SaloonBox Behind The Scenes: Sukkah Hill Spirits
Our November kits feature a wonderful and unique spirt from Sukkah Hill called Besamim. Check out our interview below with the company's founder to learn more about Besamim's unique flavors, the overall history of this up and coming craft spirit company and find out out an exciting new development for 2017.
When and how did you start Sukkah Hill? What was your motivation behind starting the company? What was your first product?
We started Sukkah Hill in 2013. Marni had been making an Etrog liqueur at home in our kitchen for four or five years. It started with a bottle for us on a whim. When we shared it with friends they wanted their own bottles. Within a couple of years she was making a dozen plus bottles at a time.
One of the bottles was given as a gift to a spirits buyer at a major chain store, who really liked it. When he called to ask if it was available commercially, and a local store owner asked if he could stock it as well, we knew that we had something pretty special.
What was your first product? Has it changed at all since you first created it?
Our first product was our Etrog Liqueur. Etrog is this wonderful, bumpy, ancient citrus fruit that has an aroma like the Garden of Eden. We have been fortunate that Marni’s original approach and recipe has been able to scale up to larger quantities. Instead of making it 750 ml at a time, we now make it a few hundred gallons at a time. But we still make it the same way. We weigh and measure to keep the recipe the same, but the barrels are bigger and we stir with wooden paddles instead of spoons.
We recently tasted some liqueur from one our first home batches ten years ago, and it was delicious. It tasted just like the batches we are making now.
What is the meaning behind the brand name - Sukkah Hill - and how did you come up with that name?
The name really came from our children. Etrog is one of the symbols of the biblical holiday of Sukkot. The other is the Sukkah. A sukkah is a temporary home that we build on the holiday. Ours is like Gilligan’s Island. A bamboo pergola covered with palm fronds and twinkly lights where we hang out during the week long holiday feasting and playing games, and drinking Etrog Liqueur.
Our family sukkah is on a hillside deck looking out over the panorama of downtown Los Angeles – the Sukkah on the Hill. When we first started bottling our liqueur for our friends, our kids would draw pictures on the labels, and we called it Sukkah On the Hill Etrog Liqueur. When we founded our distillery, we wanted to stay true to the spirit of family and friends, so we stuck with the Sukkah Hill name.
What has been your experience introducing your product into the spirit industry? What are your biggest challenges and some surprises, good or bad?
Great question. Introducing new spirit products is hard. A lot harder than we thought. The easiest part, and really the most rewarding part is introducing the spirit to friends and the community. Everybody who tries Etrog or Besamim loves them. Some like one more than the other, but everybody is either Team Etrog or Team Besamim.
It is an amazing feeling to see people enjoying something that you created. We get nothing but positive feedback. The difficult part is taking that enthusiasm and vision up against the realities of the corporate distribution and sales networks of a multi-billion dollar industry.
We now have great distribution relationships in 13 states and Canada and we have been invited by a distributor to come to Europe. So we are very excited about the opportunities to share our spirits more broadly.
How do most people find out about Sukkah Hill? Who's the typical buyer/user of your product?
We have been very fortunate that once people discover our spirits, they generally have really positive things to say, and a willingness to share.
Spirits are the original viral marketing product. Nobody drinks alone, so every bottle we sell is shared.
Our typical customer is somebody who has either tasted our liqueurs or heard about them from a friend who has. Over the past couple of years we have given away thousands of tasting kits, sponsored cocktails at dozens of events from BurningMan to Sundance to local neighborhood fashion shows. We have also been fortunate that dozens of spirits bloggers, and journalists and Instagrammers have discovered our liqueurs and shared their recipes and impressions.
We are especially excited to be part of SaloonBox. It is a wonderful opportunity to introduce our spirits to a community with real appreciation of mixology and quality craft spirits.
Tell us more about Besamim in this month's kit - how do you source the ingredients, how is it made, how long does it take?
Besamim is our wonderful aromatic spice liqueur. It is created from our own take on a traditional holiday spice mix. Creating liqueurs is like creating perfume. We are really trying to unlock these rich emotionally resonant aromas and capture them in a spirit. We think that we’ve created something pretty special.
We hear from so many people that Besamim captures the aromas of fall, or the flavors of Thanksgiving or Christmas. The rich, warm spice notes work in so many different cocktails. Even simple coffee or hot chocolate becomes a richer, comforting drink with a bit of Besamim.
Our spices and botanicals are all simple, natural ingredients, sourced from small growers around the world. We really like the idea of building on real stuff coming from real people. We don’t use industrial extracts or chemicals or flavoring of any sort. We literally hand select and inspect our whole spices piece by piece and grind them by hand with a little table top grinder. The magic is in the process and timing Marni has created for pulling the flavors, aromas and essential oils out of the spices without any bitterness or woodiness. I can’t tell you how long it takes. Suffice it to say that Marni repeatedly tastes and adjusts every barrel, and the process is completed when she says that we are good.
Tell us about Etrog.
Etrog is both simpler and more complicated to make than Besamim. The concept itself is simple – extract everything wonderful from the fruit and bottle it. But it is more complicated, because it is so unforgiving. When the fruit is ready, we have a truck waiting at the orchard to race it down to our distillery to get it into the spirits as quickly as possible. Wait too long and the fruit begins to spoil. But when is the fruit ready? Too soon and the aromas are too bland, too long and the fruit is too bitter. If you extract at the wrong proof you can burn the fruit, too low a proof and you fail to extract the aromatic oils and esters. You have to get the details right, to get the liqueur right.
Etrog traditionally captures the scents of the Garden of Eden. When you are in our plant during production, you realize it’s true. There is no fruit in the world with the amazing mix of floral, citrus and botanical aromas or an Etrog.
Do you have any plans for new flavors or products in the pipeline that you can talk about right now?
In a couple of months we are preparing to release our first whiskey. It’s been years in the making, and we are excited as it all starts to come together. It is a unique, premium California twist on a traditional American Sipping Whiskey. It has an incredibly rich and smooth presentation, and finishes with subtle spice undertones. Our preproduction samples have gotten rave reviews, and we’ve already been given a score of 92 points, and rated Superb by the authoritative industry magazine Tasting Panel.
We’ll be thrilled to share with your subscribers next year when we are readily available. We call it CALI and it will release in January or February under our CALI Distillery label.
What’s your personal favorite way to drink Besamim?
My two favorite Besamim drinks are the Tin Man - a bourbon, besamim, ginger beer and lemon cocktail and what we call the perfect spring cocktail. Besamim with muddled strawberries and a bit of vodka. Both are incredible. Complex, but easy to drink with lots of complementary flavors melding into a pair of exceptional cocktails. You can find them on our website at SukkaHill.com