Josef Becher – the man behind Czech Republic’s iconic liqueur

Photo: archive of Jan Becher - Karlovarská Becherovka

The creator of the Czech Republic’s most famous liqueur, Josef Vitus Becher, was born exactly 250 years ago in Karlovy Vary. It was he who invented the drink, which has come to be known as “Becherovka”, by adjusting a recipe he received from an English physician called Christian Frobrig. The liqueur has since become one of the most recognised Czech exports.

Photo: Jan Becher Pernod Ricard

Whether as part of a cocktail at a rowdy bar, or in a glass after an evening meal at home, millions of people across the world have at least once drunk the Czech liqueur known as Becherovka.

The man credited with coming up with the recipe was Josef Vitus Becher, a Bohemian-German pharmacist who came from a well-established family of businessmen and local politicians in the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary.

Becher came up with the signature drink in his mid-thirties.

In 1805, he met English physician Christian Frobrig, who was staying in Karlovy Vary and the two established a friendship while discussing the healing strength of spices.

Before he left the city, Frobrig gave Becher an English recipe for a stomach liqueur.

Josef Becher | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain
Becher worked on adjusting the drink for two years before he started selling it as English Bitter and later as the Karlsbader Becherbitter in 1807.

It became company policy that there should only be two people alive who know the exact recipe. Speaking to Czech Radio earlier this year, Becherovka plant director Tomáš Bryzgal admitted that this still is the case.

“It is true. I and my colleague Bohuslav Pich are the two 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.”

The secret is so closely guarded in fact, that the company orders the ingredients in various numbers from a multitude of suppliers in order to confuse anyone who might want to guess the recipe from financial statements.

Becherovka was already a popular drink by the time Josef Becher placed the company in his son Jan’s hands.

The latter would go on to establish the brand as one of the official liqueurs supplied to the Austro-Hungarian imperial court and Becherovka became a protected brand in 1922.

Tomáš Bryzgal | Photo: Jan Becher Pernod Ricard
It is Jan’s signature, vouching for the quality of the product that one can still see on every bottle of Becherovka today.

The plant manager revealed that there is also a reason behind the bottle’s characteristic shape and colour.

“The oval shape of the bottle is typical for the Becherovka at least since the mid-nineteenth century.

The green colour of the bottle, which both protects the herbal mixture and shields the liquor from sunlight, was established around the same time.”

During the 20th century Becherovka became one of the most successful Czechoslovak exports. In 1997 the company became part of the international liquor giant Pernod Ricard.

Becherovka is currently exported into more than 40 countries and has been has been doing very well in recent years, reporting record export sales last year, that exceeded 3.6 million litres.

According to Mr. Bryzgal, the liqueur profits from being easily mixable with other drinks.

“That is one of the biggest advantages of the Becherovka. The drink is popular among the bartender community not just in the Czech Republic, but worldwide.

“The drink’s characteristic sweet and bitter taste, as well as the unique aroma, gives them the opportunity to use it in a wide variety of drinks.”

Photo: archive of Karlovarská Becherovka,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Perhaps the most famous of these creations is “beton”, a mix of Becherovka, tonic and lime, which was presented at the 1967 EXPO international exhibition in Montreal.

For those who prefer to drink the liqueur by itself, Mr. Bryzgal has a tip.

“It is generally recommended to drink the liqueur when it is cool. I would say around 0 degrees Celsius is the ideal temperature.

“However, some like to drink it below freezing level, some fresh from the fridge and some love a warm Becherovka, although they are likely in the minority.

“In any case, the exact temperature is up to the consumer to determine.”