I first met Underberg the way most people first meet Underberg. You see someone at the bar throwing back an impossibly tiny (0.6oz) glass bottle. You ask someone at the bar what their drinking and pretty soon, you’re hooked into joining them for a second round. You’ll find that Underberg has a similar taste to a Fernett, with a very bitter anise flavor. What seperates Underberg from other similar digestifs that are becoming so popular today is that it’s a ritual. You don’t just order a glass of Underberg, you purchase a tiny little parcel of joy. Like a little present, just waiting to be opened and enjoyed on Christmas morning. Once you peel back the paper and open the cap, even drinking it isn’t like other drinks. The experience was so foreign the first time I tried it that I had to double check the bottle to make sure I was drinking it properly. Underberg’s advice:
Underberg is a herb bitters taken for digestion. It is not a beverage to be sipped, but taken all at once and quickly because of its aromatic strong taste. It is also used as a flavoring – Underberg Bottle
This drink has had some time to age. It was first created 1846 in Underberg, Germany as a digestion aid, boasting herbs from over 46 countries. Much of the Underberg marketing hails back to this early age of mass marketing, when little bottles booze were sold as the cure for headaches, stress, and of course the pain that comes along with pregnancy. Underberg still relies heavily on it’s medicinal roots in its marketing. Claiming that if you drink it after a large meal you’ll feel much more bright and alert. I’ve certainly put these claims to the test, but have not yet been able to put my finger on whether or not I feel better because of the mystical, centuries old blend of herbs, or because I had a respectable excuse for throwing back a shot of 44% ABV liquor after a meal, and somehow feel like I am doing it for my health.
But let’s get back to the bottles for a moment, because those guys really are the stars of the show. Whenever I am chatting with a fellow lover of Underberg, I always ask them this question, “If it wasn’t in fun sized bottles would you still drink it?” After much internal reflection, I’ve found that most people come to the conclusion, that in fact, without the little tiny bottles all wrapped in brown paper, it would be hard for them to ever distinguish Underberg from any of the other herbal liquors that crowd the shelves of watering holes across the country. According to the Underberg’s site:
There was a good reason for choosing the Underberg bottle of that size. Amongst other things it is forgery-proof, it replaces a drinking vessel when travelling, and due to various packaging sizes it can easily be taken along anywhere: a 2-bottle package for the handbag, a 4-bottle package for travelling, and the 12-bottle package for storage. These advantages cannot be provided by a 0.7 litre bottle
The ubiquitous Underberg bottle was introduced in 1949 for the reasons above, but also to allow for the Chuck-E-Cheesesque market for caps to be born. You can collect Underberg caps to get special glass, and toy trucks, or even your very own bottle belt I like to picture the German equivalent of Don Draper, trying to figure out how to sell a very German product to a world that had just been at war with the Germans for the better part of a decade. “Don’t make the conversation about where it’s from” he says in the board meeting, “make it about the cute little bottle”. A silence falls over the room before Mr. Underberg deep in thought, stands up and starts a slow clap.
In honor of Underberg, and Mad Men, here’s a nice little cocktail to dump a bottle of Underberg in. Prost!