In 1752, a Latvian pharmacist by the name of Abraham Kunze developed a potent elixir from 24 different plants, roots, spices and oils that was said to cure just about anything that ailed you, from malaria to sword wounds. Kunze sold his herbal balsam in clay bottles priced to match the grandiose claims, around 60 euros in today’s terms. But saving the life of an Empress is priceless; Catherine the Great reportedly fell ill during a visit to Riga (then part of the Russian Empire) and was successfully treated with Kunze’s miracle drug. Today, anyone can imbibe this cure, royal title or not.
What began as a humble herbal remedy has become Riga Black Balsam, an internationally-acclaimed and award-winning liquor. It has been produced in the same Riga factory since 1900 using Kunze’s original recipe, though this reportedly took five years to recreate when the secret was lost during World War II. While the 24 ingredients – which include Peruvian balsam oil, black pepper, ginger, and valerian root – are widely known, the production technologies are not. Apparently only three people know the steps involved, and I’m not one of them. All I can tell you is that the ingredients are mixed in an Austrian oak barrel that was made without nails or glue.
Locals still consider the drink to be good for their health, particularly during the cold winter months. With 45% alcohol content, a few sips will certainly warm you up! The flavor of the amber liquor is very bitter and indeed medicinal. I much prefer the sweeter taste of Riga Black Balsam Currant, a blend of the original liquor and black currant juice. (Note to tourists: Look for the bottle with the purple label. This will be your best Riga souvenir.)
Riga Black Balsam is produced by AS Latvijas Balzams, a company that has expanded to include 130 brands and sell 60 million bottles annually. Their most famous export is Stolichnaya Premium Vodka. That’s right, the Stoli you’ve enjoyed in cocktails around the world is produced right here in Riga, Latvia! The Russian-style vodka has been made at the Latviajas Balzams factory since 1948, when Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union. When the USSR was dissolved in the 1990s, the state-run company was privatized and the rights to export Stoli vodka remained in Latvia. (So those boycotting Stolichnaya in protest of Russia’s anti-gay laws would do well to reconsider as it’s actually the Latvian economy that’s hurt.)
During a unique opportunity to tour the factory, we sampled several Stoli products, including the popular “Salted Karamel” flavor which tastes remarkably (dangerously?) like candy. The real treat, though, was getting to quaff Stolichnaya Elit, one of the best vodkas in the world. Triple distilled and frozen to remove impurities, Elit is exquisite, with a velvety-smooth texture and clean aftertaste. I actually preferred it to the flavored one, which was a surprise.
The tour of the factory ended with a professional bartender showcasing the liquors’ versatility to the best of his ability. Riga Black Balsam Currant and Malibu Coconut Rum are a match made in heaven.
Have you ever tried Riga Black Balsam?