In 1752, Riga pharmacist Abraham Kunze concocted the city’s beloved Black Balsam, a bitter herbal liqueur. (Or, as some in the contemporary press alleged, he cribbed the drink from earlier iterations, since recipes for balsam had been documented in Riga as far back as the 1500s.) The earthy-tasting black liquid quickly gained a reputation as good medicine. There’s even a legend that it saved an ailing Catherine the Great when she encountered stomach troubles during a visit to Riga.
According to the manufacturer, Latvijas Balzams, the secret recipe for Black Balsam was known only by the chief liqueur maker and a handful of apprentices. This worked out fine until 1939, when the bulk of Latvia’s 62,000 Baltic Germans—the balsam masters apparently among them—left the country ahead of the Soviet occupation. The recipe vanished along with them, but a few years after World War II, a group of former employees managed to piece it together.
The exact recipe is still a secret, but Black Balsam is made from 24 ingredients, including 17 botanicals. Among these are gentian, an herb believed to treat digestive issues, valerian, traditionally used to relieve insomnia, wormwood, fruit juice, black pepper, burnt sugar, ginger, and honey.
Steel yourself if offered a shot: Black Balsam is bitter and spicy, with a tinge of sweetness. It can be drunk in cocktails or drizzled over ice cream. Latvians add it to their coffee or tea, and take it as medicine for colds. It’s also mixed with hot blackcurrant or cranberry juice to make a winter warmer.
Need to Know
You can find Black Balsam at Riga bars, and you can buy bottles at shops in the city's Old Town. It also comes in cream, blackcurrant, and cherry flavors.
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