PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY OF KAS SPIRITS
A new twist on a traditional Baltic spirit Go to any Lithuanian- or Polish-American gathering, and you’ll likely encounter an amber-gold spirit used for celebratory toasts. That would be Krupnikas (Krupnik in Poland), a traditional spiced honey liqueur from the Baltic region, which dates back to the 16th century—purportedly invented by Benedictine monks for medicinal purposes. And it’s made to this day by most Lithuanian-American families, on home stove tops from closely guarded recipes, including the family of Kestutis J. Katinas (aka Kas), founder of KAS Spirits. He is taking this Eastern European tradition to a wider audience via a former auto repair shop in Mahopac. Call him the Lithuanian liqueur garagiste.
Katinas was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens by Lithuanian parents who were refugees of World War II and only spoke Lithuanian at home. One of his earliest memories: His mother by the stove, making the aromatic Krupnikas. It made an impression; as a young adult, in Fleishmanns, New York, he started making—and tweaking— the family recipe, with approval from friends and relatives. As early as 1995, he considered going into commercial production, but due to his busy work life as a high-end IT consultant for Con Edison, he put the idea on hold … until he got the pink slip in 2011. After a futile job search, he and his wife (and business partner), Marushka Osman, decided to throw everything they had financially into the KAS operation in 2013. A year later, they started self-distributing KAS to local wine shops.
Voluble and energetic with a good sense of humor, Katinas is a born solutions guy, and his operation reflects it. Through clever, often homemade devices and “systems,”—like his ingenious steam exhaust system, fashioned from a large used plastic container, flexible tubing from Home Depot and a cheap home fan—he has been able to scale up the Krupnikas process successfully. It’s still “small batch,” but way beyond the stove-top method.
The result is strong,
clean and deceptively
smooth, with a clear
honeyed quality and
complex notes of
orange zest and
Krupnikas is a multilayered infusion of spices, honey and grain spirit. First, using a high-thread-count sheet as a “tea bag,” Kas assembles a heady mix of aromatic ingredients—anise pods, caraway seeds, cloves, whole allspice, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, ginger root (dried and fresh), cardamom seeds, whole nutmeg (cracked), saffron and fresh lemon and orange rinds (which have been previously frozen)—and boils it in highly filtered water in his large customized heating unit, reducing the liquid to concentrate the flavors. None of these ingredients is unique to traditional Krupnikas; the proportions, however, are key—and secret. Next, honey is added (clover and wildflower honey from the Finger Lakes), brought to a boil and simmered until fully integrated. This is the “base.” Last, grain spirit is added (a four-time distilled corn spirit). Unlike the home producer, who makes a batch in one continuous go, Katinas makes a large volume of the “base” first, and then later brings in the grain spirit to integrate into the base, via heat in the boiling unit. Once finished, the spirit is cooled to room temperature, allowed time to settle and then filtered through his self-designed system and bottled, Putnam County’s only licensed spirits product.
The result is strong (40 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV), clean and deceptively smooth, with a clear honeyed quality and complex notes of orange zest and baking spices.
Originally, the idea was to sell KAS as a beverage to drink on its own— neat, chilled or heated (an instant hot toddy!). What quickly became apparent— and has been successfully exploited—is Krupnikas’s versatility at the bar. “It’s more like a gin with a honeyed sweetness, which is why the bar set likes it so much—no need for simple syrups, and the multiple flavors hold up well in cocktails,” says Osman, who runs the sales and marketing part of the operation. It has a particular affinity with amari, like Averna and Cynar, and a bevy of KAS cocktails have been developed, often riffs on classics, like the “Kazerac” and the “KAS-Codder.”
Katinas’s gamble on Krupnikas is coming up aces, a combination of his passion, planning and ingenuity, and an authentic, well-made potation. Not only have excellent reviews (and sales) poured in, but KAS has also been picked up by a distributor in Connecticut and (soon) in New York State. It can be found in wine shops throughout the Hudson Valley, including in Westchester, and in New York City. As they say in Lithuania, a potential target market for KAS, sveikat! —Chris Matthews
KAS Spirits LLC