Some call it 'balsam', others refer to it as 'bitters', however, the essence remains similar â€“ it is a strong alcoholic drink (40-45 %) based solely on medicinal herbs, roots, tree bark and berries. The word 'balsam' originates from the Greek word 'balsamon' meaning therapeutic remedy. The natural ingredients chosen for a particular balsam remedy tend to create harmonious and rich aromas and bouquet of unique flavours.
It is believed that the very first balsamic liqueurs were created during the time of paganism, particularly, according to one version, having a strong relation to a drink based on numerous herbs known as 'Suria'. Often referred to as a drink of gods, which is probably one of the reasons why the recipes of the kind were guarded and kept secret by generations of witchdoctors and sorcerers known to possess the innermost secrets of Nature. Most of this priceless knowledge was by most part lost during the onset of Christianity and associated Inquisition, who burnt most such knowing individuals at stake, drowned or persecuted. Unfortunately, at that particular moment in time the term 'witch doctor' and 'sorcerer' distorted their meaning to imply the relevance to evil and black magic.
In Russia balsams became popular and widely used in the 18th century as a strong alcoholic drink but equally as a therapeutic remedy for stomach disorders and mental disturbances such as neurosis, stress, and depression. Probably one of the very first 'bitters' approved by the Russian government (1752) was Balsam "Rizhskiy" created by Abraham Kunze. Originally, of course, it proudly carried the last name of its creator when it was first offered to Catherine II. The aromatic vodka constituting 75% was made using lavender flowers, sage leaves, rosemary, peppermint, cinnamon bark, dill seeds, 70 ml of alcohol and 300ml of water. These ingredients were mixed together and left to infuse for 24 hours, then distilled to make 200ml of aromatic vodka. The "Rizhskiy" Balsam is still produced today in ceramic bottles, just like in the olden days, to protect the liqueur from the sunlight and temperature fluctuations; however, it is difficult to say whether the original recipe has been kept or modified in any way. Since the 18th century, the market has grown significantly from a range o 13 in the Soviet times to a range of 60 of the present.
Preparation and Properties
Very complex manufacturing processes are involved in production of balsams involving ingredient infusions, double distillations, individual ripening, mixing, filtration and final ripening. Some of the most important detains in the manufacturing process are kept secret to make the balsamic liqueurs exclusive, but that is understandable. As a result of the somewhat lengthy process of its preparation, most of balsams and bitters produced in insignificant amounts if compared to other alcoholic drinks.
Mostly, balsam liqueurs have been categorised geographically.
The European and US market commonly refers to this particular alcoholic drink as 'bitters'. One of the Europe based bitters has been produced in Hungary since 1790 â€“ "Unicum", but most recently popularised by Maria Treben "Swedish Bitters" has become more recognised for its health benefits among the common people. Although there has not been any scientific research into the benefits of any specific balsam liqueur yet, the properties of every individual ingredient in such balsams are well-known. Other Swedish bitters widely recognised for many decades are "Bitner" and "Maurer". The 24 herbs making up the "Bitner" balsam are grown in the Alpine Reserve known as 'Gurkgal , which makes it quite special due to the conditions these ingredients were grown under. The "Maurer", on the other hand, existed for over 300 years, although mass produced only since 1832. In US, two well-known and valued strong balsam liqueurs "Abbot's Bitters" created by C. W. Abbot of Baltimore, Maryland, and "Bokers" are rarer as these are produced in very limited amounts.
If you may wish to try one of the balsams of the modern Russia market, you may wish to consider the following three, which were rated for the best quality in 2001: "Debryansk", "Mordovskiy", and "Mashook".
How and When to take
Most of the existing balsams and bitters are taken as a drink in small amounts (for example, enough for just one sip), other with a much less pleasant taste like "Swedish Bitters" are taken in drops diluted in either water, tea or coffee. It is recommended as an aperitif before main meal for a better appetite, but may equally be taken after food as a substitute for a glass of brandy. I'm currently enjoying my teaspoon of Balsam "Drevniy", which is sweet with a taste of blackcurrant, and very warming