This kosher-for-Passover apple vodka lets New Yorkers drink local this holiday


(New York Jewish Week) — When it comes to alcoholic beverages and Passover, the most common association is wine — consuming four cups of wine, after all, is an essential element of the Passover seder. But at Ilio Mavlyanov’s home in Forest Hills, Queens, there will be cocktails on offer, too. 

That’s because Mavlyanov, 31, is the founder of Upstate Vodka — a vodka that is both certified kosher and certified kosher for Passover. Unlike most popular vodkas in the United States, which are made from grain, Upstate Vodka is made from New York apples. 

“New York is the Big Apple and New York is the second largest apple growing state in the country,” Mavlyanov told the New York Jewish Week when asked how he landed on creating vodka from apples.

Just because a food or beverage uses kosher ingredients, however, doesn’t automatically mean it’s certified kosher. For Mavlyanov, who moved from Moscow to New York as a teen, the decision to seek kosher certification was integral to Upstate Vodka’s launch in June 2022. “I am Bukharian Jewish — kosher blood runs in my veins,” he said. “The first market I looked at was the kosher market. I started selling mostly to kosher liquor stores.”  

Most vodkas on the market today are made from the fermentation of cereal grains like wheat or rye — ingredients considered “chametz” and not kosher for Passover. That is why some popular vodka brands, like Absolut or Smirnoff, may be certified kosher but not kosher for Passover. Kosher-for-Passover vodka can be made from potatoes, sugar or fruits, like an apple, a key ingredient in Ashkenazi recipes for that seder plate staple, haroset.

Each 750 ml bottle of Upstate Vodka is made from the fruit of 75 apples. The variety depends on the year but can include Spy Gold, Cortlands, Liberty or Kingston Black apples. “Each year we evaluate the juice so it might be a different blend,” said Upstate Vodka marketing director Susan Mooney. “Our distilling team has learned a lot about how to work with apples with different sugar content.”

“The owner is Jewish and he feels like the kosher products that were available were made from sugar or beets and were not of a high enough quality,” said Mooney, describing Mavlyanov’s decision to make a kosher-for-Passover vodka, in particular. “He felt he wanted to make a really good kosher for Passover vodka for the kosher and Jewish population.”

This year, the company will turn out 5,000 bottles of kosher for Passover Upstate Vodka. Sold in stores all over New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, with shipping available to 30 states, Upstate Vodka’s kosher for Passover batch has a light gray label — in contrast to the black label used on the product for the rest of the year — and it clearly states that it is kosher for Passover on the front of the bottle.

Aside from the label, however, there is no difference between the Passover apple vodka and the year-round drink, said master distiller Ken Wortz. “From the first pressing of the juice from the apples, to fermentation, distillation and bottling — all are done under the supervision of a rabbi from OK Kosher,” he said, noting the rabbi even has his own room at the distillery.

Upstate Vodka is currently the only product produced by Sauvage Distillery, which is located in Charlotteville, New York, just north of the Catskill Mountains. And while Mavlyanov lives with his family in Queens, he is “very into farm products and farmers markets,” he told the New York Jewish Week. I was always impressed with the quality of products, and wanted to contribute to what upstate has to offer.”

Mavlyanov’s efforts seem to be paying off. New York City-based mixologist Will Hadjigeorgalis, who is now a brand ambassador for the line, said he normally doesn’t get excited about vodka — until he tasted this product. “It is supposed to be flavorless, but this has a hint of apple,” he said. “It has a wonderful, creamy mouth feel.” 

Food influencer and cookbook author Jake Cohen is a fan, too. “I come from a family that loves a diversified l’chaim portfolio, from weed to wine and plenty of vodka drinkers, so I always want to be stocked on the best kosher for Passover variety,” he wrote in an email to the New York Jewish Week, using the Hebrew word for the toast said over spirits. “Upstate Vodka stands up to every other bottle on my top shelf.”

There’s more to come from those upstate apples — in addition to vodka, the company is also making a local version of apple liqueur a la calvados. “We already have apple brandy in the barrels,” said master distiller Wortz. “It will also be kosher.”