When you visit Riga, you will no doubt encounter an interesting addition to all restaurant drinks menus: Black Balsam. Riga Black Balsam is a tar-black liqueur flavored with a variety of herbs, including linden flower, pepper, ginger, valerian, and others. This strong, sting-your-throat drink is one of Riga’s points of pride and certainly one of the more unusual alcoholic beverages in Eastern Europe.
If you are a traveler convinced to try it, you might also think it is intended as a joke to show just how weak non-Latvians are with their liquor. Black Balsam has a strong, distinct flavor that is bitter and sweet at the same time. Taken as a shot, it can burn the back of your throat, and sipped, it may be likened to an old-fashioned cough syrup rather than an enjoyable aperitif.
Sampling and Finding Black Balsam
Black Balsam, despite its astringent properties, enjoys a broad following in Latvia. Drunk alone, it is only for those with a strong constitution. However, the drink can be mixed with a variety of other alcohols or beverages to produce more easily drinkable cocktails. It also comes in varieties that may be more palatable than the original recipe. A cream version is likened to Bailey’s Irish Cream and can be added to coffee or poured over desserts. Black Currant Black Balsam combines Black Balsam with currant juice to take off the bitter edge Black Balsam alone hits the taste buds with.
Bars in Riga have established themselves as purveyors of Black Balsam. While all restaurants and bars offer it as a part of their drinks menus, some have created special cocktails around Black Balsam, making it a star feature in their marketing.
Balzambars on Torna street is one such establishment. The Black Balsam cocktail list is the work of a fine imagination. Fruit juices, chocolate liqueurs, heavy cream, soda, and ice cream combine to create dessert-like and fanciful concoctions that deliver Black Balsam as easily as candy. (Incidentally, this bar and restaurant has a generous menu of other cocktails that do not include Black Balsam as well as a well-rounded food menu.)
Latvijas Balzams shops throughout Old Town Riga sell Black Balsam in a range of size and all of its varieties, as well as other types of alcoholic beverages. If you are looking for a unique gift or a souvenir for yourself, these shops might have what you are looking for, including apparel advertising your affinity for Riga’s famous black-as-pitch liqueur.
The Black Balsam Story
The story of Black Balsams is, of course, brewed in legend. Apparently, a pharmacist named Kunze used his recipe for Black Balsam to cure Catherine the Great, stopping over in Riga during her travels, of a stomach illness. His secret elixir may have cured her, or it may have been coincidence, but at any rate, Kunze was credited with saving the empress from death. The results of the miraculous cure boded well for Latvia and Kunze himself, who closely guarded the recipe and continued to produce it as a health-giving tonic.
Today, the recipe for Black Balsam is only known by a few individuals, with websites giving a different number and combination of herbs as a part of its list of ingredients.
Black Balsam is still considered medicinal and a part of folk remedies in Latvia. Latvijas Balzams, the company that produces the liqueur, encourages belief in the quality and powers of Black Balsam with special packaging (specially made bottles that allow the beverage to breathe), precise production techniques, and a special way of treating ingredients.
You can’t visit Riga without trying Black Balsams at least once, but it is recommended to pace yourself and have a chaser close at hand. Gulp it and make a face and it will only provide a source of amusement for any Latvians sitting nearby.