Europe has a rich tradition of producing bittersweet herbal liquors, originally intended to aid digestion or provide some sort of other health benefit. Campari, Chartreuse and (God help us) Jägermeister belong in this category, for example, and there are many others. The Czech Republic’s most famous example of the genre is Becherovka, invented by a doctor visiting early 19th-century Karlovy Vary, who worked with a local distiller. It was marketed as a remedy for stomach trouble, and in this spa town, where the aristocracy came to “take the waters,” the spirit must have been a pleasurable change of pace from the sulfurous stuff percolating up from the hot springs.
Becherovka, named after the distiller Jan Becher, became a success. The Becher family built a large distillery near the confluence of the Teplá and Ohře rivers in the heart of Karlovy Vary. After World War II, the communists seized the secret recipe, which calls for approximately 20 herbs and spices, as well as the distillery, but Hedda Becher started producing an identical spirit in West Germany. The company returned to private hands in 2001 and is now owned by Pernod Ricard. In 2010, Becherovka opened a larger distillery in the Karlovy Vary suburbs and turned the original factory into Becherplatz, a mixed-use space with shops, restaurants and a Becherovka museum.
The museum tour — it can only be visited on a guided tour, reserved in advance — ranged between informative and silly. One hands-on exhibit was a video game involving sugar cubes in a maze, for example. But I did enjoy learning more about the beverage’s history and, of course, the tasting at the end.
Becherovka Original has fresh and bitter herbaceous notes, as well as warm flavors of cinnamon, clove and orange peel, giving it a wonderful Christmasy feel. I have long been a Becherovka fan, often drinking a little neat and chilled after dinner, or in a Beton, a simple cocktail of Becherovka and tonic.
Becherovka Original is exported to the United States, but we also sampled some harder-to-find products. The Becherovka Lemond felt like a cross between limoncello and Becherovka, and it struck me as a simplification. I preferred the KV14, which resembled a very strong (80 proof) and dry red vermouth, with red fruit flavors overlaid by bright herbs. I also enjoyed the Cordial, made with linden-flower extract and white wine. Cinnamon and some herbaceous sharpness cut through its sweetness, as did its hefty alcohol content. I would love to try it mixed with sparkling wine, like a Czech Kir Royale. And I was able to try a new product unveiled in 2019, an unfiltered version of Becherovka. It had essentially the same flavor profile as the original, but with a more palpable texture and an extra helping of cinnamon.
Even if you’re not interested enough in Becherovka to bother with the 45- to 60-minute museum tour, I do recommend visiting the gift shop. Pick up a bottle of the unfiltered, which you won’t find in the U.S., and the KV14. The latter is fun to use in Manhattans, making them with four parts bourbon or rye, one part sweet vermouth and one part KV14. If, on the other hand, you’re a Becherovka devotee, consider a two-hour tour of its suburban distillery, possible only on Tuesdays.