Why you should care

Chances are it’s a taste you’ll never forget — for better or worse.  

Surprising Spirits: This OZY original series says 'Cheers' to the curious new ways alcohol is being made and experienced worldwide.Surprising Spirits: OZY says 'Cheers' to cool new tipples and boozy treats from around the globe.

Just holding the earthen bottle, you can tell your first experience with its contents will be memorable. Adorned with an ornate label evoking Latvia’s rich history, it more closely resembles a flagon for a wizard’s potion. While pouring an ounce of the dark, dense liqueur, its curious scent tips you off: This is no ordinary drink.

Now knock it back, and let the explosion of bitterness and deep herbal complexity slam your taste buds. Renowned New York City bartender Sother Teague says Riga Black Balsam measures high on the bitterness scale. “It’s pretty up there: aggressively bitter, dark, rich, viscous.” Chances are it’s a taste you’ll never forget — for better or worse.

Unlike bitter cocktail staples such as Cynar, Campari or Averna, which pack a sweet but relatively brief punch, Riga Black Balsam attacks with more intricacy: First comes the bitterness, followed by a strong medicinal flavor that burrows into your mouth and lingers. Produced from 24 different herbs, roots, grasses and berries, it’s a taste profile that’s suited to Latvia’s tough northern European climate, where winds whip the Baltic coast and blast cities with icy snow. That combination forms the “unique taste of a liquid that’s been part of our culture now for more than 260 years,” says Māris Kalniņš, global brand director for Riga Black Balsam.

He’s not kidding: First crafted in 1752, it’s slowly grown to become “one of the symbols of Latvia,” Kalniņš says, making its way into chocolate, cakes, ice cream and even cosmetics. For now, though, we’d recommend you start with it neat.

Let’s make one thing clear: This stuff isn’t for everyone.

The brand is setting its sights on discerning drinkers in the U.S., having started with distribution to bars in New York City this year, and with an eye on San Francisco and Washington D.C. — markets already dominated by Italian liqueurs. The standard retail price for a 750-milliliter bottle falls around $25, a few bucks more expensive than back in Latvia. Besides its original flavor, Riga Black Balsam is also available in Black Currant.

The American appetite for bitter and complex liqueurs has been growing significantly, notes Teague. He’s seen an uptick in curiosity since his bar, Amor y Amargo, first opened seven years ago in Manhattan’s East Village. Availability of exotic beverages has become more widespread, he explains, and interest in trying them has become “more throttled up, and lots more questions are being asked.” Here, a Riga Black Balsam cocktail will run you $15, he says.

Because let’s make one thing clear: This stuff isn’t for everyone. The first time I tried it — in a cramped Moscow kitchen in the dead of an Eastern European winter — I was repulsed by its intense bitterness. Fast-forward several years, after I’d developed a taste for obscure, enigmatic booze, I see the light. Its complexity alone impresses: You can’t quite pin down the binding ingredient. The flavor is jolting.

But like the British staple Marmite, Riga Black Balsam elicits a love-it-or-hate-it reaction. And as the Latvian liqueur makes its way into American bars, with an eye on your next high-end cocktail, you can soon find out which side your taste buds land upon.

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