Meet Becherovka: the Czech Republic’s bitter spirit you’ll want to drink straight

Becherovka bottle. Image via Koncern.

You’re in a forest. The towering brown trees turn daytime into night. You reach up to brush away the dense branches and only to discover that the mossy leaves are bottles of Becherovka, the Czech Republic’s favorite bitter herb liquor.

First off: you’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s beck-ur-OHV-ka (emphasis on the ‘h’). Hailing from Western Bohemia, Becherovka combines 32 herbs, roots and spices with spring water from near the town of Karlovy Vary and bunch of sugar before being aged in oak barrels. The process resembles that of any digestif and the taste is similarly inscrutable—you’ll pour half the bottle into your glass as you attempt to identify their proprietary mix herbs, spices and roots. There’s a little cinnamon and a touch of cloves; a twist of mint and citrus; and, perhaps, a touch of anise (though the strength depends on how well you cleaned your glass after sampling absinthe). It’s not the precise flavors that make Becherovka stand out, but the total experience.

Some people liken the taste to cough medicine, which is unsurprising given the fact that the spirit was created in the early nineteenth century as a medicine. Josef Becher first brewed Becherovka in 1807 with the help of his friend, the British doctor Dr. Frobig. They sold the tincture in drug stores as a cure for stomach ailments (though it presumably created more problems if you drank it all at once).

Outside Becherovka Museum in Karlovy Vary. Image via Munchies.

Ever since, the recipe has been a well-guarded secret. It’s rumored that only two people know the ingredients. Once a week during witching hour on Wednesday, this duo slinks away to a secret chamber called the Dragikamr deep in the Becherovka laboratory. They drop the ingredients into their cauldron, stirring three times before chanting the magic words.

Unfortunately, despite its beguiling flavor and history, Becherovka is rare outside eastern and central Europe. Pernod Ricard bought the company in 2001, but the spirit has struggled to woo an international audience. In the Czech Republic, you’re more likely to drink Bechrovka as a chilled shot when visiting a friend’s house for dinner than you are at a cocktail bar. But this is slowly changing. Although the Czech have been drinking bracing Be-Ton, Bechrovka and tonic, since the late ‘60s, only recently have trendy Prague cocktail bars began playing around with other cocktails that feature the bitter digestif.

But you should drink Becherovka in more ways than just straight and with tonic. Top a shot with boiling water for a pine-y hot toddy. Shake it with ice for a bracing Martini. Those 32 herbs and spices create versatile palate for your inner mixologist.