Sipping your way through Europe: The geography of regional drinks

Posted in: Local Customs


Black Riga Balsam
Black Riga Balsam is a classic Latvian spirit that's been enjoyed by locals for over 250 years. Photo: Dave Cross

Traveling around Europe, we are often struck how local alcoholic beverages counter the general tide of globalization. They prevail, sometimes against the odds, as assertively regional products—occasionally even limited to a single city. Whether you opt for Ginja in Lisbon, Unicum in Hungary or for Tentura in Patras, the glass in your hand contains more than just a drink. It is a distillation of local culture and tradition.

The caraway-flavored liqueur Allasch is too sweet for our taste, but it has become over the years the signature drink of Leipzig—even though its origins go back to Latvia. There is plenty of Allasch in Leipzig shops, but we do wonder if these days it is purchased mainly by tourists.


The Finnish liquor Minttu is a minty spirit that pairs well with hot chocolate. Photo: trontnort

Baltic favorites in Latvia, Estonia and Finland

Latvians may have lost their taste for Allasch, but Riga Black Balsam is still going strong. It has been made in Riga for over 250 years. Its distinctive ceramic flagons are a Latvian icon, but you will also run across Black Balsam in maritime communities across the Baltic region.

Vana Tallinn cannot claim the heritage of Black Balsam, as it is a child of the sixties, when Estonians realized that cheap Caribbean rum could be improved through the addition of a cocktail of spices. It comes in a medley of styles, some verging on the bizarre. Vana Tallinn Chocolate Cream is one to ponder.

Moving north from Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland, you might run across Minttu, which is as minty as the name implies. We think it is made only slightly more palatable by mixing it with hot chocolate, just as Finns often do in winter. Another Finnish favorite is Lakka, made out of cloudberries. Take it straight, on ice or mixed in with coffee.


Patxaran is a traditional Spanish spirit made from sloe berries. Photo: Pablo Arroyo

Further flavors

Here’s a handful of other local drinks to tickle your taste buds as you travel around Europe:

1. Patxaran – Spain

Made from sloe berries, this drink comes from Navarre in northern Spain, but it’s also a firm favorite in the Basque region just to the north.

2. Cantueso – Spain

Brimming with thyme flavors, a bottle of this is hard to find once you get beyond the Alicante region of Spain.

3. Noyau de Poissy – France

Crafted from apricots, this regional drink is a specialty of Poissy, a community on the bank of the River Seine just downstream from Paris.

4. Becherovka – Czech Republic

This spirit comes in distinctive green bottles which are found everywhere in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. The town even has a museum devoted to the history of its signature drink.

5. Danziger Goldwasser – Poland

Intimately associated with the Polish city of Gdansk, we suspect that nowadays it is mainly German visitors to the city who splash out on a bottle. It is a herbal liqueur which has wafer-thin flakes of real gold floating in it. Devotees of this oddball drink debate how far the gold inflects the taste.

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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