little peppery bite to keep it interesting, but without any residual alcoholic heat or burn. Water increased some of the fruit and oak notes, but flattened some of its charm. Almost a cross between whiskey and an eau de vie, each grain gives a distinct element yet holds together very nicely. Well worth trying. L’Chaim!

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