Have you ever woken up one morning and thought to yourself that you’d like to start a distillery? Well, take heart. Over two hundred years ago, a business man called Josef Vitus Becher did just that.
Now let us take you back to the Czech Republic city of Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), where Becher had a business in ‘seasonings and colonial goods’ at his shop called at Three woodlarks. In around 1794 he rented a wine distillery and started to experiment with liqueurs.
The virtue of European Spa towns
Now you need to understand that at that time, Carlsbad was very much a spa town – nicknamed the town of the 12 Springs – and nobility from all over Europe would travel there to take the ‘waters’ and seek out cures for whatever ailed them.
Now one such pilgrim was Count Maximilian Friedrich von Plettenberg, who brought with him an English doctor by the name of Dr Christian Frobrig. Now Frobrig, like all doctors of the time, had been working on a tonic, in this case to cure stomach ailments.
In around 1805, he and Becher became friends, as they shared an interest in herb-infused alcoholic potions and would frequently discuss herbs and their healing properties. The two started working on a medicinal eau de vie, a ‘water of life’, when it was time for him to go home, Frobig left his friend the recipe.
Becher suspected the recipe could be better, so he toiled and fiddled for the next two years, changing the formula many times until he ended up with a balanced ‘tonic’ that contained over 20 botanicals that not only worked to settle the stomach but was also palatable enough to sip on.
Becher’s English Bitter
In 1807, Becher started marketing his tonic as Becker’s English Bitter and it became so popular that it was necessary for hm to expand production. The herbal liqueur also seen as so miraculous that it gained the moniker of being Carlsbad’s ‘13th Spring’.
Becher had concocted a drink that was not only bittersweet in taste but also complex and a little spicy, with flavours of cinnamon, clove, and ginger.
But it would still be another few decades before his creation left the realm of the medical world and entered the world of alcoholic liqueurs. It was in fact his son, Johann, who saw it’s potential to be sold to visitors and residents alike, who weren’t actually sick.
The recipe remained a family secret, passed down from generation to generation, until the communists nationalised the factory in the middle of the 20th Century. The company was privatised again in the early 1990s and acquired by Pernod-Richard a few years later.
Becherovka is still made in Karlovy Vary, although they have moved the factory from it’s original location to slightly out of town. To this day it is believed that only two people know the secret of the entire production process.
It is said that every Wednesday, 1.5 tons of herbs and spices are mixed by hand, according to the original 1807 formula. The recipe calls for approximately 20 kinds of herbs, some local to the town, the majority coming for Central Europe, and a smaller portion imported from South America and South Africa.
Becherovka has intense aromas of cinnamon and ginger, plus hints of menthol and when you taste it you find more of the same, plus the flavours of dark honey, cloves, liquorice and citrus peels.
While is starts out smooth and sweet, the liqueur moves to a bitter finish. Although different in taste, it is said that in a pinch, Becherovka can make a very nice (and in some people’s view, frankly better) substitute for Jaegermeister in many cocktail recipes.
The birth of the Beton Cocktail
Becherovka is traditionally served chilled and neat but a simple combo of Becherovka, tonic water, and lemon, called the Beton was created for Expo ’67 in Montreal, as a refreshment to be served in the Czech Pavilion.
Tonic, when used with Becerovka, does the same thing it does for Gin,it allows the floral and herbal elements to be brought to life.
As it happens, the word Beton actually means “concrete” in Czech, but the cocktail was named that as a playful joining of the beginning few letters of BEcherovka and TONic.
As well as Original, the brand also produces the fresh, light and herbal, Lemond; the sweet, white wine and linden flower extract of Cordial and the day red, bitter liqueur of KV14.