A few weeks back, I visited my friend Heather in the cool old Pennsylvania farmhouse where she lives with her beau and can spend whole days in the kitchen baking elaborate German cookies, or making soups out of vegetables from her garden, or doing possibly semi-illegal things with booze — all with a glass of wine in her hand and some old-time 78 RPMs playing in the background. At one point during the evening I visited, she busted out a decanter full of magical liquid known as krupnik, and served me a shot in a cordial glass. It’s an old Polish and Lithuanian drink that housewives have been concocting in their farm kitchens for centuries, she explained, and which you’d serve to guests alongside some sweet treat, especially in the winter months.
Not much of a booze-drinker, I didn’t expect to like it, and at first tasted only the intense alcohol-ness that I hate, winced elegantly, and put the glass down. But then a magical thing happened: A deliciously rich and spicy honey flavor warmed my whole being, and I think there might have been a religious vision or two involved. I proceeded to have two more shots, which would likely be the equivalent of one of you lushes downing a distillery. Heather explained to me the whole process of making the krupnik, which you can’t easily just go buy, apparently, and certainly not in this highly spiced and honey-infused incarnation, and so I decided then and there that I wanted to make krupnik, too. Because secretly, deep down, I'd like to live on a Polish farm and stand over a hot stove stirring pots that have cinnamon sticks floating in them.
To make krupnik, however, you do need grain spirits, which are illegal in Pennsylvania — but I conveniently found myself in Maryland shortly afterward, and was stealthily able to procure three half-gallon bottles, two of which Heather and I used to make a vat of this delicious, soul-lifting cordial a few days ago, just in time for the holidays. Well, she made them, and I took a lot of pictures. And basked in the scent of spices that soon took over her kitchen, and my heart. Now I have two half-gallon Everclear bottles filled with krupnik aging in the corner of my bedroom, and if you’re very lucky and my friend I might give you some as a present. What better thing to give your loved ones than mason jars full of ancient Polish farmhouse booze, derived from a time and place where there were too many bees and an excess of grain?
In the spirit of Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, and romanticizing old-time farms in general, I am now passing on this recipe to you.
What you’ll need:
Grain alcohol (you’ll need four cups or half of a half-gallon)
Local wildflower honey (two cups)
Vanilla pod or vanilla extract
Allspice, whole or ground
Some white bakers’ towels
Here's how to make it:
First, assemble your spices. Put a cup of water in a pot, and then add:
- Either half a vanilla pod or, if you want to save some moolah, a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
- One luscious cinnamon stick
- A teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
- Twelve cloves
- A pinch or two of mace
- Five pieces of whole allspice or, for you less committed types, one heaping teaspoon of ground allspice
- One or two tablespoons of whole peppercorns
Now put that gorgeous mixture on the stove on high heat, and just before it comes to a boil, add the grated orange peel from one orange and the grated lemon peel from half a lemon (you can use a zester or just cut up the peel and stick it in that way; it doesn’t matter, you’ll end up straining the spices out anyway). Then put the lid on, take the mixture off the heat, and set it aside.
Next, prepare your honey. Add two cups of honey to one cup of water in another pot, and bring it to a boil. Stir and stir, since they’re both naturally shy and won’t want to mix. As soon as that mixture heats up, you’ll have to do some scum-skimming. (The honey will produce a layer of scum on top, and you’ll want to ladle it out.) Heather recommends using a gravy ladle and standing next to the pot with a bowl to ladle the scum into. Every so often you might be tempted to dump the scum you’re accumulating, but by then you’ll actually have a bowl of honey with scum on top — scum is tricky and wily — so ladle off that scum and pour your honey back in the pot. Keep doing this. Prepare for it to take a while. As Heather says, “you and that honey are spending some time together.” At the same time, you don’t want to keep that honey boiling so long that you make candy. But as Heather notes, “The scum shows up on its own. You can only work as the scum shows itself.” I’m pretty sure there are some life lessons in there.
Once your honey mixture seems sufficiently scum-free, marry the honey to the spice: Take both pots and dump them into a larger pot (or any large container), and then stir it all together into one delicious mess.
Now comes the dangerous part. As Heather warns: “Don’t get all cool and have candles burning or light incense and shit, cause you’ll go up in flames.” Grain alcohol is highly flammable, and you’ll feel like an idiot if you set off a bomb in your kitchen when all you wanted was some old-school spicy booze to get you through the winter. So turn off the stove and put out all the fires, don't even think about lighting up anything to smoke, and then bust out your 4 cups of grain alcohol — or half of your half-gallon jug you bought — and pour it in with the honey and spices. Be prepared for steam and all kinds of witchly effects.
Then stir it all together, and cover your pot carefully (Heather used Saran Wrap and covered it with a tight lid), because you don’t want your booze to evaporate. “That would be a damn shame,” Heather says.
Now, let it all just sit and rest overnight.
STEP FOUR (THE NEXT DAY)
Now strain out those spices, since if they continue to flavor that honey and that booze, you'll have one overbearingly spiced concoction to choke down. To perform said straining, you’ll need a plastic funnel and a lint-free pure white cotton towel, the kind that bakers use (if there are chemicals in your towel, they’ll seep into your booze, so be careful. Heather doesn’t use soap or bleach on her towels, just boils them clean). And a container to strain your krupnik into. Heather used the original half-gallon Everclear bottle, which she had available since we actually quadrupled this recipe and used two whole bottles. At any rate, you just want those spices gone.
Stick the funnel in your bottle (or what have you) and cover it with the towel. Then ladle out some krupnik and pour it onto your towel/funnel/bottle, letting the spices collect on the cotton and the booze itself pour through. Every so often you’ll want to dump the collected spices into the sink — after wringing out the towel to make sure you’re not wasting any actual krupnik — and then switch to a clean spot on your towel. Do this until your towel has a bunch of unsavory brown circles on it and all your spices are strained out.
Now you have a pile of krupnik. For best results, keep your whole haul together in the container you’ve strained it into, and let it the mixture sit for at least a few weeks, in a dark, cool place, until it gets even more gorgeous and mellow.
When it’s ready, you’ll want to distribute your krupnik into jars — mason jars, maybe fancier decanters for you more upscale types — and give it away or serve it to friends. Or drink it all yourself if you’re less on the giving side and more on the boozehound one. Whatever you do, remember to serve your krupnik in little cordial glasses. As Heather cautions, “You do not want to pour this into fucking wine glasses.”
Carolyn Turgeon is the author of five novels, including 'Mermaid' and the upcoming 'The Fairest of Them All, out in August 2013.