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Black Balsam in the Baltics – Riga, Latvia

The Latvian capital of Riga is both beautiful and sociable. Over the years Riga has gained a reputation as a place for hen/stag parties, but it is a city rich in heritage and culture and has a great foodie scene as well. The old town is so charming and historically important that it has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, recognised as ‘a living illustration of European history.’ The architecture represents many different styles of building throughout the ages, from mediaeval through to Art Nouveau (Riga is one of Europe’s most important cities for Art Nouveau architecture) but generally they complement each other extremely well.

Riga’s cathedral, the largest mediaeval church in the Baltics, was constructed in 1211 and is located close to the River Daugava. During Soviet times, between 1939 and 1989, it was used as a concert hall but reverted back to a place of religious worship in 1991. It has a magnificent organ, constructed between 1882 and 1883. The cathedral’s original organ was the largest in the world at the time but was destroyed in a fire.

St Peter’s church has a very distinctive octagonal steeple. Dating back to the 13th century, it has been constructed and reconstructed a number of times over the centuries.

Although the House of the Blackheads is now a museum, the original building dates from the 14th century. It is a reconstruction following its destruction during World War 2. Originally, it was constructed for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who were an association of unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreign people living in Latvia.

Fans of felines will like the Cat House on 10 Meistaru iela. Its style combines mediaeval and Art Nouveau architecture. It was built in 1909 and is best known for the angry cat sculptures, backs arched and curvy tails pointed upwards, on the towers of its roof. There are two possible reasons associated with the positioning of the cats, notably connected with the direction that their tails – and bottoms – are facing. The owner of the building was apparently a wealthy merchant who had a dispute, either with the Riga Tradesmans’ Guild or the City Council, and wanted the cats’ tails pointing towards direction of his grudge. Both the town hall and Great Guild Hall are located in the same area.

Further out of town it’s possible to visit the 368m tall TV and radio tower outside the city. It has an unusual tripod construction and you can use the elevator to reach the observation platform where you can see a splendid view of the Daugava river and the city.

The old town is quite compact and largely pedestrianised and is delightful to wander through. Add in a whole bunch of excellent restaurants and drinking emporia and it makes for the perfect city break. The market, which used to be a zeppelin hangar, is one of the largest in Europe and offers foodie tours so that you can try local delicacies.

There are a number of bars and these offer a whole range of local beers and alcoholic beverages to enjoy. One of Latvia’s signature boozy beverages is black balsam, a strong liqueur. Created over 250 years ago by pharmacist Abraham Kunze from all natural ingredients it’s medicinal and environmental – a healthy traditional tipple. It’s basically an infusion of botanicals in a spirit.  

According to the Baltic Spirits website the ingredients are:

Bilberry/Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Raspberry (Rubue idaeus)

Birch buds (Miricia gale)

Bitterwort root (Gentiana lutea (Great Yellow Gentian))

Peppermint leaves (Mentha piperita, also known as M. balsamea Willd.)

Wormwood stalks and leaves (Artemisia absinthium)

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)

Valerian root (Valeriana officinali)

Sweet Flag root (Acorus calamus)

Melisa leaves & stems (Melissa officialis)

Linden blossom (Tilia cordata Mill.)

Oak bark (Quercus robur)

St. Johns Wort (Hiperycum perforatum)

Buckbean leaves (Menyanthes trifoliata)

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Bitter/Wild Orange skins (Citrus aurantium)

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

Peruvian balsam

Brandy

Natural honey aromatics

Glucose syrup

Browned sugar

Grain spirit  

Partially frozen 189 to 198 metre deep arterial waters.

It has a very classy brown ceramic bottle. The liquid itself lives up to its name. The legendary Nigel Tufnel from the mockumentary film This is Spinal Tap, might describe it as follows: ‘It’s like, how much more black could this be and the answer is none. None more black.’ Actually, if you hold it to the light it isn’t quite as black as it initially appears. On first pouring the black balsam you notice the fruity, floral and leafy aroma. The blackcurrant flavour is notable as are the distinct essences of the more herbal, bark, root and leaf ingredients that accentuate the medicinal properties. This, then, is welfare with real spirit. The initial flavour matches expectations but the varied combination of herbs and roots make it distinctively different compared with the earthy but almost perfumed scent.

It is an acquired taste but the blend is superb. What is even more noticeable is the aftertaste that lingers on the palette as a robust reminder of your delicate sip.

The classic way to drink black balsam is straight or on the rocks. But of course there are all sorts of cocktail variations which can make it a bit more palatable if you find that it’s a touch on the strong side. There are also different versions of balsam including a fruitier blackcurrant flavour and smooth cream liqueur.