When Rim Vilgalys reflects on his childhood in Durham, North Carolina, he remembers Everclear cooking on the stove before his parents’ parties and the smell of honey and spices. These were the elements of Krupnikas, a spiced honey spirit invented by Lithuanian and Polish noblemen in the 16th century, and a tradition that Rim’s father, a first-generation American from Lithuania, brought to the States and instilled in his sons.
When Vilgalys was in college, he started making his own Krupnikas in his kitchen. “It got me invited to a lot of parties,” he says. When he moved back to Durham in 2008, he and his brother continued making it casually for their friends until they realized they were onto something. Three years ago they opened The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company, which now produces and bottles Krupnikas, distributing it all over the country. (Rim’s brother moved away for graduate school, so he now runs it along with two partners, but the name remains in honor of the company’s origins.)
“Krupnikas is really good in the wintertime,” Vilgalys says. “We made a profit the first year in large part because of the holiday sales.”
Indeed, the first thing that comes to mind when describing the flavor of Krupnikas is Christmas. To make the 80-proof spirit, Vilgalys boils down cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, caraway, allspice, and other spices and mixes them with North Carolina wildflower honey. The mixture is then blended with grain-neutral spirit, left to sit for a week, filtered, and bottled. What results is a thick spirit earthier and more herbal than a honey whiskey and sweeter and more refined than Jagermeister.
The spirit is traditionally sipped on its own, but its strength, neutral base, and unique flavor make it a great option for cocktails as well. Vilgalys suggests using it to replace other alcohols in standard cocktails like a hot toddy or a “White Lithuanian,” where it’s mixed with coffee liqueur and half and half. However, local bars have taken the spirit and run with it. Durham’s upscale Counting House featured a “Brown & Bitter” on its menu, which mixed Krupnikas with Rittenhouse Rye, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Cardamaro, and Cynar. The nearby Crunkleton experimented with Krupnikas last year in its “The Bumble Bee’s Knees” cocktail, which contained bourbon, Krupnikas, lemon juice, milk, honey, egg white, bitters, and juniper berries.
Currently, Brother Vilgalys is a small operation with a tiny office and a backroom filled with buckets of honey and spices and a big metal “kettle.” The company has added four liqueurs to its range and plans to add a tasting room in the near future.
Brothers Vilgalys was the first producer of Krupnikas in the United States, though now there are several purveyors, including Kas Spirits in Mahopac, NY and Dirty Water Distillery in Plymouth, MA.
While the greatest concentration of Lithuanians in the United States is in Chicago — and Krupnikas sells well there — Vilgalys says North Carolina is still his biggest market, and he has no plans to leave Durham. In fact, he’s expanding. Currently, Brother Vilgalys is a small operation with a tiny office and a backroom filled with buckets of honey and spices and a big metal “kettle” that’s actually the bottom of a still. Earlier this year, the company started making four new liqueurs and intends to expand its production space and open a tasting room in the near future.
“It’s not as if Lithuanians are our core demographic,” Vilgalys says. “The real Lithuanian communities, they already know someone making this stuff and selling it under the table. We’re not going to be able to unseat the moonshiners.”
Still, the fact that he’s popularizing a spirit rooted deeply in Lithuanian heritage isn’t lost on Vilgalys. Though he was born in the United States and doesn’t speak much Lithuanian, he says bringing Krupnikas to the public has bolstered his cultural identity.
“I’m half-Lithuanian and have a very Lithuanian name, so it’s always been a part of my identity in that way,” he says. “But [Krupnikas] does put me in a position of representing the country, language, and culture to a lot of people. I have a lot of Lithuanians contacting me who are excited to find out that someone is doing this.”