Here I am in Prague, at the end of a very long night of bar hopping, when someone hands me a shot. The local bartenders who’ve been kind enough to show me around their city insist on one final tipple to conclude the tour, an amber-hued liqueur and the native spirit of the Czech Republic: Becherovka. Toasts are made, and down the hatch it goes. That was pretty good, I think to myself, and remark to the crew that it reminds me of Fireball. My bartender benefactors are displeased with the observation.
“Everyone here, young or old, male or female, has some experience with Becherovka,” says Filip Stránský of the AnonymouS concept bars in Prague. “People drink it to celebrate and to mourn and to toast highs and lows. It’s part of our history.”
In other words, Fireball this is not. Becherovka’s story stretches back more than 200 years to its debut in 1807. The bitter liqueur is made with an all-natural herbal recipe featuring more than 20 ingredients as well as the mineral-rich water from its hometown of Karlovy Vary, near the western tip of the country.
Still, there’s a cinnamon-ginger-spice kick in Becherovka, backed by menthol, that to my embarrassing American palate reminds me of the popular flavored whiskey. Becherovka is bitter but doesn’t have the bitter punch of, say, fernet. It has licorice but not in the same overpowering way that Jägermeister does. It is, by all measures, a singular product.
And if Becherovka doesn’t yet have the cachet of some of the world’s most beloved bitters and liqueurs, you can blame the Soviet Union, which for years imposed a severe restriction on exports. Today, Becherovka is available in more than 35 countries, including the U.S., with Pernod Ricard launching the product stateside in 2011.
Stránský also credits brand ambassador George Němec with the popularization of the liqueur. “I think that a big thanks belongs to Němec, who returned to the Czech Republic after working and living abroad and created Bohemian Bar Club and picked Becherovka as his main hero,” he says. “They created something that could be described as an Becherovka gospel. It’s not just about the spirit itself; it’s about everything that comes with it.”
Becherovka has also found support on the West Coast, in the town of Carlsbad, Calif. (which, incidentally, translates to Karlovy Vary in Czech). At Campfire, a restaurant and bar with a growing reputation as one of the better cocktail joints around San Diego, bar manager Leigh Lacap couldn’t resist turning to a product from a sister city halfway around the world.
“I decided I needed something special to share a role with bourbon in a cocktail that would carry the name Dragmaster—a historic auto mechanic shop and once hub of drag racing in the U.S.—and now home to Campfire, here in Carlsbad, California,” says Lacap. “It just so happens that Becherovka hails from Carlsbad, Czech Republic. To me, it makes sense.”
While Becherovka’s strong and distinct flavor profile offers a challenge for well-balanced cocktails, Lacap finds it’s particularly well suited to the Tiki realm. “Becherovka’s strength, bitterness and hints of ginger and warm spice make it a perfect candidate for all things Tiki,” he says. “I enjoy sneaking it into Zombies, Jet Pilots and other knockouts where Velvet falernum takes precedence.”
Of course, you’d also be wise to learn about how it’s being used in the Czech Republic. “As a bartender, I must say we do mostly shots, however Becherovka is also great as a main base to a cocktail and as a modifier of flavors,” says Stránský. “It can be used as an apéritif or digestif, with or without ice. It’s a very versatile product and goes really well with aged spirits.”
Stránský also has a traditional specialty to recommend. “We drink Becherovka in a traditional drink called the Beton, which was first published in 1967,” he says. “It’s a twist on a Gin & Tonic.” The drink is essentially a highball with Becherovka and tonic water.
“And because we love a bitter taste, we are also adding Aperitiv KV14,” says Stránský. “Add this and you have a Beton Bitter.” KV14 is an offshoot product in the Becherovka portfolio—red-hued, clocking in at 40 percent ABV and more potently bitter with no sugar added. A splash atop your Beton goes a long way to transforming the drink.
Whether in a cocktail, poured for your buddies as a bartender’s handshake or simply as a round of shots to get the party started, Becherovka has earned its place. Just one bit of advice: Keep the Fireball comparisons to yourself when you’re visiting the Czech Republic.
Want to try another drink with Becherovka? Try making the Becharita.