Dress British Drink Yiddish: Manischewitz

A wine spritzer made with Manischewitz kosher wine

It is time for us to tackle the complicated legacy that is Manischewitz brand kosher wine, because, honestly, I don't think it is possible to stock a Jewish bar without having the stuff on hand. For many American Jews, who drank the inexpensive, Concord grape-based drink furtively at bar and bat mitzvah, this is a drink we associate with synagogues, thrift, and wine headaches. Me recommending it for Jewish bars is not that far removed from the fact that hipster bars made a point to carry Pabst Blue Ribbon, and it has the same appeal of being déclassé, kitchy, and cheap.

But I'm not here to suggest Manischewitz as the wine-of-choice for the ironic Jew. I have another suggestion for that, which I shall write about later, and that's Mogen David and its even-less-reputable relative Mad Dog 20/20.

No, I am not here to suggest Manischewitz as an ironic Jewish wine, but an iconic one. It's got a few things going for it. Firstly, it's old, coming from a company that started in 1888 producing matzo. Secondly, it's about as authentically Jewish as anything produced in America, having been started by a rabbi named Dov Behr Manischewitz , whose name actually was Abrahamson until he escaped Russia using a dead man's passport. Thirdly, the wine's roots are in Brooklyn, as it was originally produced by the Industry City-based Monarch Wine Company. Finally, while its sweetness may put of many wine connoisseurs, it's the result of an approach to wine-making that we now consider an asset: using local sourced grapes. The grape used for Concord wines, in this case Vitis labrusca, is native to North America and grows in upstate New York. The grape is sour and musty, and so sweeteners are added -- typically corn syrup, but the company makes a Passover version that uses the now-trendy cane sugar.

It should be noted that sweet wines are frowned on specifically because they are associated with the drinking habits of the urban poor, which is, to put it mildly, problematic. Sweet wines, for example, are popular among many African Americans -- as an example there is Moscato, a sweet white that has enough of a cache to be the subject of NPR's Code Switching podcast. And, not incidentally, one of the first Moscatos to find an audience in black communities was Bartenura, a kosher wine, which I will likely also write about. There are theories floating around that the flavor of Concord wine may already have been familiar to blacks with southern roots, as Baptist churches may have used kosher wine as sacramental wine during the 30s, but wherever the reason, sweet wines have long had a place in the black community.

Bartenura was just following a path already trod by Manischewitz, which started pitching itself to the black community all the way back in the 1950s, and was popular enough that a Doo Wop group, The Crows, released a song celebrating the drink called "Mambo Shevitz." Manischewitz used black artists like the Ink Spots and later Sammy Davis Junior to promote their wine, and all the way up to the 1980s, according to Forbes, the average Manischewitz drinker was urban, working class, and black.

So this is a wine enjoyed by both the Jewish community and the black community, and, with Sammy Davis Jr., both simultaneously, and if such a wine doesn't have a place in a Jewish bar, no drink does.

For those that find the drink's sweetness to be cloying, I have some suggestions. I have used Manischewitz as an ingredient in coolers and spritzers, and it works marvelously in both -- the other ingredients mediate the sweetness without losing the wine's distinctive Concord flavor. I have also mixed Manischewitz with Coca Cola, a combination imported from Spain and called Kalimotxo, and that works nicely as well. Coke's signature flavor comes, in part, from orthophosphoric acid, which goes a long way toward adding tartness to anything sweet. Kalimotxo is sometimes made with additional ingredients, such as anise liqueur or a lime twist, and those are worth experimenting with.

I suspect there are a lot more ways to make use of Manischewitz, and so I'd entourage drinkers to be unafraid in exploring the wine. Think of yourself as a modern Sammy Davis Jr, and, like him, look at the little bottle of sweet wine and say "Yes I can."