Like many college students, Rimas Vilgalys spent a fair amount of time drinking with classmates. Unlike most of them, however, he's turned consumption into a career.
Struck by how much friends enjoyed his family's recipe for authentic Lithuanian krupnikas, which converts biting grain alcohol into a mellow, spiced honey liqueur, Vilgalys developed a sober business plan to bring the small-batch booze he made in his dorm to the artisan beverage market. Nine years later, Durham-made Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas is sold in four states and Washington, D.C.
"It's something my dad used to make on the stove," says Rimas Vilgalys from his modest Ramseur Street office. Here he meticulously measures a heady 16-spice infusion just steps away from the paper-strewn desk where he manages the orders, processing and bottling. "When he made it, every batch was a bit different. Ours varies just a little because we use wildflower honey from a few different providers, but that complex North Carolina honey always delivers a great result."
From simmering spices to loading cases of the dark amber liqueur for transport, it takes a week to produce a batch of aromatic krupnikas. Labor-intensive bottling is handled largely by a "pizza-and-beer crew" of friends who help him insert corks and seal each container with a label that bears both the bottler's initials and the batch number. At the end of April, Vilgalys was waiting on Batch No. 75 to cure. Each 30-gallon batch produces about 130 bottles, which sell for $29.95 each.
Brothers Vilgalys is the only commercial producer of krupnikas in the U.S. and one of just a handful of artisan makers internationally. Interest in the product is spreading beyond traditional Lithuanian communities; requests have been logged recently from distributors in Maryland and Delaware to Louisiana and Illinois.
Vilgalys is hopeful that the Legislature will pass North Carolina House Bill 842 and agree to create opportunities for distillers to sell directly to consumers. A similar privilege, granted a few years ago to small-batch breweries, led to significant expansion of artisan beer-making across the state.
"If that happens, we probably would open a tasting room in downtown Durham where people could purchase our product," says Vilgalys. It also would allow Brothers Vilgalys to expand its line to potentially include aquavit and brandy.
Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas is available in Triangle ABC stores, as well as shops in larger North Carolina cities. It also is on shelves of numerous area craft bars, where mixologists find that its smooth finish and 80 proof kick makes it a versatile cocktail ingredient, including in Manhattans and margaritas.
"Because of its spice blend, which to me smells like Christmas, some people think of it as just a winter liqueur. But a margarita proves how flexible it can be," Vilgalys says. "It's also really good with ginger ale and a dash of bitters."
One of his favorite warm weather drinks using krupnikas is the dark purple Elder Brother. It uses elderberry extract from Norm's Farms in Pittsboro and Carriage House Apple Brandy made in Lenoir to create an appealing all-North Carolina sip.
1 1/2 oz. Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas
1 oz. Carriage House Apple Brandy
4 oz. Norm's Farms Elderberry Extract
Pour first three ingredients in a small ice-filled pitcher and stir well to combine. Place a few ice cubes into a tall Collins glass, then fill with the strained mixture. Garnish with a few twists of freshly ground black pepper.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A taste of honey."