The Latvian Elixer Spicing Up Cocktails and Curing Indigestion

Riga Black Balsam, concocted by a pharmacist in the mid-18th century, was used as a magic cure for numerous diseases. Today it's a drink, cocktail ingredient, cure for indigestion, and, most importantly, Latvia's pride.

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shop with black balsam elixir in Riga
Riga black balsam is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur. Photo: Dimbar76 / Adobe Stock

When visiting a contemporary pharmacy, it’s easy to see how compounding pharmaceuticals requires a kind of sophisticated science. But centuries ago, concocting medicines was esoteric knowledge, with no microscopes or lab rats to help predict the outcome of a particular recipe. This was part of the reason early medicine practitioners were considered witches.

As medicine was closer to folklore than to science, it makes it easier to believe that the inventor of this herbal health potion was a man named Abraham Kunze from Riga, who was both an apothecary and a smith. Created around 1752, when the first written recipe is dated, it was initially named after its inventor: The Real Kunze’s Riga Herbal Balsam.

As legend has it, almost forty years later, Catherine the Great was treated with Kunze’s Balsams for indigestion, bringing her immediate relief. (Catherine II, one of the founders of Imperial Russia, was a go-to heroine for such urban legends). Whether it was Catherine’s favor that launched interest or if it was a niche product in the right place at the right time, the vast Russian Empire was soon fighting to get their hands on the balsam, which had by then been renamed “Riga Black Balsam.”

The production scaled up, and for a century from 1847, it was made in Riga’s Albert Wolfschmidt factory, which gained recognition and popularity. However, momentum came to a halt in 1940 as World War II came to the region. Tradition held that only the Head Liquor Maker and his assistant knew the recipe, so the recipe was lost as they fled the country before the Soviet occupation.Luckily, ten years later, the old factory crew gathered together to try to recreate the recipe. They succeeded, and by 1976, still under production in Soviet Riga, the factory crossed the monumental threshold of 10 million liters having been produced.

The original Riga Black Balsam has 45% ABV and is flavored with a combination of 24 ingredients. While the actual recipe is behind lock and key, it likely includes oak, raspberries, blackberries, honey, orange peel, ginger, pepper, and nutmeg. The creator of Black Balsam followed the local tradition of using oak barrels to age the liqueur, which, with the addition of brown sugar, gives it both a sweet and sour flavor.

Some still consider it a magic cure for indigestion (which it almost surely is); they swear it also works wonders for colds, toothaches, rubella, or even broken bones. Others still prefer to use it straight up as an aperitif or digestif, but with blackcurrant or cranberry juice. Or as a Black Mojito, with Sprite, half a lime, and a teaspoon of black sugar.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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