Becherovka – The unique herbal liquor from Karlovy Vary

With a proud history spanning over 200 years, the Becherovka herbal liquor is among the most famous alcoholic beverages produced in the Czech Republic. The recipe was famously created by the Becher family and remains a closely guarded secret to this day.

“The concept of Becherovka begins with businessman Josef Becher. He had a special interest in crafting spirits and in 1794 he went to a wine distillery and started experimenting with liquors. Later on, in 1807, Josef Becher made his first sale. The drink was called English bitter and was used for medicinal purposes. The mix became widely popular across the city, because the herbs and spices heal not only the stomach of the patient, but the soul as well.”

The story of how the Becherovka originated is widely known today and has probably been told at dinner tables and social events countless times. Couple this tale with Becherovka’s ancient looking bottle and inviting smell, and no wonder that you soon become eager to have a sip. Even if the occasion does not necessitate alcohol, it is, after all, supposed to be good for the stomach.

A unique recipe

Josef Becher | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain

Its author, Josef Vitus Becher, belonged to a well-established local family. Its traces to the city of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) ran as far back as the second half of the 16th century. Gradually, the family became important enough to hold positions within the city’s municipal administration. Josef Becher’s uncle, David Becher, is even known as the first man to define the chemical composition of the spa town’s springs.

Nevertheless, it would be Josef who would end up immortalising the Becher name thanks to his experimentation with crafting alcoholic beverages.

The spark that seems to have led to his breakthrough came in 1805, when Prince Maxmillian Friedrich von Plettenberg visited Karlovy Vary. The prince was there to make use of the healing properties of the city’s natural springs. Karlovy Vary was a popular destination for the European elite during the 19th century. The healing properties of its springs had been discovered hundreds of years earlier by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, and had since attracted such figures as Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Frédéric Chopin, or Ludwig van Beethoven. However, what was important for Josef Becher’s future, was the presence of the personal physician of the prince von Plettenberg - Christian Frobrig.

Becherovka,  Karlovy Vary | Photo: Zdeněk Trnka,  Czech Radio

This English doctor seems to have spent much time in conversation with Josef Becher. Both had a passion for the study of herbs and, upon his departure, Frobrig apparently presented Becher with a liquor recipe for curing stomach pains.

It was this recipe, which Josef would work on for the next two years that eventually led to the creation of English Bitter in May 1807. The drink quickly became popular among the visiting guests, who often came to the city in order to cure their issues with their digestive tract.

From local spirit to an international brand

However, the introduction of English Bitter to the shelves of Karlovy Vary’s stores is only the beginning, rather than the culmination, of the Becherovka story. In the following three decades the liquor started being exported to Vienna, Munich, Stettin and Paris. In 1840, Josef Becher died and the company, as well as the knowledge of the closely guarded recipe, was passed on to his son Jan.

"The mix became widely popular across the city, because the herbs and spices heal not only the stomach of the patient, but the soul as well.”

It is no coincidence that it is Jan Becher’s name, rather than that of his father’s, which adorns the labels on the bottles of Becherovka sold today. He upgraded the company’s production base to a brand new and much larger factory. He also started selling the drink under the name “Becher Carlsbad Bitter Liqueur”, introduced the yellow labels we see on the bottles today and signed them with his name. During the 1860s, Jan Becher tasked his father-in-law, Karl Laube, with designing a characterise bottle. This resulted in its flattened oval shape. In 1905, the Becherovka bottle also acquired its green colour.

According to Jakub Loos, the senior brand manager at the company, there is a reason for this colouring.

“Becherovka contains no added artificial colouring, or other additives.  Everything in the bottle is completely natural. You can imagine that sunlight and the UV light can adversely affect the contents of the bottle, so, in 1905, the bottle was changed from transparent to green. This is because the green colour perfectly preserves the natural liquid of the Becherovka.”

Becherovka,  Karlovy Vary | Photo: Naďa Krásná,  Czech Radio

The success of the brand was also helped by influential patrons. For example, Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria is said to have been a big fan and, at the beginning of the 20th century, 50 litres of the liquor were delivered to the Habsburg court in Vienna every month. The major maritime company Lloyd also sold Becherovka on its ships as a cure for indigestion and sea sickness.

In 1871, the company management was taken over by Jan Becher’s son, Gustav, who would be in charge for nearly three decades before handing over the reins to his sons Michael and Rudolf. It was during his time that the characteristic white porcelain Becherovka mugs, still seen today in gift packages today, were introduced.

By this time, the recipe behind the liquor was already being sought after by competing producers. Gustav Becher worked hard to maintain its secrecy. The recipe was handed over exclusively from father to son.

"In 1905, the bottle was changed from transparent to green. This is because the green colour perfectly preserves the natural liquid of the Becherovka.”

Eventually, it became a company policy that there should only be two people alive who know the exact recipe. Becherovka plant director Tomáš Bryzgal told Czech Radio in 2019 that this policy is still maintained today.

“It is true. I and my colleague Bohuslav Pích are the two people who know the recipe. It is not just a promise of secrecy, but also a contract on secrecy.

“We can disclose that Becherovka is made up of a mix of around 20 different herbs and spices. The herbs are predominantly from the Czech Republic and Central Europe, while the spices are mainly from exotic countries such as Asia and Africa.”

It is his colleague, production manager Bohuslav Pích, who apparently closes himself into a room every week and prepares a herbal mix, which is then further processed into the final product. He says that he did not even memorise the recipe, which is apparently kept in a safe.

Beton | Photo: Karlovarská Becherovka,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

That this is indeed a recipe worth keeping secret was not just proven by Becherovka’s sales figures, but also thanks to the many awards that it has won over its more than 200 year history. Of particular note is the Paris International Exhibition Grand Prix Award, which the liquor received in 1900. The beverage has also proven to be a highly practical addition to cocktails. For example, the famous “Beton” variant, which mixes Bechrovka and tonic, was presented at the 1967 EXPO international exhibition in Montreal and still remains a very popular drink in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.

During the First World War, Becherovka apparently maintained its high production thanks to being assigned to the Austro-Hungarian troops. It was also sold to other members of the Central Powers alliance.

The last of the Becher’s to be in charge of the company was a woman – Hedda Becher – who was forced to leave Czechoslovakia after the Second World War as a result of the Beneš Decrees. She was also forced to hand over ownership, and thus also the recipe, to the communists, although she herself continued production in a sister branch of the company in West Germany. The contemporary name for the liquor – Becherovka – is a Czechism, which started being used officially after the state acquired the company.

Becherovka Museum,  Karlovy Vary | Photo: Naďa Krásná,  Czech Radio

The contemporary Becherovka(s)

Becherovka remained in the hands of the state until 1997, when the company was privatised. Today, it is owned by the French company Pernod-Ricard, one of the world’s major alcoholic beverage producers.

In recent years, the Becherovka bottle has also been partly redesigned, keeping some of its characteristic old features such as the cryptogram, which buyers can see on the front of the bottle.

"It is not just a promise of secrecy, but also a contract on secrecy."

New types of Becherovka have also been introduced - the Lemond, the Cordial, KV14 and Becherovka Unfiltered.

Brand Manager Jakub Loos says that the liquor is particularly sought after in Eastern Europe.

“Becherovka is exported to more than 40 countries across the world, for example, to Germany, the USA, Canada and Australia. The biggest Becherovka lovers are in Slovakia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

The liquor is also a favourite of the current Czech president Miloš Zeman, who once famously received a wooden Kalashnikov assault rifle, whose magazine was a bottle of Becherovka.

Becherovka,  Karlovy Vary | Photo: Naďa Krásná,  Czech Radio

Mr Loos says that the company’s exports were not heavily affected by the coronavirus crisis. However, he says that domestic consumption went down.

“The crisis negatively affected sales in the Czech Republic. Apart from the closing of restaurants, this is also caused by the lack of tourists in the Czech Republic. Not only when it comes to people traveling here and back, but also Czech citizens are traveling less. It goes without saying that Becherovka is a typical gift from the Czech Republic. That is why the lack of travel hurts us a lot.

“On the other hand the export of Becherovka is doing great. Some countries are doing better than others, but in general exports are doing well, which is great.”

When large-scale travel does return, visitors will again be able to visit the Becherovka visitor’s centre, which was built by Jan Becher in 1867 and served as a production centre for over 150 years. Jakub Loos says it now includes not just historic artefacts, but also interactive features.

"The biggest Becherovka lovers are in Slovakia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

“You have a chance to see historical Becherovka bottles, unique items which belonged to the Becher family, including awards from exhibitions, accounting books and many other artefacts. We have renovated the visitors centre two years ago, this was my project. The goal was to allow visitors to use all of their senses.

“There is an interactive part, which lets you see and smell selected herbs and spices that make up the base of our liquor. Naturally, you can also taste the water from Karlovy Vary which is used in Becherovka production.

“Then there is also a VR headset, so once you put them on you are directly transported to the bottling line. Last but not least, there is a degustation at the end of the exhibit, which lets you taste all of the types of the Becherovka we produce. It is very popular, as you can imagine.”

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Author: Tom McEnchroe
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