By Stacey Dresner
When Worcester native Justin Lubin moved to Israel with his family in 2011 to help develop an Israeli aquaculture company, he also began learning more about Judaism.
“I discovered while studying the ancient commentator Rashi that the real honey of the ancient land of ‘milk and honey’ was not bee honey but date honey, a dark, rich date nectar called d’vash tamarim in Hebrew,” Lubin said.
After tasting the sweet rich syrup for himself, Lubin fell in love.
Now that date syrup is the main ingredient in his product “Milk & Honey,” the first cream liqueur made with date honey imported from the Sea of Galilee.
“We source Milk & Honey’s date honey from Kibbutz Kinneret in the Galilee region and blend it for 24 hours with real cream and grain neutral spirits. The product is gluten-free, all natural, kosher certified (OK/D), and has over 30% less sugar than other cream liqueurs,” Lubin said.
The first market where Lubin sold Milk & Honey was Wisconsin, where he and his family now live. It currently is being sold there in liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
In October Lubin launched Milk & Honey back in his home state of Massachusetts with the help of family members who own Horizon Beverage in Norton, one of the largest liquor wholesalers in New England.
Lubin says that he is forever grateful to his family members who have helped to guide and advise him through the process of developing his product.
One of those family members, Mike Epstein, a principal in Horizon Beverage, said that the truth is, they believe in Lubin’s product.
“There’s always a certain level of healthy skepticism I think with a new brand. We look at why will it succeed and why it won’t succeed and turn it around and look at it from all angles. We do that with all products and that’s what we did with Justin’s product,” Epstein explained. “I think what we had with Justin was that he is such a committed entrepreneur that we knew that the elbow grease and the effort that’s needed to give birth to a brand would be present.”
Maybe it’s in the genes.
Lubin and his Epstein cousins have interesting roots in the liquor business – their great-grandfather was “Papa Mo” Simms, a notorious bootlegger.
“He was a rum-rummer and he used to bring the juice in off Cape Cod. And they would then work with the Kennedys to make sure the police were ok and then they would sell to Boston speakeasies,” Lubin said.
“He’s a legend. It wasn’t this image of Jewish bootleggers, you know, who were loveable, didn’t do any violence, and were the smart ones…He was an authentic, Russian gangster. He was the meanest Jewish gangster of them all.”
The day after Prohibition ended, Lubin says, his great-grandfather really did go legit, opening a company called Brockton Wholesalers, which today is Horizon Beverage.
A spiritual journey
Lubin, 50, was raised in Worcester, where he went to Doherty Memorial High School and his family belonged to Temple Sinai, now Temple Emanuel Sinai.
He moved to Beverly Hills at the age of 17. “My parents wanted a change of scenery,” he said.
He studied theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz and “majored in The Grateful Dead,” he jokes.
He later went to University of California Hastings Law School. He practiced as a corporate attorney for five years, hated it and quit.
That is when he became an entrepreneur. And an Orthodox Jew.
“That was a big transition point,” he said. “I went to Israel. I was a baal teshuva. And went on a whole journey, because I am a spiritual person. And then that journey led me to Milwaukee, where I had an education business that did very well. I had a freight shipping brokerage that did well. Then in 2011, I had the economic where with all to give Israel a shot.”
He, his wife Allison, and their five children, aged eight to 20, all moved to Israel where he worked in the agricultural water treatment business.
“I was very into everything having to do with the land of Israel,” he said.
And as a Torah student, having learned that “milk & honey” was really “milk and date honey” or d’vash tamarim, his curiosity was piqued.
“I got some really good milk and I got some date honey and I mixed it together and it was sort of like a chocolate syrup and I drank it and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what God is talking about. This is fantastic!”
Every day from then on his kids would eat homemade bread and milk with date honey, which by the way he says, “is one of the world’s most nutritious sweetners.”
But things didn’t work out for Lubin in Israel.
“It was very hard to come back with dreams dashed because the energy you put into moving to Israel is enormous,” he said. “We came back to Milwaukee in 2014 and I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’ I have to literally start again.”
But he remembered that date honey in Israel.
He looked around at health food stores in Milwaukee and couldn’t find date honey anywhere. He considered trying to market date honey as a new sweetener, but knew he didn’t have the retail product experience he would need.
But he did have connections to the liquor industry. “And a light bulb went off,” he said.
He emailed his cousin Mike about his idea to make a cream liqueur with date honey.
“In the past I would tell them I had an idea for a different kind of vodka and they would say, ‘Forget it.’ Or I have an idea for a kind of bourbon and they would say, ‘Forget it, this is where the big boys play.’ So I send them the idea about the cream liqueur and date honey and they wrote back, ‘Cream liqueurs are hot, honey is hot. You are on to something.’”
“I thought it was a good product for sure,” Mike Epstein recalled. “It certainly was a flavorful product, it was tasty it had a lighter palate than a lot of others in that category. It was good and different enough that we thought he was in a pretty sweet spot with what he was doing.”
It took from 2015 to May of 2017 to create the final product, developing the right blend with a manufacturer, “from scratch,” he says. “The flavor is just unique and incredible.”
“But all along, at each step,” he added, “when I needed help, or counsel or advice, or needed to be hooked up with somebody to teach me, my family was there for me, in a way that was just what you hope your family will do when you need something.”
Epstein didn’t want to take any credit for Lubin’s success.
“The advice he received from us was just, how do you launch a product and be successful? What does a wholesaler want to see from a supplier? If you are meeting with a wholesaler like Horizon Beverage how do you make sure you come out of that meeting in good form? It was pricing, inventory and production issues he should keep in mind while developing his product. We were certainly there to help and advise and put him in a position to be successful.”
Lubin also credits his wife Allison with supporting his work.
“She is the classic ‘support your crazy entrepreneurial husband’ wife who is just there for me, because it’s not easy to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “Everything that I have is because she takes care of business.”
Now available in liquor stores and bars and restaurants statewide in Massachusetts, Horizon, Epstein said, is thinking of expanding it to other states in its New England territory.
Lubin’s spiritual journey can be seen on Milk & Honey’s distinctive bottle.
“The drop represents divine love coming from above. The palm represents divine blessing (people) rising up from below. The union of love and blessing is the delight of Milk & Honey,” Lubin says on the website. “Milk & Honey is, truly, love and blessing in a bottle.”
Learn more about us: www.realmilkandhoney.com.