I didn’t see it coming. Probably because my back was to the barman. But the bitter concoction delivered to my waiting hand had a startling story attached to it - one involving secrecy, treason and immortality. It began in 1752…
Riga, a port city on the Baltic Sea, is the capital of Latvia, a country with a bloody history; wars, occupations and hard-earned independence. No one knows where our main character Abraham Kunze came from or who he really was. An escaped Jew from Germany or perhaps Italy? A bookseller on the shores of the river Daugava charading as a pharmacist? Whatever the fact lack, as famed creator of Riga Black Balsam, an herbal elixir with myth-like healing properties, the man made his mark here in a profound way.
“Although back then, a pharmacist was a blacksmith working as a dentist,” explains Valters Kaže, Brand Director at Latvijas Balzams, sole maker and distributor of the original Riga Black Balsam. Company evidence shows Abraham Kunze used (or added to) a formula similar to those already promoted by alchemists of the era. These pseudoscientists were attempting to invent a tonic that upon consumption granted eternal life. That may seem a bit far-fetched but Abraham did supposedly save at least one life, the life of a notably powerful empress.
While travelling to Russia, Catherine the Great stopped in Riga for a few days respite. However, shortly after her arrival, she became extremely ill. There are two theories why. The first is simply that she developed a stomach infection such as Typhus. Records show the disease was around at the time. It’s valid. The other notion is tainted with treachery…some speculate she was poisoned. This was a commanding woman creating vast change across an empire and a number of Russian nobility were, shall we say, in objection. Her English physician was out of ideas. The Empress’ life was on the edge and it did not bode well for Latvia if she died in their care. It was a long shot but Abraham Kunze and his ambitiously advertised Miracle Elixir were called for.
“They thought, ‘He’s probably a charlatan but let’s give him a try. If he fails, we know who to blame. If he succeeds, it’s a win for us.’ Well, sometimes miracles happen,” Valters says grinning.
Catherine the Great rose from her deathbed espousing Kunze’s balsam as a healing wonder. Its popularity throughout Europe was sensational. Understandably many counterfeits invaded the market so the Empress gave Abraham exclusive rights for 50 years to produce the tincture. Its formula became closely-guarded. Even now among 600-plus employees at Latvijas Balzams, only three people know it completely - the Liquor Master and two apprentices.
In 1843 Albert Volfshmitt established the factory which took over production of Kunce’s tonic. But here’s where the story takes a twist. One hundred years later during World War II the recipe was lost.
Many who worked at the factory fled to other countries and production came to a firm halt. After the war Latvia’s people started returning. One technologist in particular held intimate knowledge of how the balsam was prepared. Maiga Podračniece’s information guaranteed its renewed manufacture. She passed away in Riga only two months ago aged 87. I wonder what she thought about the success of this drink she bought back from near extinction…
It has to be said that once bottles started coming off the production line again, some of the older generation noted a difference in the liquid’s viscosity. The simple answer to this, Valters says, is change in sugar production. They don’t use sugar beets any more due to supply and demand so the balsam is less thick than it once was. Everything else though remains the same.
More than 2 million bottles are produced yearly and exported to 30 countries, from just four Austrian oak barrels. It’s not a puzzle although chatting with Latvians you’d think the ingredients are still Top Secret. Not so. Seventeen of the 24 components are herbs, roots, berries and buds. The remaining seven contribute to its 45 per cent strength, including burnt sugar which gives the balsam its brooding dark pallor. The company also has a special allowance to collect swamp birch buds which have the appearance of a pixie-sized pinecone. All natural, no preservatives or colouring. Therefore the mystery of the tonic is in its making.
“Buds and flowers get put in in a specific order. The quantities are being measured very, very precisely.” And - I kid you not - phases of the moon are strictly adhered to. It’s all about magnetics and gravity’s pull affecting minerals in the water used. Latvijas Balzams has a private well “several hundred metres deep” outside Riga. This way they’re not depleting city networks and quality control is easier. When combined, the first 17 ingredients mature in the barrels for four weeks. Airflow blends it. The outcome is a potent brew, used for centuries as a homeopathic remedy. Even now, if an employee is feeling “under the weather” they come to the Liquor Master for a shot of balsam essence. A Latvian friend told me her grandmother swore by the potion, faithfully consuming a teaspoonful every morning. That was the end product though. She lived to her mid-80s also.
A clay amphora houses the fluid; a porous container which allows the liquor to breathe and protects it from the elements. It is commonly referred to as “ingredient number 25”. The flagons, originally made in Latvia, are now produced in Germany because of the quantity needed. Those bottles are part of what has contributed to the balsam receiving many awards. To present day the company has a tally of 50, dating from 1860. That first international medal, silver at an exhibition in Saint Petersburg, Russia, sealed its signature name too. From that moment on it has been called Riga Black Balsam.
Around 10-years-ago the natural cork stopper was replaced with a silicone look-alike. This was to prevent damage in transit, which was happening to the wax seal covering the lid, and preserve the beverage better.
And the all-important taste? Anywhere between an enjoyable cough medicine to bittersweet liquid tar. “It’s complex. It has an inner strength. It has backbone. It has substance.” You can’t argue with that, especially when it’s a drink that’s outlasted four wars, five political systems and 13 generations. With that in mind, maybe it does possess eternal life?
Possible first 17 ingredients list: Mint, nutmeg, swamp birch blossom and buds, linden berries, raspberries, bilberries, peppermint, valerian, ginger, black pepper, hyssop, sweet flag root, cranberries, huckleberries, honey, lemon-balm and St John’s wort.
Other seven: Vodka, water, raw sugar, burnt sugar, balsam oil from Peru, brandy and this is a stab in the dark but maybe cinchona which is also called quinine bark.