Sunday, July 27, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Becherovka

     Becherovka is a type of liquor made in the Czech Republic.  I’d never heard of it until I tried some while visiting a friend (Hi Jess).
     The history of this alcoholic drink is conclusively known, because, like vegemite (see April 30, 2012 post) there was only one undisputed inventor.  Spice trader/shopkeeper/distiller/politician Josef Vitus Becher (1769-1840) liked to experiment with different sorts of liquors.  In 1807 he developed his most famous creation, using an assortment of spices and herbs to flavor it.  The company really took off under his son (known as “Jan” Becher), and has continued up until the present day.  Technically it’s categorized as a “bitter,” which is defined as, “an alcoholic drink flavored with botanical matter characterized by a bitter or bittersweet flavor.”  As far as when it’s designed to be consumed, it’s known as a “digestif,” meaning a drink consumed after a meal, to (allegedly) aid in digestion.  (An “aperitif” is the opposite, a drink imbibed before a meal, to stimulate the appetite, kind of a “liquor appetizer.”)
     Becherovka is probably most notable as being one of those products whose exact recipe is known only to a very few people—in this case, two, who meet every week to mix the herbs and spices.  (To read about more examples of these, I recommend the online Cracked Magazine article “7 Secrets Only Two Living People Know (For Some Reason), which includes pieces on Coca-Cola, KFC, and the locations of both Oliver Cromwell’s head and the mud used to rub up Major League baseballs.)  However, it seems that this is true, but only sort of.  In 1945, Josef Becher’s descendant Hedda Baier-Becher was forced to reveal the secret recipe to the Czech secret police before she left and settled in Germany.  After the war she restarted her former company in Germany, and produced Becherovka (with a slight change in recipe, under a different name), while a separate Czech company did the same in Czechoslovakia.  Since the Czech company’s version was sold only in Communist Bloc countries, and Hedda’s only in non-Communist areas, they didn’t really compete with each other.  When the Soviet Union and its associated Communist countries collapsed in the early 1990’s the rivalry was activated.  After a period of inter-company agreements and then legal actions, a French Company (Pernod Ricard) settled the fracas by buying up both companies and consolidating them.  So the “only 2 people know the recipe” account is a fun, cloak and dagger-ish story, but it’s obviously extremely questionable.  (To add to the story, a Slovakian variant was sold from 1998-2003 by a man claiming to have gotten the recipe from another Becher family member (in 1939) who feared it would be lost in World War II, but he was forced to stop when he couldn’t prove this.)
     Anyway, back to the drink itself.  It’s pretty strong (38% alcohol), and has a rich, spicy odor.  Evidently some folks mix it with soft drinks or tonic, but I had it straight, as a shot.  Becherovka is very good.  Very herby and spicy, with a strong but not overpowering taste and heat behind it.  Some claim a ginger-y or cinnamon-y flavor, which I can see.  I’m a fan of another European bitter/digestif, Jagermeister*, and this is roughly similar to that one.  I took to it immediately, and tried to buy it for myself.  Alas, there was a problem with this—it doesn’t appear to be very popular in the U.S.  The only place I could find it was a specialty liquor store in Washington, D.C. (and it’s expensive, too—a 750 milliliter bottle was about $40).  So, in anyone wants to try it, I suppose your best bet is to look for it in Eastern and Central Europe, or in other areas with high Czech/Bohemian ancestry.  And if you’re in the Czech Republic itself, the original hometown of the Bechers, Karlovy Vary, even has a museum with information about the drink.

* I learned a disturbing tidbit about Jagermeister while writing this post.  This liquor dates back to 1935, and is of course, German.  Its name means “Master of Hunters,” a term popularized by the then German Imperial Gamekeeper, who enacted laws about hunting.  Some people even referred to it with the nickname “Goring Schnapps.”  Since this man was infamous Nazi high official Hermann Goring (also spelled Goering), I’m not shocked that Jagermeister discouraged the use of this moniker after the War.

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