Krupnikas, Durham’s Own Honey Liqueur
Rim Vilgalys, a second generation Lithuanian-American, grew up in Durham, though the spiced-honey flavored liqueur of his heritage was always part of his life. He learned to make it from his father (a mycologist – a fancy name for a mushroom expert – at Duke) and was soon making it for himself and friends.
They loved it, and wanted more. When Rim finished college at UC Santa Barbara he came back to Durham and saw how much had it had changed. He wanted to be part of all the cool things happening int he upbeat area, and decided he was going to try marketing his honey liqueur.
He started working on a business plan and leased a building in Durham early last year. He decided to call it Krupnikas, which is the Lithuanian word for drink. Once he dealt with the red tape, he started making, bottling and marketing his product — first hitting the shelves just before the New Year.
It sold out within 5 hours.
There is as good reason for that – this is a delightful (and different) drink.
Rim makes Krupnikas in a building he leased on Ramseur Street. He does pretty much everything but the bottling himself. Right now he’s putting out about 130 bottles every two weeks. His base is a grain spirit, essentially the base for vodka. To this, he adds the zest of lemons and oranges and lets that sit so the flavor of the fruit infuses with the alcohol. In another container, he puts the bagged spices – a mix of cardamom, clove, caraway, coriander, allspice, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and others, boiling them down to pull out the flavor. Once all this is done he mixes it all together in a kettle – the alcohol, spice mix, and honey. Naturally, he uses wild flower honey from Busy Bee Apiary in Chapel Hill.
When I first tasted Krupnikas I felt as if I could taste the wild flowers – there is a lovely floral note in it. Rim felt it was an important part of what made his drink special, and he liked keeping it local. He enjoys the character and depth the honey gives the liqueur (most other honey liqueurs use clover honey). He gives it a few days to settle, and then gets some help with bottling. The whole production takes about 5-6 days. Once the labels are on, they’re ready to go.
Rim’s favorite way to drink it is straight. And I have to say that I would go the same way. But it’s also wonderful poured over ice cream, maybe added to an after-dinner coffee, or on a hot day poured over ice with some ginger ale or club soda (especially nice with a slice of orange). It would also make a great hostess gift – something a little different. It has something for everyone: complexity, accessibility, a little sweetness, and strength.
There have been a number of tasting events in the past few months, and Rim plans more (check their website). If you can’t make it to one of the tastings, you can also go for a tour. The tour dates and times are listed on their website, but there is also a couple Saturdays a month in the mid-afternoon. Or you could go to one of the local restaurants that currently carry Krupnikas. Right now it is available at Geer St Garden, Mez Contemporary Mexican, Piedmont, Alivias, Whiskey, Alley 26, Pinhook, Bull City Burger, The Roxy in Durham, or (even closer to Chapel Hill) 2nd Wind, Spotted Dog, and the Station will likely be carrying it. It’s also at the Crunkleton and Ram’s Head Lounge.
The list of restaurants where you can find this is constantly expanding as word gets out about this lovely liqueur. Once you’ve tried it you will likely want a bottle at home. It is available at all of the Durham and Orange County ABC stores, as well as most in Wake. One tip: I had trouble finding it at first when looking in the liqueur section — it turned out to be in the North Carolina aisle.
Rim Vilgalys is having fun doing something he loves. And I’ve been having fun taking advantage of his work. This is definitely worth a try, and you can feel good about keeping it local!