‘Becherovka is a genuine symbol of national identity in the Czech Republic, where its reputation is based on its completely traditional process and authentic roots.’ ~ Frederic Legrand
Many years ago, when the children were small, we lived in the Czech Republic for a couple of years. For our Carb King son, this time was a pure joy, as one of the local specialty dishes – and a regular for school dinners – was suet dumpling with a goulash gravy. Or potatoes and gravy. Or roast pork and dumplings. With gravy. And sauerkraut. Good, solid stodge for those icy winters. Inevitably, for the adults, all these dishes are washed down with beer.
Although renowned as a nation of beer drinkers, the Czechs also like their liqueurs.
The origins of many of our favourite liqueurs today can be traced back to the monastic herb gardens of the Middle Ages. Monks, learned in the skills of alchemy, would commonly blend herbs and sweetened spirits to create cordials or elixirs for use as medicines, stimulants or restoratives. The recipes were closely guarded secrets, handed down to only a handful of people over centuries.
The word ‘liqueur’ comes from the Latin liquefacere, meaning to melt, or dissolve, and refers to the method of dissolving spice and fruits into a base spirit -usually brandy or whisky – through maceration, distillation or percolation.
The Czech Republic also has its own herbal liqueur that evolved from this tradition of herbal medicines. Described as ‘herbal bitters,’ Becherovka ‘packs a mighty punch.’ At 76 proof or 38% alcohol, it is like drinking rocket fuel flavoured with a dash of cinnamon, ginger and cloves, and it could quite plausibly be used to fuel your camp stove.
Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed President of the Universe in Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ describes the effects of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. Apparently, it’s like “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” He also remarks that “after two of those babies, the dullest, most by-the-book Vogon will be up on the bar in stilettos, yodelling mountain shanties and swearing he’s the king of the Gray Binding Fiefdoms of Saxaquine.”
This describes Becherovka perfectly.
Unlike many liqueurs that have been around for centuries, Becherovka is a relatively modern invention. It was created in the early nineteenth in the Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary by Czech pharmacist Josef Becher and a visiting English doctor, Frohig. Originally devised by Frohig as a cure for indigestion, it was also rumoured to work on impotence – an early form of Viagra, perhaps?
Whether aphrodisiac or restorative, Becherovka quickly became popular with the town’s wealthy clientele. When Frohig returned to England, he left his recipe with Becher. Later, Becher’s son, Jan, opened a factory to produce the popular digestiv in commercial quantities. While the name of the product and the bottle design has changed several times since then, the recipe has not. Today, it is well regarded as an aperitif, and it is still made from the original blend of more than twenty spices from a recipe known only to a tiny handful of master craftsmen.
Gustav Becher, Joseph’s grandson, later devised a novel method of marketing that would become highly successful around the world. Artificial shortage meant that buyers were limited to the amount they could purchase, creating a rarity value that ensured high demand. By the end of the century, Becherovka was being exported all over Europe. By 1904, it had become so popular in the Viennese court that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef II, awarded it a special appellation: ‘supplier to the Hapsburg Court,’ and was ordering 50 litres to be delivered to Vienna every month.
The Becherovka recipe was handed down from father to son until the end of World War II, when the communist regime insisted the company be nationalized and handed over to a State appointed Board of Management. In 1997, after the Velvet Revolution had overturned the communists and a democratic government had been established, the company was privatized and Becherovka was sold to the French manufacturer Pernod Ricard, much to the horror of many locals, who were keen to keep it in Czech hands. While the brand may be owned by Pernod Ricard, Becherovka is produced in Karlovy Vary by the Jan Becher company, and claims to be one of the oldest registered trademarks in the Czech Republic. Today, the distinctive green bottle can still be found in every bar in the Czech Republic. It’s most popular form? The BeTon: a Becherovka-based cocktail served with tonic and a wedge of lemon.
While we lived in Prague, it quickly became the local specialty we had to share with overseas guests, so there was always a bottle in the house. And while we weren’t exactly addicted to the taste – it is rather inclined to strip the skin from your larynx – it does warm you inside and out during those freezing cold winters.
If you haven’t experienced its fieriness yet, it might be wiser to mix it with pineapple juice or tonic water, the first time you try it. I would also advise you not to sit near an open flame… and hide your stilettos!