By Emily Hamann
It’s the new trendy food, and it’s now available in a cocktail near you.
Kuma is a turmeric liqueur invented by Chet Holstein, of Ferndale. It went on the market in October, and is now available at local Haggen stores, and bars from Whatcom County to Seattle.
“We’ve established that there is a desire for something as bizarre as a turmeric liqueur,” Holstein said. “We’ve shown what it can do.”
He came up with the idea in 2015. He knew that the bright orange root, traditionally used in food and medicine in Asia and the Middle East, was catching on in the U.S.
“It was something that my wife was putting in anti-inflammatory smoothies,” Holstein said. And Haggen — where Holstein worked in the wine department — was starting to carry it.
Then, inspiration struck.
“I’d been drinking. And then the next morning I woke up and I had an email from me to me that said ‘turmeric liqueur?’” Holstein said. “I was like yeah, maybe. Who sent this? But it turned out to be a good idea. Drunk Chet came up with one.”
He bought turmeric that day, and whipped up the first batch in his kitchen. He added the crushed root to some Everclear — a high-proof, neutral-tasting alcohol — and let it sit for a few weeks. He also added citrus and spices to complement and balance out the turmeric. After letting it sit, and straining, he added sugar and enough water to dilute it down to 34 percent alcohol.
“We didn’t really change much of anything from the very first recipe,” he said. The end result was sweet, but not too sweet, and equally good for sipping at room temperature, over ice, or mixing into a cocktail.
“It mixes extremely well, which we found surprising right off the bat,” he said. “We were using it as a substitute for sweet vermouth, like in a Manhattan.”
He kept making batches of it, and friends and family all enjoyed it. So he decided to take the leap, and start producing it for sale.
“I just said why don’t I quit my job and throw all of my savings into this pile,” he said. “Which, you know, you’re not supposed to do that.”
He looked, and couldn’t find any other product like it anywhere in the world.
He thinks he’s the first to come up with a turmeric liqueur, and he wanted to start selling it before somebody else did.
BroVo Spirits in Woodinville produced the first batch. It was bottled at Valley Shine Distillery in Mount Vernon. Then it was time to sell it. Holstein has been working in the local beverage industry for decades.
Most recently, he worked in the wine department at the Ferndale Haggen. Before that, he ran the Steak House at Silver Reef Casino. So he had extensive contacts in the industry.
“Never burn your bridges,” he said. “I’ve had the same cell phone number since 1997.”
First he got Kuma on the shelf at Haggen stores in King, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
One of the first places to carry Kuma was Miller’s Back Door, the cocktail bar attached to Rumors Cabaret on Railroad Avenue in Bellingham.
“It’s going to be the next Jagermeister,” Rian Greer, general manager of Miller’s Back Door, said. After they get used to the idea of Kuma, customers seem to like it.
“Once you get people to try it, it sells itself,” Greer said. “We’ve been moving through a fair amount, even just in the little lounge.”
Greer used to manage Holstein when he worked at Silver Reef casino.
“Wonderful guy, incredible palate.” Greer said. “He definitely knows his alcohol.”
Holstein has 20 years of experience as a bartender. He’s also a certified sommelier, which involved a year of classes and studying.
“I started to realize, it was fun to learn about. The study of alcohol is the study of human history. We painted on caves and then we made beer and then we made wine and then we made agriculture so we could grow wheat and grapes,” he said. “We had liquor before we had farming.”
He hopes to make more liqueurs down the line. Kuma will be the flagship product of his new company Sui Generis Spirits. He eventually hopes to establish his own production facility in Whatcom County.
For now, Holstein is still trying to get Kuma in as many stores and bars as possible. He’s also still learning the ins and outs of running a business. When he launched Kuma, he had no entrepreneurial experience.
“It’s not the ideal business model. I just went, ‘I can see the potential of it, and I know how to move it, I’m passionate about it, and I know a lot of people in the industry,” he said. “And so I jumped off the cliff. It’s worked well so far.”