Throughout the 19th century and up until World Wars I and II, West Bohemia was famous for its spa towns. The curative powers of the springs at Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) and Marienbad (Mariánské Lázne) attracted the aristocracy from all across Europe. Colonnades, neoclassical buildings, and pavilions burgeoned in the town centers. Giorgio Albertazzi seduced Delphine Seyrig in the gardens of one of these luxurious palaces—or so he claimed. Then the wars, the communist regime, and the Potsdam Agreement put an end to that golden era.
Since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, however, the tourists are back. And in Karlovy Vary—"town of the 12 springs"—water isn't the only liquid purported to have healing virtues. Come for your health? No need to walk around town holding an overpriced porcelain spa cup, elbow your way past Russian visitors desperate to extend their alarmingly low life expectancy, and drink murky, tepid water reeking of rotten eggs. Instead, there's Becherovka, once called the 13th spring of Karlovy Vary. But beware: This isn't necessarily a lesser evil.
One can only assume that in a country that ranks in the top ten for alcohol consumption per capita, getting blotto on doctors' orders carried a certain appeal.
Becherovka debuted as a kind of digestive medication in the early 19th century, a time when medicine probably had to taste bad to be assumed effective. The beverage is named after Jan Becher, its inventor. Except … no, not really. In 1805, a certain pharmacist named Josef Becher owned a house in the center of Carlsbad. When Count Maximilian von Plettenberg-Wittem zu Mietingen came to town with his personal physician, the English-born Dr. Christian Frobrig, he stayed at Becher's house. The pharmacist and the doctor became friends and enjoyed playing mixologists together, as they shared a mutual interest in herb-infused alcoholic potions. When time came to go home, Frobrig left Becher the recipe for a stomach liqueur of his invention. To his credit, Becher spent another two years tweaking the formula before starting to sell it in 1807 under the name Becher's English Bitter. I guess we should just consider ourselves lucky that the elixir wasn't called Plettenberg-Wittem-zu-Mietingenovka.
But the real magic happened a few decades later, when Josef's son, business whiz Johann "Jan" Becher, turned what was still a medication into a herbal liqueur that visitors and residents alike wanted to drink even when they weren't sick. How exactly he accomplished this feat remains a mystery; one can only assume that in a country that ranks in the top ten for alcohol consumption per capita, getting blotto on doctors' orders carried a certain appeal. Anyhow, Becherovka as we know it was born, and the rest is history. Demand and production kept climbing, the liqueur reached foreign shelves during the interwar period, and the secret formula was passed from generation to generation of Bechers until the communists nationalized the factory. The company was privatized again in the early 1990s, and acquired by Pernod-Ricard a few years later.
In 2010, the factory moved to a new location outside of the town center, and the building that formerly housed production for almost a century and a half was converted into a museum. When booking my guided visit, I think I was expecting to discover antique stills, Iron-Curtain bottling lines, and other distillery paraphernalia from a bygone era. Perhaps a small-scale production kept alive to educate the enthusiastic tourist or the amateur moonshiner. The owners took a rather different approach, though, and transformed the space into Madame Tussauds' version of the factory.
Past a few pictures and some old liqueur bottles, the tour explains how Becherovka is made, through a small exhibition populated with life-sized wax figures. Only two people know the secret of the entire production process. Every Wednesday, one of them enters the drogikamr, where he mixes 1.5 tons of herbs and spices by hand, according to the original 1807 formula. The recipe calls for approximately 20 kinds of herbs, some local to Karlovy Vary, the majority coming for Central Europe, and a smaller portion imported from South America and South Africa. The mixture is poured together with alcohol into a temperature-controlled stainless steel tank for one week, then the remaining ingredients (water, sugar, wine distillate and, apparently, orange oil) are added, and the liqueur is left to mature in oak barrels for four weeks. Finally, after a bit of clarification, freezing, and filtration, it is bottled in the characteristic Becherovka green bottles. If you really like wax figures, there are a few bonus scenes: Dr. Frobrig in his laboratory, and Johann Becher getting drunk on the product under the pretense of quality control. Then it's time for the degustation. The Russian tourists rejoice.
Becherovka is akin to Fernet, Unicum, Jägermeister, and Chartreuse. It's herbal, it's bitter, it's the antithesis of everything that's pleasant and enjoyable. The taste reminds me of cough syrup. Does anyone really like the stuff? I've heard of people getting drunk on cough syrup, but does it really deserve to be served in a crystal glass in a fine dining restaurant?
Like cough syrup, Becherovka comes in a few different flavors nowadays. The original flavor, in all its herbal splendor, with notes of cinnamon, 38 percent alcohol, and 10 percent sugar is definitely the most popular. Becherovka Lemond—which I shall call DayQuil® Becherovka—is a lower proof liqueur wherein the herbs are complemented (understand: masked) by citrus fruit. Cordial (NyQuil ® Becherovka) is an outrageously sweet beverage with 40 percent sugar and some lime blossom extract, recommended in tea, coffee, ice cream, or fruit salad. Then there's ZzzQuil ® Becherovka: Newcomer KV14 , a scary thing with 40 percent alcohol, 10 percent red wine, and no sugar, is a mixture so bitter and so vile that its makers highly recommend that one not drink it on its own.
During the tasting, a short film retraces the story of Becherovka in greater detail. The most amusing segment was on the liqueur's success at the 1967 Universal Exposition in Montreal, where Czechoslovakia hosted one of the top five most popular pavilions, with eight million visitors (the most popular pavilion? Soviet Union). For the occasion, a cocktail was created. Becherovka and tonic, or in short, beton, which is also the word for "concrete" in Czech and several other languages. Apparently, expo-goers were awestruck by this simple mixture, maybe amused by its ridiculous name, certainly oblivious to its guaranteed effect on the smell of their bodily fluids. As the film moved on to Becherovka ads from the 1970s and 80s, I began to imagine slogans… Beton: finally, a concrete way to get plastered.
As for me, if I really have to drink Becherovka, I'll stick to the original prescription: Take two spoons a day, make a face, and hope it really keeps you healthy.