Handle The Proof: Becherovka

This bitter liqueur has been produced in five countries, been purchased by a French enterprise and fought it out in court against its original owners--without the distillery ever leaving the town of Karlovy Vary.

Which means Becherovka is like a cork tossed around by modern European history. A brief history before we get on with the tasting: When Josef Becher first developed the secret recipe in 1807, the town was part of the Austrian Empire. Later came the Austro-Hungarian merger. The end of World War One brought Czechoslovakia into being...until Hitler made it a protectorate of Nazi Germany.

From the moment when Josef passed the business on to his son, Jan, through the end of World War Two, the Becher family had produced the liqueur. But the Czechs were a tiny bit annoyed by, oh, Reinhard Heydrich and his SS. So immediately after the war they forced everyone of German heritage out of the country.

But the Czech government kept Becherovka.

The rest is just a tale of ousted family members producing rival bitters (using the same recipe) in Germany until Pernod Ricard bought out both. No wars, no Nazi bloodbaths, no retribution--big deal.

That Becherovka survived all this has to do with its...well...um, it presents a strong spicy and herbal aroma quite similar to a kitchen at Christmas--only one that's been layered in mud and doused with gasoline. So it can't be for the eye-opening smell.

At least the flavor is complex: very, very bitter though not too sweet, tasting at first of cola and herbs with a strong note of anise and earthy spice before the bitterness erupts. The finish lingers, thanks in part to the straw-colored liqueur's sticky mouth feel, expressing itself in a tincture of minerals and tinfoil.

The Czechs use it to settle stomach problems.

Some 35 herbs and spices go into this product, which lends it to medicinal applications, I guess. You can sip it neat--although more than two will cause your cerebellum to revolt. But perhaps the best reason to keep Becherovka around (and maybe the reason such a potent mix of flavors survived war and political disruption) is for mixing with tonic.

In the Czech Republic, this simple drink is called Beton. The tonic quells some of Becherovka's vicious bitter streak, bringing to the fore many of the grassy, spicy impressions--and adding a touch of sweetness. It tastes almost like a bubbly, alcoholic, ice-cold herbal tea, though with a lot more flavor.

What does Beton mean? Not sure, really. My Czech teacher stopped talking to me after I asked a simple question in our language class one day.


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