Europe has a rich tradition of producing bittersweet herbal liquors, originally intended to aid digestion or provide some sort of other health benefit. Campari, Chartreuse and (God help us) Jägermeister belong in this category, for example, and there are many others. The Czech Republic’s most famous example of the genre is Becherovka, invented by a doctor visiting early 19th-century Karlovy Vary, who worked with a local distiller. It was marketed as a remedy for stomach trouble, and in this spa town, where the aristocracy came to “take the waters,” the spirit must have been a pleasurable change of pace from the sulfurous stuff percolating up from the hot springs.
Becherovka, named after the distiller Jan Becher, became a success. The Becher family built a large distillery near the confluence of the Teplá and Ohře rivers in the heart of Karlovy Vary. After World War II, the communists seized the secret recipe, which calls for approximately 20 herbs and spices, as well as the distillery, but Hedda Becher started producing an identical spirit in West Germany. The company returned to private hands in 2001 and is now owned by Pernod Ricard. In 2010, Becherovka opened a larger distillery in the Karlovy Vary suburbs and turned the original factory into Becherplatz, a mixed-use space with shops, restaurants and a Becherovka museum.
The museum tour — it can only be visited on a guided tour, reserved in advance — ranged between informative and silly. One hands-on exhibit was a video game involving sugar cubes in a maze, for example. But I did enjoy learning more about the beverage’s history and, of course, the tasting at the end.