You have been drinking Kräuterlikör for years, even if you didn’t know it. Chances are, you’ve cursed and bemoaned the St Hubertus stag, even if you didn’t know what that is. Those past two sentences make me think I’m being a pretentious fuckwit, alas, I like a detective story. Does this picture ring a bell? By which I mean, does it ring your bell like a the morning after a bachelor/ette party?
Get it? Yes, you have had Jägermeister before. Krauterlikor isn't obscure, you might know the most popular one in the world as Jägermeister, a brand making a sincere and legitimate come back in the cocktail community. Some of you just stopped reading. Younger folks might think "well, Jäger is really just like a German Amaro." By which that hip youngster is comparing the herbal tones in Jäger with the bitter flavors in the Italian liqueur family AMARO. This is an accurate comparison, but it is so in the same way that crudo is Italian sushi, Ramen is Japanese noodle soup or that pad thai is peanut butter spaghetti. None of those statements are false, but they ain't too smartsy neither.
I asked Willy Shine, Brand Meister for Jägermeister about the category and he offered:
"KRÄUTERLIKÖR origins date as far back as the beginning of distillation. Distillation may have been a gift of the Arabs but perfecting the suspension of the medicinal properties of plants in alcohol we can thank the monks through the dark ages for that. Beer & Wine may be the oldest alcoholic beverages in Germany but KRÄUTERLIKÖR is a huge part of the German drinking history. Jägermeister KRÄUTERLIKÖR of Germany pays homage to its history & predecessors with family heritage, integrity & process."
Kräuterlikor is a German portmanteau, (and come on, the German language, for better or for worse, is the language of the portmanteaus) for "herb liqueur." Thusly, goodbye "German Amaro," and hello "kräuterlikor."
Good ahead, just yell it a couple times, it's fun. "KRÄUTERLIKÖR!" In German these bitters are often called "halbbitter," meaning "half bitter." Germany, Austria, basically all those cold countries with rich sausage traditions have bitter herbal liqueurs. Some recipes are centuries old, monastic or abbey bitters while others, like the Danish Gammel Dansk, despite being in an old timey bottle, was founded in 1964. Though the word kräuterlikor is german, it refers to a very large family of spirits and German speaking people sometimes use it as a generic word to refer bitter spirits from other countries. Perhaps calling Cynar an "Italian kräuterlikor." Liqueurs commonly known in America that fit into the kräuterlikor category are Hugarian Unicum, German Aromatique from H.P.S.Epicurian or the Czech Becherovka . Kiki Braverman of Pür Spirits has recently created a contemporary kräuterlikor in her liqueur Zamaro, which feature various secret alpine botanicals that I'm not supposed to mention here.
The even smaller category of kräuterlikor that I am obsessed with is boonekamp bitters AKA stomach bitters or the glorious category that contains Underberg. Boonekamp bitters have less that 3 grams of sugar per 100ml which makes them significantly drier than most all liqueurs. As for Underberg, I've been a daily advocate for about 10 years now. The swag I have accumulated from saving the caps is enumerable. I also scored a vintage bandolier at an estate sale.
Underberg is a bitter kräuterlikor, specifically, a boonekamp bitter. Though it is 88 proof, the FDA classifies it as “non potable bitters” in America, it is food and you do not need to be 21, or sober, to buy it. However, to attempt inebriation with it, may make one poop one’s pants. But to use it to soothe the tummy, it makes one READY FOR MOAR FOOD! But what is it?
When you don’t know what a liquor or liqueur is, first ask yourself:
“What is written on the bottle?”
By law, and marketing, bottles are chockfull of great information. This little green bottle reads…
“Underberg is an herb bitters taken for digestion, it is not a beverage. Not to be supped, but taken all at once and quickly because of its aromatic and strong taste. It is also used as a flavoring.”
.67 fluid oz, 20 ml, 44% alc
Ingredients: Water, alcohol (44% by volume) and natural flavors from the genus gentiana.
Natural Herb Bitters — To feel bright and alert — Made in Germany
What does it all mean? Well, let me tell you a bit about all that jargon and glory. Hubert Underberg-Albrecht in 1846, began selling this bitter made of what they claim to be herbs and spices from 43 countries. The genus gentiana, or gentian, contains over 400 different alpine flowering plants, so, it can’t be too hard to span 43 countries. And another fun bit about it, the extracts used to create these bitters are aged in Slovenian oak. I’m no arborist, but from what little I’ve read of Slovenia, it seem that it is certainly inhabited by gnomes and fairies making the oak pure magic.
“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“Underberg, it cannot be explained… it must be experienced.”
Though all of that was Underberg specific, the point to remember that holds true for figuring out boonekamp or kräuterlikor: read the label on the bottle– good info there. Unless it's in 2 point type like the bottles featured below. Northern Europe has countless other boonekamp bitters. In grocery stores, I use all of my willpower to bypass chocolate and dig out tiny bottles of boonekamp. Sure, many of these come in full size bottles, but I like them "fun size."
Grafenau is that classic disconnect between aroma and flavor that is rarely found outside of gin. On the nose, it seems astringent and harsh and while it's thin on the palate (likely from a lack of sugar) it has about the best balance of baking spice flavors and complete finish you could ask for. I didn't like it on the first sip, but upon revisiting, it has great structure. I would assume that the base spirit in this is very poor but the herb balance, well, I found it enjoyable.
Jagfürst means "the hunting prince." And while the bottle makes you think it has great provenance, I can find none. Save to say, it is popular to mix with Redbull. I doubt that is what they were going for. I very much enjoy this anise forward boonekamp.
Kuemmerling is another iconic bottle. I might clown on others who offer after tasting "it tastes like Jägermeister with..." Well, that is accurate here, it tastes like Jäger with a big, sweet orange peel in it. And I love that flavor. I think pretty much any spirit with an orange peel is great.
Mümmelmann Jagtbitter I suspect, though am afraid to ask, is Underberg, sweeter and at a lower proof. It is owned an produced by the Underberg company. And perhaps after tasting a dozen bitter liqueurs in a row, everting starts to taste like the fennel washed goodness of a post sausage dinner.
I couldn't find much about St Vitus, a Danish boonekamp. However, I could find out, that I love it. It has all the greatest hits flavors you'd come to expect by now but adds a mouth numbing punch of mace. Like getting hit with a mace studded mace for all those botanically inclined midieval history fans. After digestion, it seems that the people of Denmark like to play a serial number based drinking game with St Vitus.