Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 18 - Krupnikas!

I had my first taste of krupnikas in college, where the Baltic Club celebrated our heritage with an annual Christmas get-together, various tailgating events, a broomball team, and monthly get togethers at some of the more dimly lit pubs. My first impression was somewhere between glühwein, Fireball and Melnais balzāms, warming from the inside out with a sweet, kvass-like taste that made our winter potluck an event to look forward to. Our Lithuanian friend Stepas was responsible for the krupnikas, which he diligently made some months (weeks?) previous and proudly presented each year. Over the years I still occasionally remember the Lithuanian drink, usually on a cold evening when autumn is transitioning into winter as I'm sipping hot tea or the occasional īsā glāzīte my husband has poured.

Krupnikas (or krupnik in Poland and Belarus) is a traditional sweet alcoholic drink similar to a liqueur. With a base of grain alcohol, it is sweetened by honey and flavored by up to 50 different herbs. Legend (or Wikipedia!) has it, that the original recipe was created by the Benedictine monks at a monastery in Niaśviž, Poland sometime in the 16th century or before. Possibly a more affordable alternative to imported wine and mead, it soon became popular among the nobility of Poland & Lithuania… and the rest is history.

 As with many traditional recipes, there are hundreds of variations. Each producer has their personal combination of seasonings and herbs used, and the type of honey and grain alcohol utilized also influences the final product. As a result, the recipe now lives on in thousands of different forms, even produced by a handful of distilleries in the United States.

This year was the year that I finally attempted to replicate the sweet honey notes that I remembered from university. After finding a recipe online (really, I chose at random, there are hundreds!), I immediately realized I would go broke buying the needed spices, of which only a tiny fraction would be used and the rest would sit on the kitchen shelves gathering dust until our next move. Instead, the following week was spent crowdsourcing: one friend had whole nutmeg, another whole allspice. I finally found the required cardamom pods at a specialty store, priced somewhere around $55/pound; luckily I only needed ten, together weighing just a fraction of an ounce. I found a vanilla bean in the cupboard, left over from the last cookbook club, and a friend dropped off a leftover piece of turmeric. Soon my counter looked like potions lab, and I was ready to start my own “Dark Corner” – in the kitchen.

First, I boiled down a mixture of honey, water, and wintery spices. After straining the brew, I added a high-proof, flavorless grain spirit to the liquid, and poured into bottles. It is advised to let the krupnikas sit at least a couple of weeks, but I think it’s usually allowed to meld more like 6 months to a year. Over the first few days the cloudiness settled to the bottom, and some weeks later we poured the first taste of the amber liqueur. 

The result tastes much like I remember it tasting years ago, although wisdom gained over the years might influence serving size. All in all, difficulties of sourcing a few of the ingredients aside, this is a relatively easy recipe to make with impressive results. Krupnikas makes a good cold weather drink however you may choose to drink it - straight, sometimes warm, or even mixed  - and shouldn’t be restricted to the Lithuanian winter table. į Sveikatą

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