This drink has been said to cure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, inspire politicians like French president Charles De Gaulle and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and music legends as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Queen’s Brian May have endorsed this herbal bitter too in more recent years. I’m talking about Riga’s Black Balsam, a drink not very famous in Western Europe, but its history can match that of almost any other alcoholic beverage out there. We spoke to Dana Hasana, PR director of Amber Beverage Group, the production company of Latvijas Black Balzam and asked her about the history and the role this infamous drink plays in Latvian culture.
For the people who are not familiar with Riga Black Balzams, it’s an herbal bitter comprised of 16 different herbs. Over four million bottles of Latvians alcoholic pride are distributed to thirty global markets on a yearly basis, but the bitter brand had a long way to go to become a globally consumed beverage. Latvijas Black Balsam roots go back to a Latvian pharmacist masquerading as a dentist by the name of Abraham Kunze in 1752. “The 18th century is a time of craftsmanship and people at these times very often had several occupations that helped them to earn a living. The historical data we have collected say that Kunze indeed started as blacksmith, but then later practiced as pharmacist, because one of his uncles or somebody from the Kunze family was a pharmacist”, Dana explains. – Continued below ⇓
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Alcohol tends to make the people around you more attracrtive, but Riga Black supposedly has an even bigger power. Back in the 18th century Black Balsam wasn’t advertised as the alcoholic delicacy it is now, but as a ‘wonder drink’ with medical qualities. “Even the newspaper at the time wrote it could heal wounds, help if you have a stomach disease and heel a number of other problems too”, adds Hasana. The tale of the wonder drink reached international proportions when Russian Empress Catherine the Great visited Latvia and allegedly was healed by Black Balsam. Legend has it that she suffered from either abdominal typhus or poisoning and a glass of Kunze’s alcoholic potion miraculously healed the ailing empress. Dana can’t confirm whether this has really happened, but there seems to be evidence that Catherine was familiar with the drink: “There is historical evidence that she had issued laws that stated that only balsam produced by Abraham Kunze in Riga is authentic. According to the laws no one else had the right to produce the balsam, though even at that time falsifications were made.”
Losing the recipe
From that moment on information about Black Balzam began to spread like wildfire and meant a turning point in the drinks’ history. At the end of the 18th century already 300.000 bottles a year were produced and shipped to neighbouring countries. The herbal hootch was doing fine up until the Second World War. During the German occupation the production stopped, with only a few people knowing the recipe. “It was restored afterwards in 1950, based on notes, archive data, memories of people”, Dana tells. Even to this date only three people know the recipe: The Head Liquor Master and two of his apprentices. – Continued below ⇓
Organic and natural
The history of Riga Black Balzam is intertwined with the history and the geography of Latvia itself. It still uses the same recipe as in the 18th century and Latvijas Balzam, as the distillery is called, is in use since 1900. Because of that the drink is now an integral part of the Baltics country’s heritage: “It is a part of national culture, I would say”, Dana starts. “In Latvia everybody knows many different ways how to use Riga Black and it is one of the most popular local souvenirs that we take when going abroad. The brand has been named as The Most Unique Brand of Latvia several times based on results of a poll. I think we love it because of the very strong visual identity and story it has. It is natural product, based on herbal infusion of 16 different herbs, so we can proudly call it an organic product. The beverage is made of roots, buds, flowers, natural juices, spices, honey and other gifts of nature. Latvia is world-known for its intact nature at the very heart of Europe and we are proud of our sand beaches, fresh air and almost half of the country covered with green forests. It is important for us that a lot of the ingredients come from local suppliers. Some ingredients come from our own facility like pristine artesian water from several hundred metres deep wells and caramel which is burnt in-house.”
So there is the history and the role Black Balzam has in Latvian culture, but how should you drink it? Well, it turns out there is no right way to gulp the dark colored liquor down, according to Dana. In fact, bartenders love it because the possibilities are endless: “The taste of Riga Black classical is quite strong, but it’s versatile. Every Latvian knows many ways to drink or use it. Starting from shots that will warm you up on a winter’s day or after skiing and plenty other ways like in cocktails or deserts. It could also be used when cooking meat or as an ingredient in source or salad. If people are visiting Latvia we really recommend trying ice cream with Riga Black or Riga Black Currant. There are even famous local chocolates with Balsam filling; and a cake with Riga Black. There are no limits for fantasy and opportunities!”
Want to know more about Latvijas Balzams and Riga Black or do you need some cocktail tips? Check the Riga Black website.