“ Brand: Latvijas balzams / Type: Liqueur „
On the rare occasions I fly with luggage checked into the hold, I like to bring home something alcoholic that I have tried and enjoyed on my travels. However, while travelling between Finland and Estonia in 2007 I bought a drink I hadn't tried and that didn't come from either of those two countries. The unusual bottle had caught my eye and the brief description made the drink sound quite appealing. We bought one full size bottle which came with a free miniature.
Riga Black Balsam, for that is what I bought, is a herbal liqueur and, unsurprisingly, comes from the Latvian capital city, Riga. It is one of those drinks that has been around for quite a long time and is meant to have a secret recipe, made as it is from a blend of all kinds of natural ingredients. Latvians - and people in other parts of the Former Soviet Union - swear by it as a cure for types of maladies, principally cold-like illnesses and, I must admit, with it's medicine like taste you do get the feeling it must do you good in some kind of unexplained way. The company who make this stuff like to peddle around a story about Catherine the Great feeling under the weather when visiting Latvia and being advised to take Riga Black Balsam as a pick-me-up. At 45% alcohol, I reckon the story has been told back to front, with the Queen feeling as right as rain one day, and decidedly queasy after a night on this creosote-like potion.
The bottle is not made from glass, it's actually ceramic and it gives the product the look of a nineteenth century potion one might have obtained from an apothecary. Apparently this material was used instead of glass because the manufacturers wanted to keep the contents out of the light as it was thought this was the best way to preserve them. As well as keeping out sunlight this material protected the contents from frost damage - certainly an issue in that part of the world.
Before we start tasting it's useful to know a little about how Black Balsam actually came into being. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a flurry of experimentation among men calling themselves "alchemists" who were all unofficially competing against each other to create a miracle cure-all elixir. A pharmacist living in Riga blended together all kind of herbs and roots - there are supposed to be twenty-four different ingredients - and the first black balsam was named after him "Kunze's Black Balsam". This was in the mid eighteenth century.
In 1847 Alberts Volfsmits opened a factory for the manufacture of Riga Black Balsam as it became known. This factory was in operation until World War Two. Somehow, during the war, the recipe became lost but a foresighted technician from a company called "Latvijas Balsams" traced the men who had made the balsam before the war and obtained from them the gist of the recipe and recreate the drink. This company have been making Riga Black Balsam continuously since then and during the Soviet period the drink was exported all over the Soviet Union and continues to be popular throughout those countries.
Being impatient people we couldn't wait to try the drink so we opened the miniature on the ferry and had a swig out of the bottle, something that with hindsight was a mistake as it put us off Riga Black Balsam so much that the bottle languished in a drinks cupboard for several months after our return.
The initial aroma is nothing short of medicinal; balsam is the perfect name for this potion because it does smell like something that will clear a sizeable amount of phlegm. Think of a combination of Friar's Balsam and catarrh pastilles and you are getting close. There's a distinct under-note of tar and you might be forgiven for trying to give your garden fence a preserving coat. Apparently Riga Black Balsam is prepared in oak barrels - those oak barrels will surely last a very long time!
The colour is very similar to Jagermeister as is the consistency. This is not a liqueur as such so it's not at all gloopy and sticky. The colour is a rich reddy-brown which has a golden tint as it drips down the glass.
It differs from Jagermeister in that there is no hint of sweetness that manages to diminish the sharpness of that drink. In fact Riga Black Balsam is pretty harsh on first tasting and, quite frankly, it's not something I really care for. Drinking it neat is something you'll either love or hate. It reminded me of something called "tincture of myrrh" which my grandmother would try to get me to put on mouth ulcers (I swear the bottle had been in her cupboard since the Second World War). Riga Black Balsam is very bitter and when drunk neat, the only flavour that I found even slightly pleasing was that of a very strong black coffee. Think of a very strong and bitter Tia Maria and you're getting close though still far away. If you have ever tasted Fernet you might notice some similarities with that too.
The manufacturers describe Riga Black Balsam thus "Subtle hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, and ginger as well as touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn tease the palate and come alive in the glass" and while I don't doubt that all these ingredients and more are used in the making of this drink, I didn't get any of them by drinking it neat.
Fortunately the manufacturers had kindly supplied a little recipe booklet attached to the neck of the bottle so the as yet unopened bottle had a chance to redeem itself. The first suggestion was to add it to vodka which I was dubious about as I could not see vodka tempering the harsh taste. I was right; the resulting drink is something that would have people calling in sick the morning after and is guaranteed to create the headache from hell.
We were more successful with a cocktail that used a measure of Riga Black Balsam, one of cranberry liqueur (though it took us a while to source that) and topped up with cranberry juice. There is still that medicinal taste but now only faint and it was really now just a mild perfume of spiciness against the fruit cranberry.
Then we tried it with warm blackcurrant juice which we were relieved to find is absolutely delicious as we didn't want to throw away what was left but neither could we palm it off on someone else as a gift as we'd used too much. This makes a lovely winter drink and once warmed slightly you do get more of the individual flavours coming out. Admittedly I don't know what birch bud and valerian root taste like but I do get a peppery flavour and certainly nutmeg.
Finally my favourite, which was related to me by a German friend who had been given a bottle as a gift. For this drink you add a measure of Riga Black Balsam to hot water and then add sugar or, better, a spoonful of honey. This is a lovely drink that is perfect for winter nights and I must admit to drinking this when I'm feeling the sniffles coming on.
I wouldn't buy it again but it's really not my kind of drink. I do prefer something a bit sweeter. However, we have made some delicious drinks from it and it is a pleasing drink for the colder season. Riga Black Balsam is perhaps one for whisky drinkers who may appreciate the complex taste and be able to pick up all the different flavours going on.
I've never seen Riga Black Balsam on sale in UK stores but it can be bought online from
If Vana Tallinn is a bit of a girls drinks then there's no doubt that Black Balsam is it's masculine neighbour from Latvia. Made in Riga, this herbal drink of 45% is pretty strong and despite JSC Latvijas Balsams (the company that produces it) claiming it is incredibly smooth.. it's not really! The taste is pretty interesting and you can certainly become a fan of it but it's not particularly smooth and some people can't even stand the smell!
Made up of 24 different ingredients including roots, flowers, plants, berries, buds, juices, oils and of course alcohol, it is prepared in oak barrels and then put into beautiful brown ceramic jugs with a black and golden label on with Riga Black Balsams on which are perfect for collectors!
It should be served cold and is good for drinking after a meal for digestion, it's also used to heal various illnesses, according to legend it cured Catherine the Great of Russia and I've never been ill in Latvia during the various times I've spent there!
You can also mix it with vodka and this produces a slightly different taste and weakens it a touch, most commonly though to make it more pallatable blackcurrant juice is used cold or hot in the winter to keep you healthy! This really changes the taste and produces a kind of strong, herby Ribena!
A Latvian specialty featuring (amongst its 24 ingredients) linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, and ginger as well as touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn