Riga Black Balsam is the pride of Latvians and one of the most famous alcoholic beverages in the Baltics. Just no tourist can avoid running into it when visiting Riga, so well it is displayed in grocery stores, souvenir shops and tax-free shops at the airport.
The history of Black Balsam dates back to 1752, when the German pharmacist Abraham Kuncen developed its recipe and prepared it on sale for certain quantities. However, the actual production did not start until a hundred years later in Riga, when the German Albert Wolfschmidt introduced the Kuncen recipe. During World War II, Balsam production was interrupted after the Baltic Germans moved to Germany, but was resumed after the war. Today it is manufactured by Latvijas Balzams, which is owned by Amber Beverage Group.
Riga Black Balsam has been used in the manufacture of 24 ingredients, 17 of which are botanicals, including birch buds, bitterwort root, peppermint, wormwood, ginger, oak bark, black pepper and cloves. All herbs are individually macerated in an oak barrel in a strong ethanol-water mixture, after which they are distilled and mixed according to the recipe. The balsam is sweetened with sugar and honey, it gets its black color from the caramel color. Balsam is a well-known folk remedy in Latvia that has been used to relieve the symptoms of the flu and digestive problems. Black Balsam and several variants made from it are sold comprehensively in all Baltic countries, a 50 cl bottle of traditional Black Balsam costs about 10 €. The balsam is well recognized in stores for its original appearance, when bottled in bottles made of clay of various sizes.
The aroma is strong and very aromatic, sweet, herbal and bitter. The mouthfeel is thick, which means that the liqueur has quite a lot of sugar, which shows the long run-off marks on the edges of the glass. However, the taste is so bitter that sweetness is hardly felt at all. After swallowing, there is quite a mixture of herbs and spices in the mouth, and no single taste is distinguished from it. Bitter plants, whether bitter wort or wormwood, dominate the taste, the aftertaste becomes more spicy with cloves, black pepper and peppermint.
Riga Black Balsam is an excellent digestive bitter, which really has enough to analyze even for demanding tastes. When ingested for the first time, the herbal drink is really bitter and the strong burn from 45% alcohol does not make it easier. Especially in a freshly opened bottle, the taste is so strong and pungent that liqueur is quite a challenge even for those accustomed to strong flavors. Over time, however, the taste evens out (my own bottle has been open for about a year at the time of this writing) and thanks to oxidation, herbs and bitterness become more prominent. It is therefore not really worth giving up on it if it is unsuitable for the first taste.
Black Balsam is indeed what it advertises, a very strong digestive bitter that is worth using in small amounts as a flu or digestive drug. 4 cl will be enough, you don’t want to drink any more at a time. Of course, the Balsam can also be used in various drinks, the recipes can be spotted on the manufacturer’s own website. It can also be used as a spice for cocktails, just like Angostura bitters.