Franz Kafka, Secret Recipe & Tonic Galore: The Spicy Saga of Czech Drink Becherovka
Traditionally the Czech drink is taken chilled and neat, but you can always spurt a bit of tonic water into it in order to rename it 'the Beton'.
That's how the gambit opens in Franz Kafka's great short story, 'Metamorphosis.'
So if you are either Kafkaeske or an existentialist, you'd be raiding around the town, hunting for the perfect drink, that'd go with the story. Why not put an order for the cocktail named 'Metamorphosis'? Yeah, you guessed it right, this liquid structure was built in honour of the phenomenal tale that riveted millions of readers all across the world.
But as you split its ingredients of Metamorphosis apart, you may stumble across a name Becherovka, on which the whole cocktail is built on!
Cut to the 19th-century beginning. We are in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. Tourists from different parts of the world stream the streets and you wonder where they keep heading to!
Welcome to the Czech town, famous for its 12 springs which people believed had healing prowess. Tourists came in large numbers to bathe in the springs.
In the year 1805, in a quiet corner of the Bechernova, there lived Josef Vitus Becher, a spice trader, and pharmacist. Like many other men around, he, too, tried his best to make the '13th spring' of the spa town, an alcoholic bitter that could heal the sick.
Then arrived his moment of glory in the guise of a few guests.
Count Maximilian von Plettenberg-Wittem zu Mietingen arrived with his retinue to spend a few days in Karlovy Vary. Josef welcomed them home. In the evening, the host had a long chat with Dr. Christian Frobrig, physician to the count. They burned the midnight oil, exchanging ideas about herb-infused alcoholic potions and in the morning, the impressed English doctor, before he returned home, left behind a recipe for Josef's detailed perusal.
Josef sat on it for the next two years, adding, subtracting, and tweaking ingredients until he had this hunch that he had made the perfect health tonic for suffering stomachs. As a tribute to his friend who spurred him on with the idea, Joseph Becher called the new drink, 'English Bitters.'
But it was not for Josef to make an empire out of what he created. For that, he had to wait for his son to arrive.
Johann Nepomuk Becher took over the still house in 1838. He christened the drink, 'Bechernova' after his father and worked hard to make the bitters the most popular Czech herbal drink. With 38% ABV, Bechernova was more than medicine, everyone knew the small print right from the beginning. The company prospered as Bechernova hopped from country to country, occasionally leaping across whole oceans and continents.
As the popularity of the drink broke through the roof, plagiarism followed. Companies mushroomed around the world imitating the unique name of the drink and the bottle design. The first legal fight began in 1904. A Slovak claim for Bechernova which vouchsafed that Johann's father had given them the recipe before he died was contested in court successfully.
Many others also tried to jump on the bandwagon unsuccessfully. The family business persisted.
Being a Czech company in the last two centuries had never been an easy ride. Wars, Communism, and nationalisation came one after the other and Bechernova took the brunt of the onslaughts, but courageously; never stalling its operations completely. The company was privatised in 2001 and is now part of the Pernod Ricard group.
So what things go into the drink, Bechernova? Sorry, it is a secret. Only two people in the whole world know it at a time.
Most of the herbs and spices are garnered from local farms, some from other continents. They are collected and taken into the Drogikamr room of the company. On every Wednesday, one of the two men who know the secret gets into the chamber, mixes the herbs and spices in a proportion only they know. The herbs and spices are finally infused in alcohol and pristine water sourced from a source ten kilometers away.
No preservatives. No colour. The drink is ready.
Today there are only two copies of the recipe originally prepared by Josef Bechernova. One is in a safe in Karlovy Vary office and the other is in the Paris vault of Pernord Ricard.
Though Bechernova was originally produced for stomach ailments, stomaching the drink demands a bit of acclimatisation. You need to grow into its taste. The tastes of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, menthol rule. If all of them fail to trigger you up, you can always throw in a blanket over it (You are warned. If it by any chance reminds you of cough syrup don't put the blame on Tipple Point). Turn cocktail. But believe me, it is the taste of all those herbs meant to keep you healthy that put you off.
Traditionally the Czech drink is taken chilled and neat, but you can always spurt a bit of tonic water into it in order to rename it 'the Beton'. The floral and herbal elements in Bechernova are brought to relief by the combination. Remember, it is a digestive, something you have to take after your meal.
If you want more spice in your drink and life, well take the Bechernova for a ride. Metamorphosise!
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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