"My entire trajectory in the spirits business has been a privilege," says Sherman Park native Justin Lubin. "It’s not a right. And the story of Milk & Honey is really one of persistence and patience."
Lubin is the man behind Milk & Honey, a new eye-catching cream liqueur that has already begun to make its mark on the Milwaukee market since its release in June.
The liqueur, which Lubin describes as "the divine original" and a "recipe from heaven," is made from neutral grain spirits, cream and date honey imported from a small farm along the Sea of Galilee. It's light and less sweet than most other liqueurs.
In fact, when it’s served on the rocks it’s pretty delicious: rich and creamy with a subtle fruity finish. But, its magic becomes even more apparent as you begin to mix it with your choice of spirits, because Milk & Honey mixes with, well, just about anything.
You’ll be surprised by how great it is with tequila. It’s divine mixed into a cup of coffee as an after dinner drink. But paired with Central Standard Craft Distillery’s Anodyne Coffee vodka, it’s got a whole new level of caffeinated kick.
Add Great Lakes Distillery’s Artisan Peach Brandy and you end up with a drink reminiscent of a summer peach smoothie. And mix it with Twisted Path Distillery dark rum and –no lie – you may never want to drink a glass of RumChata again.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, notes Lubin, who spent the past three years developing the product, designing the packaging and finding a contract manufacturer who could produce it.
"It’s delicious with just about anything," he says, pointing to an ever-growing collection of recipes on the brand’s web site. "And it’s part of what makes Milk & Honey so special. It’s love and blessing in a bottle."
Inspired by Israel
Lubin, an attorney-cum-entrepreneur, grew up in the spirits business.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, he came from a long line of Russian Jews who had settled on the East Coast. Among them was his great-grandfather, Papa "Mo" Simms, a New England bootlegger who made a name, and a living, for himself during Prohibition, when he transported spirits from Canada to speakeasies in South Boston.
"After prohibition," Lubin says, "My family took up the business and made it legit. My dad worked in the business when I was young. And these days, my cousins run the company."
But working for the family business wasn’t in the cards for Lubin. At the age of 16, he moved across the country to Beverly Hills, California, where he just happened to end up at the same high school as comedian and actor Jack Black, a character he describes as an "extremely talented dramatic actor who took years to become an overnight success."
Lubin was also involved in the theater program, but he says his eyes weren’t focused on stardom. Once he graduated, he went to law school and practiced for five years in California before deciding he needed a change of pace.
"I decided I wanted to switch gears and do something that really helped other people," he says. So he and his wife, whose family lives in Chicago, began looking for a small Jewish community of which they could be a part. That place turned out to be Sherman Park.
It was 2004, and education was at the fore. Inspired by programs like Mad Science, which transforms laboratory science into interactive learning experiences for students, Lubin launched and ran Step Ahead Tutors, a service that provided tutoring for Milwaukee Public Schools students. From there, he found himself running a shipping business called freightclick.com, which provided small-scale freight services to area businesses. And then, always one to explore his curiosities in depth, Lubin decided to pursue a long-time interest in aquaculture by taking a business development position with a company based out of Israel.
"The move was a big deal," he says, noting that it required uprooting his family, who had grown comfortable in Milwaukee. "But it all made sense. Aquaculture had become a magnificent obsession for me. And, as for moving to Israel ... if you’re into finance, you go to New York. If you’re into entertainment, you go to L.A. If you’re Jewish, you go to Israel."
While he lived there, Lubin says, he took on a new appreciation for the "land of milk and honey."
"I was all about doing things that had to do with the land and eating things grown on the land," he says. "And as I studied, I became interested in the phrase ‘the land flowing with milk and honey.’"
His research led him to ancient texts by a medieval French rabbi and well-respected Jewish biblical commentator named Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known as Rashi). And in the text, he discovered that the word honey (de’vash tamarim in Hebrew) was not a reference to the honey sourced from bees, but rather a rich, dark syrup made from dates.
It seemed a little thing, but Lubin was curious. So, he found some date honey and he mixed it with milk.
"It was so delicious," he says. "Even my kids loved it. In fact, as I did my research, I found that, in the Middle East, date milk is pretty much the equivalent of chocolate milk in the U.S."
The family biz
As time passed, Lubin says his position with the Israeli company eventually went downhill. And he found himself back in his old home in Sherman Park.
"It was hard," he says. "I had to start all over again … and that’s when I remembered the date honey. I looked around for it in area supermarkets. I went to Whole Foods. And, despite the popularity of natural sweeteners, no one carried it."
Initially, Lubin contemplated becoming an importer of date honey in the U.S.; but his business sense told him that, as the product became trendy he might lose his shirt to bigger competition. He also thought about creating a high-end dairy product. But development of a shelf-stable product was costly, and marketing and educating consumers was a hurdle.
"And then I thought, wait a second ..." he says. "My family is in the spirits business!" And suddenly he found himself on the path to creating the market’s newest cream liqueur.
"In so many ways, Milk & Honey was born of a passion for God," Lubin says of his journey. "I was into Israel. I’m a spiritual person. And milk and honey is a metaphor for divine blessing, spiritual abundance."
It was a journey Lubin says he’s found very satisfying.
"It’s delicious. The quality is high. And there’s real value there, even more so when you start thinking about the versatility of the product."
In fact, according to Lubin, there’s only one rule when drinking Milk & Honey: enjoy it with people you love.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.