Riga Black Balsam: Elixir for Life

I am excited to share the cover story I wrote for the February issue of Beverage Industry News.

Americans may be consuming more bitters today, but the origin of bitters dates to the ancient Egyptians who infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine. Used for medicinal purposes, the production of bitters was further developed during the Middle Ages. At the end of 13th century, Marco Polo brought the first herbal extracts to Europe from his China quests.

Bitter liqueurs from France and Italy (Amaro) are most familiar to U.S. consumers. But possibly the oldest brand in the world is Riga Black Balsam from Latvia. And, according to Māris Kalniš, Amber Beverage Group’s global portfolio director/mixology, Riga Black Balsam is in the same category as Amaro but “the flavor profile is completely different. You have to taste it to know what is stands for.”

Balsam, another word for bitter liqueurs, is a style of traditional herbal, high alcohol liqueurs from Eastern Europe that were originally used for medicinal purposes. Named after the capital city of Latvia, Riga Black Balsam dates back more than 260 years. “If you speak about Balsam in Latvia, it means Riga,” explained Kalniš, “for centuries, it has been the only one.”

While exact dates are not recorded, the first balsam recipes in Riga date back to the 16th century. Influenced by these original recipes, there are records from 1737 that a pharmacist named Kunze created his famous Riga Black Balsam recipe and by 1752, he was producing it at industrial volumes.

Using Kunze’s recipe as a base and with some modifications, Albert Wolfschmidt was the major producer beginning in 1845. In 1860 at the first Grand Prix, the product received a Silver medal at the St. Petersburg fair and was introduced as “The Real Kunze’s Riga Herbal Balsam”. After receiving the international awards at the Grand Prix, the name was shortened to “Riga Black Balsam”.

Read the complete story in Beverage Industry News.