This New Year’s Eve Jews, like other North Carolinians, may perhaps avail themselves of a glass or two of intoxicating beverage to welcome the advent of 2022. They can do so secure in the knowledge that their appreciation of fine spirits has a long precedent in the Tar Heel state.
Jews themselves have never shared the inhibitions about alcohol consumption held by their Baptist and Methodist neighbors who flocked to the Anti-Saloon League or Women’s Christian Temperance Union. North Carolina would enact Prohibition in 1909, ten years before the federal government imposed it.
After all, Jews consumed wine ritually. Their custom was to enjoy, as the Weils of Goldsboro put it, a glass of “gut old Winkler-Hasensprung” on Purim or gather after Shabbat morning services at the back of the shul for “a bottle of sweet wine and even a little ‘schnapps’” as Monroe Evans of Fayetteville remembered.
In the years before Prohibition, Jews were among the state’s most prominent distillers and purveyors of alcoholic beverages. Tavern keeping had been a traditional Jewish occupation in the Old World, and virtually every community seemed to have a ritual winemaker just like they also might have a kosher baker, butcher, or pickler. Adolph Lehman, a Goldsboro liquor-store owner, and Solomon Bear, a Wilmington distiller, were sufficiently respectable to serve as first presidents of their respective synagogues.
Indeed, Sol Bear & Co in Wilmington was the state’s leading vintner at a time when North Carolina led the nation in winemaking. In 1882 Bear had purchased at auction 500 caskets of spirits from a coastal shipwreck. The firm itself produced scuppernong and blackberry wines, ports, clarets, and champagnes. Annually, Bear shipped some 200,000 gallons. And by 1894 he ascended to the presidency of the North Carolina Liquor Dealers, Distillers, and Grape Growers’ Association. Ten years later his son Irving traveled to the Rhineland to study wine chemistry. Bear’s “Belle of Carolina” claimed to be “the virgin juice of the luscious North Carolina Grape!”
Statesville supported some 42 distilleries. The Wallace Brothers Herbarium supplied flavorings. Like Louisville, where Jews comprised a quarter of the distillers and wholesalers, Jews were disproportionately represented. Julius Lowenstein by 1884 was shipping corn liquor, rye whiskey, and brandy across the South. His in-law M. W. Meyer and Henry Clarke advertised as “Distillers of North Carolina Mountain Liquors.”
So, as we gladden our hearts to begin a new year, let’s lift a glass in tribute to our historic Jewish role as harbingers of prosperity and good cheer to all North Carolinians.
L’chaim, and Happy New Year!