Starkus may sound like the name of a starfish inspired Pokémon, but it’s actually the Lithuanian word for “stork.” What do a Lithuanian word and a Polish tradition have to do with one another, you might ask? Well, for two centuries Poland and Lithuania were one country. Culturally, there’s a lot of crossover in both myths and traditions. Also, the Polish word for stork is “bocian,” and in my opinion, “starkus” seems to roll off the tongue better.
Starkus also happens to be the name of a rye vodka produced by Kozuba & Sons Distillery. So, why would someone name their vodka “stork”? Well, it starts with the myth related to this white avian.
The Myth of the Stork
A couple wants a child. They leave sweets on the window sill for the stork to eat. The stork sees this as a signal that the couple wants a baby. The stork then finds a baby, either in a cave or Marsh (I don’t know why there were all these random babies roaming around those areas) and delivers the child to the new parents.
The story of the stork to this day is still associated with bringing children into the world.
Examples: The Disney movie “Dumbo.” The Pixar short movie “Partly Cloudy.” A plethora of baby shower cards. Or any instance where parents “smoothly” dodge the birds and the bees talk with their not-yet-old-enough child.
In Poland, having just brought a new born child into the family, what would one do to celebrate such an occasion? Bury a barrel of rye spirits, of course!
That’s just the way the Poles roll.
Bury a barrel of rye spirits (in most cases, vodka) on the day of a child’s birth. When that child grows up and marries, unearth the bottle and drink it at the celebration.
So the tradition goes.
Starkus = stork. Storks relate to childbirth. Childbirth in Polish tradition = bury a bottle of spirits. And this is how the rye aged vodka at Kozuba & Sons got its name.
On my mini road trip through Florida, I stopped in St. Petersburg (aka – St. Petes) and heard about this distillery called Kozuba & Sons. Being a fan of local distilleries, I called up to reserve a tour. Since my time in St. Petes was limited, they were kind enough to accommodate my schedule and take me on a Sunday tour after one of their events.
What I hadn’t planned on was over indulging myself in libations Saturday night courtesy of St. Pete’s nightlife. Holy hangover, Batman!
My friend and I arrived at their distillery in the late afternoon and checked in. Our guide, Julia, escorted us over to the bar area and poured two glasses of a vodka mixer.
In my head, once getting past the initial shock that I was about to put alcohol in my stomach again, I accepted my fate and thought, “Hair of the dog? Let’s do this!”
The vibe in the bar was really chill and had a 1920s prohibition style to it. The entrance showed a nicely painted mural covering the entirety of the wall as we walked in. Behind the bar was a display of neatly stacked drinking glasses which stylishly framed a collage of articles written about the distillery. As Julia poured our drinks with their signature vodka, she began sharing the story of how it all got started.
Kozuba & Sons started out with just “Papa” Kozuba in Poland in 2005. He was a biochemist by trade, but after retiring to keep himself from boredom, he started producing cordials. The cordials became very popular among the locals, so he made a business of it. His two sons joined soon thereafter. They went from producing just cordials to also producing vodka. As their business grew, so did their spirits. They then added whiskey to their repertoire.
After 11 years of business in Poland, they wanted to bring their product to the U.S. and set up shop here. Debating between California, Texas, and Florida; St. Petersburg, Florida was ultimately the winner and in 2016, Kozuba & Sons opened shop.
Our drinks in hand, the first stop was the production space where the ingredients were processed.
If you can read Polish, the pictures show their process.
Essentially, the first step is to introduce the base ingredients to yeast. Ingredients can change based on the spirit one wants to produce. The yeast eats the sugar and produces ethanol. The key ingredient to making any spirit. This process is called fermentation. Once, fermented, the product (as this point called the wash) then needs to be distilled. A filtering process to get the desired parts to make the spirit. This is where the big giant stills come in.
Depending on the temperature, different parts of the wash will evaporate and be filtered out. There are three parts to this and they’re called: The Head, The Heart, and The Tails.
The Head....it’s pretty toxic, so that definitely needs to be taken out. The Heart is what you want. As the name suggests, it’s the center of the alcohol. The Tails is more subjective. Sometimes it can give more flavor to the spirit if added intelligently. Most of the time, though, distillers use it to increase their production volume to sell more. The downside is that the Tails lower the quality of the spirit and are also responsible for the unpleasant side effects of drinking (hangovers, headaches, and nausea, etc.). Many of the cheap liquors (bottom shelf stuff) tend to be full of Tails.
After the production process, the newly produced spirit goes into wooden barrels to be stored.
Kozuba & Sons offer a variety of spirits, but my two favorites were Starkus, an aged rye vodka, and White Dog, a white Whiskey.
Aged vodka isn’t something I’ve seen before, so my curiosity was overflowing to try it. I’m not a big fan of vodka, but I am willing to give something I’ve never tried before a chance. The color was the first thing I noticed. Rested in the glass wasn’t the clear transparent liquid that I was familiar with, but a golden one. At first, I thought whiskey might have been mistakenly poured. After being assured that the liquid was indeed vodka, I smelled it. That alcohol burning sensation hit the nose right away, but as it subsided notes of wood and spices came through. I took hold of the glass and carefully sipped. I let the vodka roll around on my tongue so it could hit all the taste buds. Smoother than I expected and as the after taste developed I noticed myself enjoying it more and more.
Seeming like it was opposite day, having just sampled an amber colored vodka, I was now going to try a colorless whiskey. Again, my curiosity was peaked.
I’m a whiskey gal. So I was pretty interested in trying their White Dog white whiskey. Since aged spirits get their coloring from the barrel they’re stored in, it makes sense that White Dog doesn’t get the dark brown color associated with the spirit because it isn’t aged at all. Some might just call this moonshine, but the quality of it was not what I would associate with moonshine. From beginning to finish, this one took me for a ride. Again, the first step was to smell it. Immediately I got oak and cereal and then the familiar burn of alcohol up the nose. I took a sip and let it hit all the corners on my tongue. The initial sweetness was quickly replaced with a spicier note and then finished rather smoothly. I might be crazy enough to use it as a sipping whiskey, but this could definitely be good for a cocktail.
Kozuba & Sons Distillery was definitely a nice surprise of something to do in St. Petes. They were in the process of some new spirits and I am interested to go back when it’s ready. Until then, just going to relax with some White Dog and plan my next adventure.