The English gave us ale, punch and Eggnog. The Scots and the Irish gave us whiskey, and thank God for that. The Germans helped with the whiskey and threw in lager beer as a bonus. The French gave us something to shoot for when resting brandy in wood and putting tiny bubbles into wine. The Dutch gave us gin, at least until the English waved their light, bracing take on it under our noses and made us forget the rich, malty Dutch stuff that we used to like so much. The Italians gave us espresso, and thank God for that, too, and the vermouth to mix with our whiskey (for the vermouth to mix with our gin, it was back to France). The Africans showed us how to make a proper Julep, which was the only thing that made the South livable before Willis Carrier figured out how to get cold air out of a box. The Russians and Poles made us vodka drinkers and the Spanish gave us the olives for our Martinis. From China and India we get tea, without which you can’t make an Arnold Palmer, and what kind of world is that? In short, everyone gave us something.
“Everyone?” I hear you asking. “What about the Lithuanians?”
Yes, even the Lithuanians—although, to be fair, Lietuviškas Krupnikas, their contribution, may not have received the broad recognition of some others. But, in the late nineteenth century, when—like so many others—Lithuanians in their hundreds and their thousands came to America to begin new lives, exchanging their native forests and lakes, their sandy hills and gunmetal skies, for the forests and lakes of east-central Pennsylvania and the sandy hills and gunmetal skies of Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio, they set to working hard, eating heartily, and, when the year-end holidays rolled around, knocking back glasses of hot, spiced, honey-sweetened grain spirits.
Also known as “Krupnik,” “Virytos” (pronounced “Vidditus”) and, in Pennsylvania’s Coal Country, “Boilo” (a rough translation of Vyritos), Krupnikas is more or less like Hot Toddy, but without all that pesky dilution. (Which leads to another nickname, “Evil,” bestowed upon it at Mum’s, the Federal Hill, Baltimore, dive that serves it every winter.)
There are as many recipes for Krupnikas as there are Lithuanian-Americans. Some hew pretty close to the old-country original; others, not so much. Boilo, in particular, has evolved into its own thing, as Drew Lazor recently reported. However, the commonly used raspberry ginger ale is not a classic Lithuanian ingredient, nor are blueberries or orange juice concentrate. In fact, other than a restrained strip or two of orange or lemon peel, fruit in general is alien to true Krupnikas. Unlike Boilo, Krupnikas is not at heart a punch. Invented, the story goes, by Benedictine monks in the late 1500s, it’s a liqueur if it’s anything—but one that you drink hot.
The traditional sweetener is always honey. The spices are caraway seeds (not surprising for the general part of the world that gave us aquavit and kummel), ginger, black peppercorns, cinnamon, nutmeg and—well, the variations are all endless, but it’s always that kind of stuff. Baking spices.
There’s water in there, but the Lithuanian versions show a positive aversion to it, treating it as a necessary evil. Be warned.
As for the booze. Lithuania is vodka country. Sometimes you see a little red wine added. For Boilo, however, the classic base is Four Queens 101-proof blended whiskey. Four Queens is not a top-shelf whiskey, or even a middle-shelf one. But they might be onto something: American blended whiskey is made by taking straight whiskey and cutting it with a lot of ethanol and water—ethanol and water being the definition of vodka. Now, some Lithuanian sources suggest the proper vodka for Krupnikas is actually starka, a vodka that has been barrel aged for a little light oakiness. A good way of approximating that is to splash a little rye whiskey into some vodka—say, 20-percent rye and 80-percent vodka. Or just use Four Queens, if you can find it.
Other Lithuanian sources go for the jugular, specifying straight grain alcohol—think Everclear (that’s how Mum’s makes their Evil). That might be a bit much. I’ve found the best path is to keep things strong, but not quite evil. Made thus, you’ve got something that kindles an instant glow and provides a jumbo dose of holiday cheer. That cheer, which two glasses of this stuff will give you (you might want to stop there—it’s about 80 proof), is always appreciated. Some years, though, it’s more than appreciated; it’s needed. In fact, a couple more Decembers under the current administration and I suspect we’ll all be tossing back the Krupnikas.
20 oz 100-proof Vodka, such as Stolichnaya 100
5 oz 100-proof straight Rye whiskey, such as Rittenhouse
.75 cup Liquid honey
2 tsp Caraway seeds
.5 tsp Whole black peppercorns
1 piece Candied ginger, about a half-inch square
half a Vanilla bean, split
1 Cinnamon stick
peel of 1 Lemon
peel of 1 Orange
1 cup Water
Add the caraway seeds, peppercorns, ginger, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, citrus peels, and water to a 2-quart pot with cover. Simmer covered for 20 minutes, uncover and stir in the honey. Simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add vodka and rye, stir and cover. When cool, strain into a 2-quart Mason jar. Optional: add half a cup of Everclear. To serve, reheat in large pot over low flame (be VERY careful it does not boil over, since the concoction is quite flammable) and ladle out into small, handled punch cups. The liquid should be about 35-perecnt abv, or 40-perecent if you added the Everclear, so be careful here, too.
Note that if you let it sit for a few days before serving your Krupnikas will throw off a lot of sediment, leaving a clear, bright liquid that can be siphoned off and bottled. This makes a good gift.