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Two Israelis work to bring back historic, often esoteric, alcoholic drinks.
JERUSALEM — For the past few months, if you’ve gotten chummy with a Jerusalem barkeep called Daniela Lehrer at the well-worn bar of her legendary haunt Barood, or with either of two Tel Aviv bar-owning brothers, Itay and Lior Hargil, you may have been lucky enough to score a shot of a honey-golden elixir that rolls around on your tongue like molten copper, releasing mysterious burnished notes of wild sage and cloves and, towards the end, hits you with a tiny hint of black pepper.
You can’t help but want more.
What is it? “Something Lithuanian,” Lehrer said with a knowing smile. “Ask Joov.”
Joov is the nickname and nom-de-booze of Yuval Hargil, the middle Hargil brother, a burly, graceful 39-year-old with a vaguely Biblical mien who writes on alcoholic beverages for Tel Aviv’s Time Out magazine.
Alcohol has always fascinated him, nothing more so than “the theory of it.” When Hargil was 17 years old and still living with his parents and two brothers in the sleepy seaside town of Nahariya, on Israel’s windswept northern coast, he soldered his own makeshift still and embarked upon a series of experiments. He distilled apples and some of his dad’s homemade wine, all of it “basically totally improvised moonshine.”
Then he embarked upon “a psycho project, which I’m going to come back to some day.” He decided to refine garbanzo beans. “I figured it was like Polish vodka that’s made from potatoes. I asked myself, what could be more Israeli than hummus?”
(They are a foodie family: his mother, Nina, a Warsaw-born retired travel agent, is the best cook he has ever met. His father, Eliezer, 72 and a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, would come home from work to cure his own fish, dry his own meats and make wine.)
The nativist Israeli eau-de-desert turned out to be “completely disgusting” but he was undeterred and retained a yen for autochthonous things.
The new spirit he is making, the warm orb of honey that has Daniela Lehrer glowing, is called Krupnik, and is, according to Hargil, both Lithuanian and “a Biblical drink, one of the oldest drinks of the region.”
In addition to his job at Time Out, Joov works as a DJ and occasionally as a photographer and once he edited a travel/geography magazine. His college degree is in cinema. But the thing he’s really crazy about is “esoteric and historic alcoholic drinks that have almost vanished. I’ll go anywhere. I’ve been to China, to the Ukraine, all over Italy — I’m always looking for the guy making stuff the old-fashioned way that you can’t really find any more.”
For years he’d read about the alluring and almost extinct Krupnik, a Lithuanian honey eau-de-vie. It became a quest. Seven years ago, a friend brought him a Latvian version of the drink. Since then, he’s sampled several bottles of Medovukha, the Russian version, which is more often than not a vodka infused with honey (or honey flavor.)
Truth is, the real honey distillates once popular in Northern Europe have all but vanished. Honey was one of very few naturally occurring sources of fermentable sugar available in cold lands bereft of grapes and most other fruit, and Benedictine monks who kept bees and knew the art of distillation used it to create intoxicating brews. Over time honey became prohibitively expensive, and the monks, who were also Biblical and Hebraic scholars, became fewer and fewer. Cheaper materials — wheat, barley, potatoes — took over the local markets for hootch.
The old recipes were lost to time.
Joov, however, insists on Krupnik’s Middle Eastern origins, possibly carried over by the monks.
“Think of the word for ‘honeymoon,’” he said. “Ancient people in the Middle East would marry and receive gifts of earthen jars filled with enough honey wine — mead — to get them through the first month of matrimony. That’s the honeymoon.”
And what is the mead but a derivative of the ancient Hebrew word, “temed”?
Alcohol? “From the Arabic, al-kahil.” Circa 1500, it was Middle Eastern Muslims who invented the process of distillation.
Five years ago, Joov went on vacation to Amsterdam and found himself chatting with the proprietor of the rental apartment building in which he was staying. Dan Jullius, then 63, a former Israeli of German origin who’d spent the past 20 years in Holland, slowly opened up and realized his guest shared his zeal for alcohol. One day he said, “Come here, I want to show you something.”
“We went down to his cellar. There were dozens of bottles and test tubes and just all the drinks that he just sorcered up. Turns out this is his passion. Plums, cherry, ginger — he let me try it all,” Joov recalled.
Jullius confessed to Hargil that he dreamed of moving back to Israel, to the green northern hills of the Galilee, and opening a distillery.
“If you get there,” Joov replied, “call me.”
Two years ago he got the call. “Joovy, I’m in the Galilee! On some hill,” Jullius exhulted. “I want to do it. Want to do it together?”
“You bet!” Joov said. “Yalla! And the first thing we’ll do is Krupnik.”
Well, for one, “I have a beekeeper uncle, so I’ve got a sure source of honey,” Joov said. Plus, there were the drink’s ancient local roots. And, lastly, “it’s an amazing drink. This is not a drink than can be lost to the world.”
Jullius and Hargil ordered a one-of-a-kind, hand-wrought, copper pot still from a German artisan, installed it near the village of Kfar Tavor, and set up a small operation (so far, 1,500 bottles a year plus a line of brandy) using only three ingredients: honey, champagne yeasts and natural sourced water. It takes two years to reach full 80 proof maturity.
Today, you can find herb infused vodkas and honey-flavored spirits (some synthetic, some more or less true) throughout Northern and Central Europe, but you can find the real thing — an actual honey distillate, intoxicating and enticing as it gets, only in the Galilee.