Kosher wine with biblical roots


The Abarbanel Wine Company traces its family roots from the biblical King David to Don Isaac Abarbanel, the leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the 1492 expulsion. Born in Lisbon, Don Isaac was a scholar, philosopher and prodigious author who also served as treasurer for Portuguese King Alfonso V, and subsequently for the Spanish royal family. He lent large sums to the Spanish throne during their battles with the Moors, and their reluctance to repay him likely contributed to their decision to expel the Jews at the war’s end.

Today there is a branch of the Abarbanel family living in Cedarhurst, NY. Around 1990 Howard Abarbanel established the Abarbanel brand of kosher wines when the Manischewitz division of Canandaigua Wines (now Constellation Brands) was eager to push kosher wine out of the Concord grape doldrums. As Howard put it, “in a felicitous and serendipitous confluence of interests I got together with them to create great varietal kosher wines.”

The Abarbanel brand wines made its debut in 1992 in time for Passover. A few years later, in 1995, Howard took total control of the brand and built a wide portfolio of wines, as well as a wine import and distribution company. Although he eventually closed the import and distribution business, he kept up the Abarbanel brand itself (today it is imported and distributed by Admiral Imports of New Jersey).

Adorned with the family crest awarded by the Spanish royals, the Abarbanel selections have received numerous accolades and awards. A recent release is their Abarbanel Cabernet-Merlot Blend, Batch 58, 2011(mevushal; $15) created from a 50-50 blend of grapes grown in France’s Languedoc region (limited production sourced primarily from the Les Terres Noires single vineyard). Value-priced, medium bodied and built for early enjoyment, it displays plum, red berry and cassis flavors accented with hints of leather and herbs. Consider serving this with roasts, simply grilled foods and aged cheeses.

Spirits-wise, our thoughts have drifted back to Jim Beam. This past April 23, Jim Beam Bourbon made a big deal over the milestone of becoming the first producer of bourbon to fill 13 million barrels since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. At the company’s flagship distillery in Clermont, Ky., Jim Beam’s great-grandson, Fred Noe (he is also the seventh generation master distiller), personally filled and sealed the barrel. As Noe noted to the press: “I guess, in this case, 13 is a lucky number. … As a family, we’re proud of this milestone. It speaks loudly and proudly to our longevity and history, and bolsters our position as the world’s largest producer of bourbon. We’ve been making bourbon a long time and we’ve made a lot of it.”

Part of the significance of this event is the fact that Beam filled its 12 millionth barrel less than three years ago (on Oct. 17, 2011). This pace of growth highlights the growing global market for bourbon. Domestically, the bourbon market has increased by 40 percent in the past five years. Bourbon exports have blown past $1 billion in sales. As the biggest producer, it should be no surprise that Jim Beam’s entire portfolio of bourbon – including White Label, Black, Devil’s Cut, Honey, Maple, Signature Craft, Red Stag and Single Barrel – is doing particularly well, too.

Without wanting to douse the excitement with too much cold water, it’s always worth keeping in mind the primary reason why Beam is able to claim the #1 spot in global sales of bourbon – Jack Daniel’s. For Jack Daniel’s is technically able to call itself a bourbon but instead chooses to call itself ‘Tennessee whiskey,” and despite historically close sales figures, over the last few years Daniel’s has earned a sizable lead over Beam. All the more remarkable when you consider that Tennessee didn’t repeal its state prohibition until 1938, yet Daniel’s filled its 13 millionth barrel some time ago.

The important takeaway from all this, is the strong and rapid growth of American whiskey. To toast Beam’s latest milestone, we recommend getting reacquainted with its flagship brand:

Jim Beam White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (40 percent abv; $15) is a medium-bodied, young whiskey, probably around 4 years old (this is hinted at by the pale amber color). Yet it lacks the harsh edge and fiery burn that is usually associated with young whiskey. A bit dry and orange-fruit-like on the nose with maybe a hint of vanilla and caramel, the whiskey has a slightly syrupy mouth-feel, with lovely notes of buttered toast, hints of brown sugar, subtle cinnamon and whispers of vanilla. The Jim Beam wild yeast strain gives this whiskey an odd, though enjoyable, sour funky or gamey sort of finish. White Label is straightforward and uncomplicated yet versatile, as enjoyable straight as it is as a mixer. Delivers well above its weight!

For those wanting an older expression of Jim Beam, look no further than the great:

Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey (50 percent abv; $30): Named after a little creek that runs just south of the distillery, and past what is claimed to be Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home, the whiskey was introduced a couple of decades ago to showcase aged Beam whiskey. Chunky, firm, earthy, sweet and brilliant, Knob Creek exhibits floral aromas with a touch of charred oak, a hint of spicy rye, honey, roasted nuts, vanilla, and an odd, yet not unpleasant, touch of mustiness. These are followed on the palate with sweet, creamy flavors of vanilla pound cake, maple sugar, and (slightly burnt) caramel, hot cinnamon candy, white pepper, walnuts, and something like apricot chutney. Rich and complex, with a slightly jarring yet absorbing hot and heavy finish. L’chaim!

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