Neelambar Badoni (Neelu) is a multi faceted person. An ex-banker who traded the omnipresent allure of a Greenbacks environment for the “ thrill of untrodden ways” (and that happens to be the tagline of his company Trek Himalaya as well) is also a connoisseur of fine food, wine and being the quintessential Indian – Spirits too.
Recently back from a trip from Europe, Neelu placed four bottles of liqueurs/bitters in front of me to choose one for keeps. Two of these- viz Jägermeister and Fernet Branca had gotten my hands dirty umpteen times earlier but two- Valamon Balsami and Lapponia Lakka were complete strangers. Sensing my dilemma, Neelu generously offered to open up the newbies for a quick faire connaissance (to my pleasure of course) – and we got cracking soon enough.
A brief snapshot on Liqueurs before we look at the adventure as above. The term Liqueur essentially comes from Latin liquifacere , which means “to liquefy” . In essence, it implies flavours in liquid form that could be used conveniently in several applications. It all started with monks and seers extracting potions that could cure many a disease, and very soon these caught the fancy of the elite in late middle- renaissance period, eventually becoming the toast of bartenders of the modern era who suddenly discovered a potent tool to whip up intriguing cocktails. In today’s context, the European Union Spirits Regulations stipulate a sugar content of 100 gms per litre (lesser in exceptional cases) and 15% alcohol by volume for an alcoholic drink made for human consumption, to be called a Liqueur. But the incorporated subjectivity gives ample room to tweak this definition by producers, thus fuelling innovation , much to the consumer’s delight!
Liqueurs essentially fall into three broad categories; Herbal, Fruit and Cream. Depending on personal preferences, these could be used as aperitifs (before meals), digestifs (after meals) or blended into cocktails. Some popular liqueurs are:
Herbal: Chartreuse, Benédictine, Galliano, Campari,Angostura and Fernet-Branca (our star here).
Fruit: Blue Curaçao, Grenadine, Crème de Cassis, Framboise, Midori etc.
Cream: Bailey’s Irish Cream, Amarula, Advokaat etc.
Coming to our tasting, we sampled the liqueurs as standalone followed by experimenting with some cocktail- known as well as fresh innovations. Here is how it progressed:
Packaging: 500 ml
The emblem of a Stag with a shining cross is one of the most recognizable logos in the liqueur world and has its genesis in Hubertus- the patron saint of hunters giving up his passion when a spear launched by him got stuck between a Stag’s antlers with a cross appearing in its place. Popularised by its patented tap machines that serve chilled Jäger shots as also exciting cocktails like Jäger bomb, it is an easy to drink liqueur which can go it alone owing to its balanced flavours and sweetness.
Tasting Notes: A luminescent brown colour with an orange rim and prominent aromas of liquorice and pepper. An energetic palate of liquorice, green herbs and spices coupled with a pleasant sweetness.
45 ml Jägermeister, half a can of Red Bull energy drink. Pour chilled Red Bull in a highball glass so as to fill up till 3/4th . Pour super chilled (in the freezer) Jägermeister in a shot glass and gently drop the shot glass into the highball glass (to create a bombing effect) and savour immediately.
Packaging: 500 ml
Widely acclaimed as the most famous bitter of the world, Fernet Branca comes from Fratelli Branca- a Milan (Italy) based company that was founded by Bernadino Branca in early nineteenth century. The liqueur was a result of his perfecting a recipe by a Swedish doctor called Fernet as remedy to a cholera epidemic in 1836, but went on general sale in 1845 due to its ever increasing popularity as an aperitif. Currently in the fifth generation of the family enterprise, Fernet Branca remains a popular high in demand liqueur with bars as well as connoisseurs across the world.
Tasting Notes: An amber-brown colour with a distinct yellow rim. The nose has prominent mint, juniper and rhubarb aromas and a palate of complex herbal flavours with a long mint dominated finish. Not for the faint hearted as an aperitif, but can be a miracle ingredient in cocktails. Having devised several of my own cocktails with Fernet, I am listing the most popular one by far.
Beer ‘n’ Grin
A pint of chilled lager, 10 ml Cointreau, 5 ml lemon juice, 3 ml Fernet Branca, 3 ice cubes.
Put the ice cubes in a high ball glass and pour over the ingredients with last being the beer. Give a light stir and serve garnished with a lemon spiral.
Valamon Balsami Munkkilikööri
Packaging: 350 ml
The name looks overwhelming but look closer and its quite simple as Munkki means Monk and Likööri is Liqueur in Finnish. This and the next liqueur are the ones you may not commonly come across outside the Nordic region (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway) as they are quite unique in terms of ingredients and the climatic conditions under which produced.
Valamon Balsami Munkkilikööri is a spicy herbal liqueur from the Valamo monastery of the Finnish Orthodox Church. The monastery is a popular destination for visitors to Finland, getting close to 1,60,000 visitors a year. In the traditions of the church, the monastery produces various wines and liqueurs of distinct characters.
Tasting Notes: A muddled brown colour with an amber rim. A complex nose of mixed spices and herbs and a pleasing sweetness on the palate accompanied by a lingering finish.
Cocktail Recipe: Did not try a cocktail with this one, since it worked ideally as a digestif. But I guess it would also go well with tonic water .
Packaging: 500 ml
Another one from Finland, this is a liqueur from Cloudberries, a fruit typical to the Arctic region that are considered a rich source of vitamins and minerals.
Tasting Notes: A sweet spicy nose and a palate of honey, quince and white peppers. Sweetest of the lot but with well balanced acidity that in my opinion qualifies it as a good digestif.
Cocktail Recipe: 60 ml Gin, 30 ml Lapponia Lakka, 5 ml lemon juice, tonic water. Pour over lots of ice.
So which one did I select for keeps? Fernet-Branca for two reasons. First- I was out of supply of this staple ingredient of my home bar and second- I did not want to take undue advantage of Neelu’s generosity by appropriating the exotic liqueurs he so painstakingly ferried across the oceans. After all ethical conduct is a known virtue of tipplers- isn’t it?