September 18, 2013
Sukkah Hill Spirits: The spirit of Sukkot
Howard Witkin sleeps only about three hours each night. He has a wife and four children, runs a life insurance company, is the lead organizer of the Los Angeles Community Eruv and has spent the last 14 months battling cancer.
Oh, and he and his wife, Marni, just released an etrog liqueur under the label of their new company, Sukkah Hill Spirits.
The citrus-flavored alcohol (the only one of its kind on the market) went on shelves at Glatt Mart, Cambridge Farms and wine stores The Cask and Vendome in recent weeks. During a recent lunch with the Journal, the couple said the liqueur will soon be available at Ralphs and Smart & Final, as well.
“I started making it after Sukkot, when you have all these leftover etrogim,” Marni Witkin said. “It came out pretty good.” After some prodding by friends and community members — including an owner of Glatt Mart — the Witkins decided to turn their hobby into a business.
“If you make it, I want it, and I will sell every drop that you can make,” Howard remembers the Glatt Mart co-owner telling him.
Sukkah Hill Spirits has a warehouse in Marina del Rey, where it produces and stores the liqueur. And the etrogim, which they buy from a citrus farmer in the San Joaquin Valley, come in five or six varieties, according to Witkin.
“We get a mixture of etrogim,” he said. “A couple of them have more pith, some have more sweetness, some have more tang.”
After extracting the flavor from the etrogim (the process of which, Witkin said, is a trade secret), it sits in kosher cane sugar-based alcohol for about two weeks before the mixture undergoes taste testing — almost all of which is determined by Marni’s palate.
“Once we have it to the proper taste [test], we have a pump system, and we pump it into bottles and measure out the bottles and cap them and seal them and label them,” Witkin said.
Sold in 375-milliliter bottles at a suggested retail price of $34.95, the etrog liqueur is smooth and sweet, but not too sweet. Its flavor explodes on the tongue, is far less bitter than a plain etrog, and has a slightly syrupy yet refreshing taste.
If Witkin’s etrog liqueur turns out to be a popular drink sold in major grocery stores, it would be just his most recent of many successes.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Woodland Hills, Howard met Marni at a synagogue confirmation class at Maarav Temple when they were 15. He began his path to observance at age 20, while he was in Israel during summer break from UCLA, from which he received degrees in mathematics and computer science.
While at UCLA, Witkin started a software company, wrote video games for Atari, and worked for IBM in software development. In 1984, he started his own software development company, which employed nearly 40 people, and then sold it in the early ’90s to focus on developing his life insurance company.
It was around that time, in 1994, when he and Marni were expecting their first child, that Witkin jumped into his newest venture — running the massive Los Angeles eruv that makes carrying items within its boundaries permissible on Shabbat according to halachah (Jewish law).
At the time, the halachic status of the eruv was in question, and although the Witkins said they used it to carry things on Shabbat, they felt that “it just seemed silly, the idea of having an eruv that not everybody could use.” So Witkin consulted with local rabbis on constructing an eruv that even the stricter Orthodox communities in the city would be willing to use.
As Marni remembers, community members told Howard repeatedly that he would not be able to do it. “I guess you don’t tell Howard that,” Marni said. “He wanted it to happen.”
After seven years of obtaining permits and working with local rabbis, the city, the state and the federal government, the 80-square-mile eruv was finally completed. During normal weeks, Witkin works on the eruv for about five hours, dealing with issues like basic maintenance and fundraising.
This summer, though, because of construction on the 405 freeway, he spent many long days and nights supervising eruv modifications and answering phone calls from construction crews that needed his guidance. Also this summer, amid an already crazy schedule, Witkin needed surgery to remove the remnants of a malignant tumor that was discovered in July 2012 — a tumor that likely would have been deadly if not for aggressive treatment by one of Witkin’s oncologists.
Even during intense chemotherapy and radiation therapy over the past year, Witkin did the best he could to maintain his daily routine of little sleep, lots of work, and lots of family time.
“You can either be down and draggy, or you can be positive and up and joyful through it all,” Witkin said. “It has given me an opportunity to live my life and go through this openly and happily and joyfully in front of other people.”
Now that Witkin is healthy again, he can spend more time dabbling in his various hobbies — bicycling, competing in triathlons and, of course, tasting different types of alcohol, including his and Marni’s etrog liqueur.
Wrapping up their conversation, Howard and Marni Witkin discussed their favorite ways to sip the Sukkot-themed alcohol.
“Marni mixes it with fresh rosemary, lime, sugar and gin,” Howard said. “One person says she puts it in tea. One guy puts it over vanilla ice cream.”
Howard likes to mix the etrog liqueur with Templeton Rye on the rocks. One of his favorite things is to mix the liqueur with another Sukkah Hill Spirits drink that will soon be available for sale — a besamim (spices) flavored liqueur, which Witkin said “tastes like Havdalah.”
At 76 proof (38 percent alcohol by volume), the liqueur is nearly as alcoholic as most vodka. Describing its strength, Witkin said, “It’s a powerful spirit. It’s not a soft spirit.”
He could have been describing himself.