By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 21, 2005
I was force-fed a little Latin as a tyke, so when I see a word like “viryta” I’m reminded of “veritas,” Latin for “truth.” And as someone who’s known to be, on occasion, a bit of a tippler, when I see “viryta” on a liquor label, I think, “in vino veritas”—in wine is truth. But when it comes to viryta, a sweet and potent honey liqueur popular at the city’s Lithuanian gathering places, the truth is hard to come by.
My first encounter with viryta was in early 1996, when a series of snow and ice storms incapacitated the city. My piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat was encased in the tundralike mixture, and the city’s snow-removal effort had seemingly lost my address, so I was walking to work. As I passed Hollins Market trudging east one of those mornings, a familiar face poked out of an open window on the second floor above the Corner Coffee House. It was a young fellow from the neighborhood, of proud Lithuanian stock, and he was beckoning me upstairs for a taste of ethnic pride.
“Hey, Van!” he shouted out. “Come on up! My grandmother’s cooking up a batch of vitatis.” That’s what I thought he said—“vitatis”—and that was how I referred to his grandma’s potion until just recently, when I finally was schooled about viryta within the bounds beyond which outsiders aren’t welcome to venture.
At first, I balked at my friend’s kind invitation, claiming to be duty-bound to my waiting desk at the paper, but he cajoled me until I relented, propelled as much by curiosity as his browbeating. At the very least, I wanted to see what had made this normally reticent gent so upbeat and red in the face this early in the morning.
Upstairs, in the family kitchen, his nana, robed in a flower-printed housedress, was using a long wooden spoon to stir something in a large pot on the stove. Empty jars and bottles of honey and grain alcohol were scattered on the counter, along with various spices and some dried grassy-looking vegetation. Everyone there—three generations, maybe a half-dozen people total—was ebullient, excited about the snow, and happily expectant about the product of the old lady’s labor, which they’d already tasted prematurely.
“It’s just about ready,” my friend said, “but we couldn’t wait.” The simmering batch of viryta scented the room like a Christmas candle, and the grandmother shooshed sniffing faces away from the lip of the pot. Then the ladle came out, and the teacups, and I had my first taste of viryta—and my only taste of it hot. When I finally did make it to the office, no work got done.
Since then, I’ve taken many opportunities to introduce people to viryta, and to enjoy it, cold or at room temperature, with wizened aficionados. Mum’s, a bar in South Baltimore, has it, drawn from a bottle labeled “Evil.” At the Harbor Way Inn in Ridgely’s Delight, they try to keep viryta in stock, but the supply-and-demand chart is a little out of whack. The Lithuanian Hall in the Hollins Market neighborhood is, of course, a hotbed for viryta tasting, but its management tends to have a Soviet bloc-type attitude when it comes to answering questions about the shots that have made Baltimore’s Lithuanians quasi-famous. And J-Ray’s Tavern at the corner of Carey and Herkimer streets—a watering hole frequented by city cops—has it, too. There, the stuff’s reputedly mixed using whiskey—and cheap whiskey, at that. To each his own.
For those intimidated by such hostelries, I suggest awaiting the annual Lithuanian Festival, held mid-May at the Catonsville Armory. Next year’s will be the 34th festival, and each year plenty of viryta washes desra (Lithuanian sausage) and koputsai (sauerkraut) down many gullets.
Though I can’t claim to be a wizened aficionado myself, I thought, with nearly a decade as a viryta taster under my belt, that I’d imbibed some knowledge about the stuff. At the very least, I believed the label that dubbed it “Lithuanian Nectar of the Gods.” But then photographer John Ellsberry, a man with a drop or two of Lithuanian blood in his veins, returned from a trip to Lithuania a few falls ago with the news that no one he spoke to there had ever heard of viryta. Turns out, it’s strictly a Baltimore thing, hon. Well, maybe Chicago, too. Both cities have a strong Lithuanian presence.
“It was the Lithuanian community in the United States that discovered viryta, using their own ingenuity,” explains Vytautas “Vito” Makauskas, the 78-year-old erstwhile proprietor of the Harbor Way, who in 2003 gave the bar—which his mother had given to him in 1952—to his 32-year-old daughter, Anna “Spooky” Makauskas. “So it is not Lithuanian—though the botanicals in it come from Lithuania.”
These rare “botanicals,” found only in certain swampy areas of Lithuania, are the secret ingredients in viryta, the identities of which, Makauskas explains, cannot be shared with outsiders, “on pain of death. I would no longer be welcome in the Lithuanian community if I told you.” And these leaves of grass are not cheap. A bundle, about eight inches long and the diameter of a beer can, costs on the order of $90 and is shipped here by suppliers in the mother country. He declines to provide a list of other ingredients, but recipes available online list cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and caraway, among other spices. The honey used in the best viryta, Makauskas says, is from the linden tree.
Given the ingredients, no wonder viryta is supposed to be good for you. “It’s quite effective on coughs and colds,” Makauskas deadpans. “I strained my back once, and drank some viryta, and that cleared it right up,” Spooky Makauskas adds, apparently neglecting to give the grain alcohol (or vodka, or whiskey, or whatever liquor the maker uses) any credit for sparing her some pain.
Vito Makauskas dates the invention of viryta to, oh, sometime around 1913. “Everybody was experimenting,” he says. “It started out like a hot toddy, and at picnic time everybody brings their own. And then they found somebody who made the best. I got the original recipe of it, but it’s a pinch of this, a pinch of that. How much is a pinch? But my mother made her own in a big kettle, and would always keep a bottle around.” And where did Makauskas’ mother make viryta? “Washington Boulevard,” he says, “just around the corner from here.”
Makauskas may have been born in Lithuania, but he’s very much of his neighborhood. His path to becoming the Harbor Way’s patriarch was via war-torn Poland and Germany, as a boy, and it involved a lot of walking and border-crossing red tape. But here he sits, in his daughter’s tavern that was his for decades and, before that, his mother’s, and cheerily points out three bullet gouges on the bar’s coral-colored linoleum surface and a stuccoed-over bullet hole from his own .45 next to the front door. These scars are from a shootout in 1972, he recalls, when armed invaders stormed the place, then quickly turned and ran off at the sight and explosive sound of an itchy-trigger-fingered Makauskas in a cloud of gun smoke. His stories are hard-earned but happily shared—and often shed light on the shaky ground on which the truth sits.
Like this one: “Two drunks are sitting on a bench,” he gleams as he starts in on a favorite joke. They’re beholding a glowing orb, hovering in the sky. “One says it’s the moon rising. The other says it’s the sun setting. And they can’t agree. So a third drunk comes along, and they ask him, is that the moon rising or the sun setting? And the third drunk says, ‘I don’t know. I’m not from this neighborhood.’” This sends me and my friends into fits of laughter. I know, you had to be there. It was all in the delivery. But the point’s well taken. What is truth, when it all depends on how you look at it?
So, many thanks to Makauskas for dispensing some semblance of truth about viryta, including the meaning of the name. It has nothing to do with truth—except, perhaps, as a truth serum, in which case it doesn’t work on local Lithuanians, because they generally declined to give me many sought-after truths about it. The Lithuanian word means “cooked” or “stewed,” appropriately enough, given its effect on people who drink too much of it. And given my introduction to viryta—being stirred on a stove by an old Lithuanian lady—the literal name fits like a glove.
Still, one source of viryta lore eluded me. The reputed local master of viryta-making, who lives near the Lithuanian Hall, was suspicious of a reporter’s requests for an interview. She, along with the hall’s leadership, distrusts my motives for wanting to introduce the spirit to the general public. Makauskas says she once was approached by a large liquor company who wanted to purchase her recipe for a goodly sum, but she declined in a huff. For fear of alienating myself from all the Lithuanians in town, I’ll decline to give her name, even if I could spell it. After all, I still want my viryta, even if I still don’t know all that much about it. I suppose that’s as it should be.