Question: Is it halachically permissible to drink brandy, cognac, or champagne produced without kashrut supervision?
Answer: In the previous Halacha we have explained the law that our Sages imposed a prohibition on a non-Jew’s wine and usually, the wine is not only forbidden to consume, it is likewise forbidden to benefit from.
Regarding the above question, clearly, champagne is absolutely forbidden for consumption if it was not produced under the supervision of a respected kashrut organization, for champagne is actual wine and although it has not completed its fermentation process in its barrel and it is for this reason that it is bubbly in the bottle, nevertheless, it is wine for all intents and purposes whose blessing is “Boreh Peri Ha’Gefen.” Thus, without an adequate kashrut symbol, it is completely forbidden for consumption.
Regarding cognac, let us first quote the words of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah, Chapter 123) regarding a similar matter:
“Aguardiente (an alcoholic beverage which the Poskim compare to cognac) made from non-Jewish wine is forbidden even to benefit from just like actual wine.” The Rama adds: “Although an alcoholic beverage made from non-Jewish libation wine is merely a secretion (byproduct) of the wine, it is prohibited like the forbidden wine itself.”
This means that even an alcoholic beverage produced by boiling wine and using the vapors and steam to produce the beverage is forbidden for consumption and to benefit from if it is produced from non-Jewish wine.
On the other hand, the Sefer Otzar Ha’Michtavim (authored by Hagaon Harav Yosef Mesas zt”l, late Chief Rabbi of Haifa and cousin of Hagaon Harav Shalom Mesas zt”l) supports those who are customarily lenient in this regard, for the Rama’s words “made from non-Jewish libation wine” imply that this prohibition applies only to beverages made from wine that was actually offered as a libation to idols; however, regular non-Jewish wine that is unknown to have been offered as idol worship is not as stringent and does not prohibit a byproduct produced from it. Since it is fairly uncommon nowadays for non-Jews to offer wine to their deities, he rules that nowadays it is permissible to consume alcoholic beverages produced from a byproduct of non-Jewish wine, including cognac.
Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l vehemently disagreed with this opinion since the source for the ruling of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch is the Rivash who writes specifically that this law applies to all non-Jewish wine (even wine that is unknown to have been offered to idols), for since our Sages prohibited this wine, they likewise forbade any other alcoholic beverage produced from it. Maran zt”l therefore rules that it is forbidden to drink any beverages that are produced as a byproduct of wine if it does not bear a respectable kashrut symbol.
We must add that all of the above applies only to alcoholic beverages produced from the vapors of wine (such as “Arak” and the like). However, cognac (commonly referred to by its proper name, “Brandy”) is not produced from wine vapors at all such that it would be possible to even begin discussing a leniency in this regard. Rather, cognac is actual wine distilled by cooking it for a long period of time after which it is aged until it reaches the desired taste; however, it retains the law of actual wine regarding the laws of non-Jewish wine. (Indeed, this beverage was discovered in the following way: The people of the French city of Cognac would export wine to England. The English later requested that they distill the wine by evaporating much of its liquid in order to lessen its weight so that they would not have to pay such high taxes when it entered England. Once it had entered England, the locals would add water and sell it as wine. Eventually, a war erupted between the countries and a large amount of distilled wine remained in France. They placed it in wooden barrels and several years later when they tasted it, they realized it had a superb taste. This beverage was named after the city it was produced in, “Cognac.”) Thus, there is certainly room for leniency regarding this beverage and one should point this out to those who act leniently for various incorrect reasons.