Just What the Doctor Ordered
From Long Island Iced Tea to the Singapore Sling, many cities proudly boast signature drinks. And Latvia's capital has its own famous tipple in the form of Rīgas melnais balzāms - Riga Black Balsam.
For over 250 years, this dark, bitter brew has been revered for its healing properties, as well as causing no shortage of hangovers after lusty Latvian celebrations. Love it or choke on it, Balsam offers an intriguing trip into Riga's past.
To your Health!
Riga residents have been making herbal remedies for various ailments since the middle ages. Moreover, these have been stored in clay or ceramic vessels to keep direct sunlight away from the goods.
In the mid-18th century, a man named Abraham Kunce (or Kunze) was following this tradition, cooking up an elixir with supposedly wondrous effects. In an advertisement in the 23 December 1762 edition of the newspaper Rigische Anzeigen, he claimed it healed fevers, indigestion, tooth and headaches, frostbite, poisonous bites, broken bones and much more. A bottle with the initials "A.K." pressed into the seal cost two dalders.
The ad gives the purveyor's address as "by the Karl Gate, in the house of the salt porter Valdis, on the top floor." The said gate was on the square known today as Alberta laukums, along which ran Kārļa iela (today 13. janvāra iela). So while there is no record of the house number (these were only introduced in Riga in the 19th century), and the building may have been lost due to war or redevelopment, we can pinpoint Kunce's neighbourhood.
In the wonderful book "A Journey to thee Land of Riga Black Balsam," historian Andris Raņķevics gives an intriguing account of Kunce's remarkable career.
Kalēju iela, i.e, Blacksmiths' Street, runs off Alberta laukums. In 18th century court documents (he was often sued for unpaid bills), Kunce's stated that he was a blacksmith by trade. In bygone times, such artisans earned extra cash by extracting teeth with tools they made for the purpose. As there was no anaesthetic, they brewed up balsams to alleviate pain. Warm and dry smithies were ideal places to dry and store the essential herbs.
So while Kunce later presented himself as an apothecary or pharmacist, he was a more hands-on fellow in more ways than one. Then, fate propelled this metal-bashing tooth puller to fame and fortune.
On July 9 1764, Empress Catherine II of Russia paid a visit to Riga. The city fathers laid on a banquet fit for a czarina in the House of Blackheads. The menu included salmon filled with crab, trout with mushrooms, chicken with almonds and a light souffle.
After all this, her majesty took to bed with severe stomach ache. Servants brought ice, hot coals and buckets of leeches. Finally, she was given a swig of Kunce's balsam and made a rapid recovery.
The grateful monarch awarded Kunce 100 gold roubles and a bolt of satin cloth, and granted him privileges to officially produce the miraculous liquid under the name "Kunce's Balsam." Moreover, Catherine ordered deliveries of the drink for her palaces, and it became fashionable in aristocratic circles.
A Secret Success
By the end of the 18th century, "Kunce's Balsam" was being exported to the far corners of Russia as well as Western Europe.
It became traditional for sailors departing Riga to take bottles with them as gifts. On the tiny Danish island Ærø, Riga Black Balsam is a beloved local drink to this day.
However, after Kunce's death, there were many lawsuits over the rights to produce the drink as well as accusations of selling cheap imitations. As a result, by the mid-19th century there were some 15 companies making versions of the brew.
In 1895, to increase state revenue and crack down on drunkenness, the reformist Russian finance minister Sergei Witte declared a state monopoly on strong liquor. In Latvia, all distilleries and pubs serving vodka were closed, with production in Riga concentrated in a new factory at the north end of Čaka iela.
The descendant of this enterprise, JSC Latvijas Balzāms, still makes Riga Black Balsam at this location.
Many of the 24 ingredients used to make the drink (there were twice that many in Kunce's original) are public information. These include locally sourced raspberries, cranberries, linden flowers, birch buds and St. John's wort, as well as exotic additions like Peruvian essential oil. This is matured in oak barrels for 30 days, then this essence is added to a mixture of grain alcohol, juice, brandy, honey and burnt sugar, which gives Balsam its unique colour. The mixture is then left to chemically interact with the ceramic bottles for six months.
The exact proportions of the ingredients are a closely guarded secret, known only by three staff members at LB. In earlier times, blending was only done when most of the workers had gone home.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the then holders of the secret, the Schrader brothers went to Germany, where the recipe was lost. In 1950, LB food technician Maiga Podračniece was able to recreate it.
The design of the bottles has remained unchanged for centuries. But until the middle of the 20th century, they were a yellowish hue, before turning dark brown in the Soviet era and nearly black today.
Modern scientific analysis reveals that many of the ingredients do in fact have medicinal qualities. For example, laurel regulates blood glucose, galangal has anti-inflammatory properties and star anise helps digestion.
It is a wonder that something so good for you can also deliver so much pleasure.
In recent years, black currant, cherry and other new flavours have been added to the Balsam stable to entice sweeter-toothed imbibers. Probably the best way to enjoy it is in cocktails conjured up by Riga's talented bartenders.
Below is a sampling of the city's best drinks with Balsam. We've rated them out of ten for taste, creativity and the atmosphere of the venue.
No. 1 - Black Magic
When it opened on Old Town's pedestrian strip a decade ago, some scorned this temple to all things Balsam as a tourist trap. But they were wrong, as it has won the hearts of countless locals and visitors for its scrumptious treats and warm service.
The ye olde interior with vintage bric -a-brac, comfy chairs and fine music (Vivaldi on our last foray) is ideal for whiling away some winter hours.And It offers an intoxicating array of Balsam cocktails, with handmade chocolates and other sweet delights to boot.
Seeking late afternoon indulgence, we went for the Riga Coffee with the black stuff and a luxuriant mound of whipped cream and shaved chocolate. How do you improve on that? By adding a "Black & White" meringue with Balsam and truffle liqueur is how. Crunchy, melty, heaven on you tongue.
Kaļķu iela 10
no. 2 - B bārs
Watering holes come and go. But this bar/restaurant on Doma laukums has been elegantly inebriating well-heeled young Rigans for more than two decades.
The interior is an unchanging, cosy Balsam brown, supported by a splash of neon. Friday nights, office rats loosen their white collars and jump about to remastered nineties tunes. The girl-to-guy ratio is about four to one (though your greying reviewer has only an academic interest in such stats).
No prizes for guessing what the "B" stands for. Out of the half dozen cocktails with the stuff, we went for the Balsam Freshness with fresh lemon and orange juice, sugar and lemonade. An excellent summer refreshment, though you can hardly feel the Balsam under the powerful citrus notes and ice.
The barman has the moves, but would a smile hurt? Everyone else is having a blast.
Doma laukums 2
No. 3 - Skyline Bar
Gazing at the sunset from the Hotel Latvija's top floor bar (and from the marvellous bathrooms) is a must-do Riga experience. So we rode the glass lift and parked ourselves for some booze with views.
Skyline only does two Balsam cocktails, and we ordered both. Unfortunately, the Clavis Riga, touted as the city's official cocktail, was a little disappointing. The merger of Balsam, apple juice, rhubarb liquor, white chocolate syrup and pomegranate syrup tasted flat and mushy.
To the rescue came the Rigatini. This amalgam of Balsam, coffee liqueur, espresso and shaved brownie packed a chocky, creamy wallop. The smell alone will have you dancing till dawn.
Elizabetes iela 55, 26th floor
no. 4 - shot cafe
This laid back bar in Old Riga's Jacob's Barracks packs the essence of good times into wild and whimsical shooters. Proving that size doesn't matter, at least where drinks are concerned.
The vast menu includes shots armed with Balsam, poetically named Rainis and Aspazija, as well as Occupation Museum for those who like their history in a quick gulp. In the "Around the World" selections, Balsam proudly provides the black stripe in the Estonian flag.
For long drinks, the Balsam Mule (black currant Balsam, lime and ginger beer) gives a proper refreshing kick. Perfectly accompanied by mouth-melting deep fried chilli paprika cheese nuggets. Cholesterol? Have another shot!
Oh, and the service is fantastic. And the prices will help you party like it's 2018.
Torņa iela 4
No. 5 - Distillers republic
A bunch of cool bars have colonised some old warehouses a stone's throw from Kunce's old stomping ground. So, we popped unannounced into the Distillers Republic cocktail joint to see what they have to say about Balsam.
This put them on the spot, because they focus on their house rum and don't have any Balsam cocktails on the menu. But bartender Alise took it in her stride, spontaneously whipping up two delicious potions.
First up was a concoction of black currant Balsam, Baileys Irish Cream, cranberry juice, bitters and passionate puree in Martini glasses. It was creamy and fruity and coloured like Latvia's flag, and because of the Latvian-Celtic combination we named it the Harp and Kokle.
Alise came up with another gem, comprising classic Balsam, Frangelico, chocolate chip cookie syrup, cranberry juice and Angostura bitters on ice. A perfect summer drink and damn good on a miserable March afternoon, too. We christened this blend of sweetness and bite Bitter Love.
Vecpilsētas iela 8a
Map of Riga Black Balsam cocktail bars
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