Dr. Berndt Finke has a job that inspires the envy of food scientists, spirits geeks, and frat boys alike. He's the head of sourcing and manufacturing for the cult liquor company Jägermeister—and one of only six people alive who knows the entire secret recipe to one of the world's most complex and heady alcohols.
Working out of the company's headquarters in Wölfenbuttel, a town in northern Germany, Dr. Finke runs Jägermeister laboratories and the quality control of its factories. But the position also requires jet-setting to countries in South America, Africa, and Asia, where the scientist searches for the botanicals used to produce that coveted sauce. His task is straightforward: Make sure the world never goes short of its best-selling liqueur. But there are plenty of challenges, from Mother Nature's unpredictability to searching for a top secret spice in Costa Rica.
MUNCHIES talked to the doc about his spice-hunting expeditions and all the intricate elements that go into a Jägerbomb's better half.
MUNCHIES: So how does one become Jägermeister's leading scientist?
Dr. Berndt Finke: I studied nutritional science and wanted to continue working with biological substances and natural substances from plants. My former jobs have actually been in charge of biological research for baby food companies. I worked for one of the largest producers of baby food in Europe, testing the properties of human milk. We used around 2,000 liters of breast milk to develop formula … to protect infants against infections and weaken the development of allergies.
From breast milk to Jägermeister… did you learn the secret recipe right from the get-go?
I got the complete recipe approximately five or six months after beginning. I worked first on the normal recipe ingredients but there are 13 ingredients which are top secret that I got later. It was very exciting.
How so? Was it like in a spy movie?
It was a telephone call from our former supervisory board member who said, "Please come to my office and I will show you the entire recipe." And then I got the notebook with all ingredients and process descriptions. But I do have to tell you, it was a very emotional moment for me to find out how Jägermeister comes together.
It was also surprising. I got all the information and there's one herb I had never even heard about, and I've done a lot of research in this field. It's been very interesting working with this recipe and herbs which are absolutely unusual and very rare worldwide.
Let's talk about hunting for spices. Where have you been on expeditions?
Jägermeister gets its spices from all over the world with the exception of the Arctic. I have made many journeys to Ghana, Costa Rica, and Mexico, for example. We will possibly go to Costa Rica soon but I cannot say for what herb it is. It is interesting to go to the field and see how the herbs grows and check the quality of the crops directly. That's how the company ensures the best quality.
How difficult is sourcing quality spices?
Our intention is to find extraordinary quality, but also raw materials which are economic, social[ly], and environmentally sustainable, so our needs are very specific. Bitter orange is a good example, as it's very important to the liquor's fruity, citrus taste. Normally it falls from the tree and lies in the dust, and this is not the quality we want for production. We have two origins in Tanzania and Kenya, where we found optimal crop and harvest time, drying conditions, and our philosophy is to work as directly with traders and farmers as possible.
Do you judge quality simply by in-person visits?
Before making visits, we always check samples of the products in a highly equipped laboratory where we make different analyses on essential oil and water content and foreign bodies such as residue. For example, for star anise, which is key to Jägermeister's flavor direction of sweetness, we checked samples from China and Vietnam in the laboratory and found that Vietnam was better. Minimum essential oil content for absolute superiority is 7 percent. Ours is currently at 13 percent.
We also used to get cloves from Madagascar and now they come from Zanzibar. We tested and found that the content of foreign bodies, such as stems, was lower and the essential oil content higher in Zanzibar.
How important is it to work with local traders and producers?
It's our intention is to get a complete transparency of the supply chain. So what we have created is something like a training program with our partners, teaching them how to clean the fruits, and find the right crop time so we can prevent any undesired substances like dust or mycotoxins.
What happens in the case of natural disasters or a bad crop?
We have a security program, which keeps us well prepared to switch to a different origin if such an undesired event occurs. We check different botanicals from different origins daily and weekly. Sometimes it's very hard to find a second source as back-up, but this is the minimum requirement in terms of crop failures. Jägermeister has started cultivation projects with close partners for special botanicals, providing them with information on biodiversity or equipment such as laboratories, to ensure its long-term supply.
That is my job. Ensuring we can produce the recipe in ten, 20, or 30 years. No, the world will never run out of Jägermeister.
Thank you for speaking with me.