nce upon a time when a beautiful, bright-eyed baby was born, a barrel was buried to honor the occasion. The cask, left over from wine production, was made of oak staves and bound by wooden hoops. The baby's father would fill it with homemade spirits, usually vodka, and seal it with beeswax. He'd then find a lovely spot to bury the barrel, maybe next to the dahlias and daisies growing in the garden.
As time passed the clear spirit absorbed the characteristics of the wood barrel, picking up fruit flavors from the previous wine, the liquid slowly turning a rich caramel brown. At the same time, the baby grew, influenced by its own environment and the time spent in school and among family and friends. Eventually the baby grew up, fell in love and decided to get married. The father, upon hearing of the engagement, grabbed his shovel and dug up the oak barrel. The liquid in the barrel, now dubbed starka, was consumed at the wedding in celebration.
This story isn't a fairytale; it's actually an Eastern European tradition from the 15th century. This Old-World custom isn't popular anymore but it deserves to make a comeback. It's such a beautiful romantic tale about the maturation of a unique spirit that celebrates life, family and love.
To see a resurgence in this tradition, however, you'd have to overcome some barriers. The biggest one: affordability. You can find a used wine barrel for $150 to $200, but where you'll really spend your money is the vodka. Filling the cask with decent vodka will set you back about $4,600. You could save money by distilling your own vodka, but the time and materials would still be an investment.
Another barrier: location. Say you did have the money to fill the barrel—but where to bury it? If you bury your cask in the backyard, what do you do if you move? The typical homeowner lives in a home for seven years, so chances are you'll have to relocate it. Digging up the barrel and burying it again doesn't sound fun. With all that, it may be much easier—and enjoyable—to simply buy a bottle of starka.
You can find starka in Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but you don't have to travel there, or dig anything up in your backyard, to try it. It's made by a handful of distillers in the United States, including Bull Run Distilling and Big Bottom Distilling in Oregon.
Modern starka is aged from one to 50 years in used oak barrels. Some distillers add basswood or apple leaves to the barrel; others finish it with brandy. It smells similar to a whiskey or bourbon because of the barrel aging. In fact, my novice nose couldn't tell the difference between them. Where you can tell the difference is if you simply compare vodka to starka. Vodka is relatively odorless, while starka smells complex and rich. The taste is multi-layered with a subtle spice, a hint of vanilla and the lingering flavors of grape, absorbed from the leftover wine in the wood. If you don't usually like vodka but are a bourbon or whiskey lover, starka is for you. Enjoy it neat (just as-is), straight-up (chilled), or over ice (on the rocks). Or use it to replace whiskey in classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac, Mint Julep or Whiskey Sour.
Lisa's 'Classin' It Up' Strawberry Hill Cocktail
1 oz. Starka
1 oz. Riesling
1 oz. Oregon Strawberry Simple Syrup
1/2 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice (strained)
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Pour into a coupe or martini glass. Adjust for sweetness or alcohol to preference.
To make the strawberry simple syrup, pour two cups of sugar, one cup of water and two cups sliced Oregon strawberries in a saucepan. Slowly bring to a boil and cook until the berries are mushy and the sauce is thick. Let the mixture cool and strain twice.
Starka Old Fashioned
2 oz. Starka
1 tsp. Sugar
4 dashes Aromatic Bitters
1 splash Club Soda
1 Orange Wheel
1 Maraschino Cherry
In an old fashioned or rocks glass, add the sugar, bitters, orange, cherry and splash of soda. Smash with a wooden muddler, spoon or another stick-like instrument. Remove the orange wheel, add the starka and fill with ice. Garnish with a fresh orange wheel and cherry.