Maryland man perfects Ukrainian honey liqueur to aid war effort

Christina Tkacik
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The recipe hadn’t been written down anywhere. Like so many cherished family traditions, it was a gift of memory, passed down through generations. Until, that is, it reached Orest Hanas.

The former food scientist for spice maker McCormick & Co. held onto his family’s recipe for medivka, a Ukrainian honey liqueur popular at Christmastime and during other celebrations, and not only dared to document it ― he experimented with it. Perfected it, he might say, over decades.

Now, he’s teamed up with the Baltimore Spirits Co. to produce a special edition, the sale of which benefits Doctors Without Borders, a group supporting medical workers in Ukraine, working on the front lines amid the Russian invasion.

The ongoing attack on Ukraine “makes me very emotional,” said Hanas, standing inside the tasting room of the Baltimore Spirits Co. He wore a navy blue embroidered shirt — handmade in Ukraine — called a vyshyvanka. “In this day and age, that should not be happening.”

Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifth month, many in Maryland have looked to show solidarity with the Eastern European nation. Some have hung the country’s blue and yellow flags in their windows; bars in Fells Point and elsewhere have taken Russian spirits off their menus, adding Ukrainian brands instead; and others have launched efforts to deliver medicine and supplies to the ravaged country. The medivka is Hanas’ offering, though it didn’t start out that way.

Ukrainian-American Orest Hanas, a retired food scientist, created his own recipe for medivka and partnered with Baltimore Spirits Co. CEO Max Lents, right, to bottle a limited edition.

Family recipe: The 67-year-old Timonium, Maryland, resident first learned how to make the liqueur while still a college student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was taught by his Ukrainian-born father, who had arrived in Baltimore after fleeing Ukraine during World War II.

Hanas spent years tweaking the formula.

“I like to tell people that, for Ukrainians, making medivka could be similar to Italians making a pasta sauce,” he said. “Everybody’s is different.”

But his, he is certain, is the best.

At McCormick, based in Hunt Valley, Hanas, who is now retired, had been trained in the principles and techniques of “sensory evaluation,” which recognizes that a balanced flavor is important to the overall experience, but so are aroma, appearance and texture. Hanas developed marinades and salad dressings for corporate clients including McDonald’s and Red Lobster.

His creations traveled the world — to China, the U.K., Australia and El Salvador. Consistency was key: A Big Mac consumed in Tokyo needs to taste the same in New York City, Hanas said.

Testing: He applied those lessons to preparing medivka at home, over years.

Too much alcohol, and the liqueur tastes harsh; too little, and it becomes syrupy. He might cook the honey to make it dissolve better; other times he wouldn’t, in order to preserve the flavor. He adjusted the variety and amount of spices used, until, he said, he “found a sweet spot.”

After 30 years — a generation — he said he finally had reached perfection.

And so, in 2018, Hanas, who had retired from McCormick three years earlier, approached the Baltimore Spirits Co. with a few bottles of his prized medivka. At the time, the distillery was busy relocating its operations to Medfield’s Union Collective, along the Jones Falls, and “they respectfully declined,” Hanas said.

But earlier this year, after Russian forces invaded Eastern Ukraine in late February, Hanas decided to reach out again.

“Within a week or two, we were making a product,” Hanas said.

“From sip number one, it is indisputably a people pleaser,” said Max Lents, a co-founder of Baltimore Spirits Co., standing inside the distillery where the medivka was produced.

Hanas had to fine-tune the recipe some, distilling outside his home kitchen for the first time. He adjusted the measurements from cups to weight, a more accurate tool for large-scale production, and it eventually came out like the original. ”We had a blast doing it,” Lent said.

Fundraiser: Just weeks after the initial release of the medivka, Baltimore Spirits has received orders from around the East Coast, including New Jersey and New York, where Hanas has friends in large Ukrainian communities.

Donna Stelmach of New Jersey says she has sampled medivka made by others and even tried to make it herself at home. But Hanas’ is by far the best she’s encountered, with a bold taste and mellow finish.

“I can’t come close to duplicating the complexity of the same flavors,” she said.

Thus far, the medivka has raised around $4,000 for Doctors Without Borders. And though it was billed as limited edition only — or what Baltimore Spirits calls a “singularity” — Lents said he’s considering producing it more often to keep on hand in their newly refurbished tasting room.

“I think there’s a good chance this isn’t the last time you’ll see the medivka,” he said.

For Hanas, it’s a dream come true: “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long, long time,” he said.