An etrog liqueur to be drunk at any time of the year

An etrog liqueur for any time of year and a Havdalah-based liqueur made from besamim.

INSPECTING ETROGS at the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
INSPECTING ETROGS at the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
It all began as “just a labor of love,” says “taste mistress and resident foodie” Marni Witkin.
That would be California-based Sukkah Hill Etrog Liqueur, and although Sukkot comes only once a year, this tasteful drink fits into the calendar well beyond the appointed time of the holiday.
Marni is part of the creative husband-and-wife team of Howard and Marni Witkin, who went from a home-based hobby to a full-fledged company, which now also includes a Havdalah-based liqueur – Besamim – and out-of-the-park kosher whiskeys.
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Marni is a former elementary school teacher, and Howard, who refers to himself as a “business guy,” spent many years in consulting. So while their grandly successful foray into the spirit world may seem totally counterintuitive, they would be the first to tell you that they couldn’t be happier with the turn of events.
The couple originally decided to put their personally collected etrogim (citrons) to good use, first making home-based hard candy, ice cream and jam, the latter of which Marni says “comes out like marmalade.”
But then one day in 2007, Marni realized that she could also make liqueur.
“I happen to really love the cocktail world,” she says, “and I really always have enjoyed whiskeys. I’m not much of a drinker at all, but a small sip and the smell, and the whole idea... has always been interesting to me.”
The couple’s home-produced etrog liqueur turned out to be a real winner, each year heralding a new vintage produced in decorative bottles with hand-drawn labels designed by the Witkin children.
With the family home overlooking Los Angeles and the family’s sukkah thus offering a commanding view of the urban landscape below, one of the Witkin children suggested that the liqueur be named Sukkah on the Hill.
Then, around 2013, a national grocery chain discovered that the liqueur was very promising, and the couple went commercial.
Thus was born Sukkah Hill Spirits, also known as CALI Distillery. The company now sources only food-grade etrogim from a farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. Grown under kosher supervision and not subject to spraying, each fruit is monitored individually, with the liqueur made by hand, from picking to bottling.
“I still taste every single barrel before it’s bottled,” Marni says. “We do not release it until I say, ‘Yeah, that tastes right.’”
From a purely business standpoint, Sukkah Hill takes a broad view of its market, reaching both the kosher and non-kosher world.
When you ask the Witkins to describe their etrog liqueur, Howard utters a reply that is sheer poetry: “If you want to know what the Garden of Eden was like, on a day when we are doing production and I’ve got 10 or 15 barrels of etrog open and breathing... it’s floral, it’s herbal, it’s sweet, it’s citrus, it’s perfume you can drink.”
THEN, OF COURSE, there is Besamim, the couple’s second liqueur, which Howard describes as “our most emotionally resonant spirit... it’s home, it’s comfort, it’s warm feelings.”
While based conceptually on Havdalah spices used to mark the end of Shabbat, Besamim can also be mixed into “the perfect summer fruit cocktail,” Howard explains, adding that with hints of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, it can remind you of “grandma’s pumpkin pie.” In spite of its obvious association with Havdalah, the liqueur appeals to a much more diverse audience. The liqueur is not “just a Jewish thing,” Howard notes, “it’s all over the board.”
There are many ways to drink Sukkah Hill liqueurs.
“Besides drinking them straight,” says Marni, “people also like to use them as modifiers, because they work so well to add tremendous depth and flavor to basic cocktails or recipes.”
While Howard likes to drink his etrog liqueur with gin, the liquid, he notes, can also add “beautiful, bright, high notes to a cocktail because it’s citrus and also floral and herbal. It’s a very complicated, complex kind of flavor.”
Sukkah Hill Etrog Liqueur can also be used in desserts, with Marni noting that you can add it to honey syrup and use it to saturate honey cake. Another dessert formula is the liqueur drizzled over fruit sorbet and served with biscotti.
Going beyond the world of liqueurs, the Witkins have also created what they proudly call “world-class craft whiskeys,” which have won gold medals and become identified with what Howard terms “the whole California whiskey rebellion.”
The first of these whiskeys is Riptide, a cask-strength, 118-proof rye, very lightly oaked and grain-forward.
“We’re really trying to make it so that you taste the grain,” explains Howard, “like a really, really good, fresh rye bread.” This whiskey, he adds, is strong enough to “work nicely in complex cocktails.”
Next comes Mavericks, which is a high-rye bourbon aged in American oak and finished in toasted French oak, with rich coffee, chocolate and caramel notes.
The signature third whiskey – Howard describes it as a “luxury sipping whiskey... different than any whiskey anyone ever tasted” – is CALI. Infused with botanicals, the whiskey has very rich, complex cinnamon and herb notes on the back end.
Next year, Sukkah Hill is planning to debut whiskeys aged in kosher wine barrels, yet another chapter in the Witkin creative detour.
As Howard summarizes, “When somebody says ‘they make artisanal spirits,’ that’s us.”
The Sukkah Hill liqueurs are certified kosher and kosher for Passover under the supervision of the Star K. They are currently available in Arizona, Nevada, California, Delaware, Florida, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the state of Washington, as well as in Australia and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. The Witkins are also interested in Israeli distribution.
For more information, visit sukkahhill.com.