My intent was to write a post titled An Ode to Underberg. Turns out that’s been done before. Even the New York Times has covered it twice now and the Huffington Post has plenty to share. This is not uncharted territory by any stretch of the imagination, but very few people I’ve met have ever had the stuff.
In the fall I had the opportunity to eat at Schmidt’s in San Francisco. Having started our evening at Mission Cheese, this was not an evening of light dining. When the dessert menu came around, the last thing any of us wanted was more to eat. With an innocent question, my friend asked “does anybody know what Underberg is?”
“DOES ANYBODY KNOW WHAT UNDERBERG IS!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “WAITER, BRING US THREE UNDERBERG!” I then pounded my chest and flipped the table.
Okay, that’s not quite what happened, but I was pretty excited.
At Schmidt’s, service of Underberg is the same you would get at a gas station. We were handed three of the bottles, wrapped in their paper wrapper. The paper is peeled back, the cap is removed, and the 20mL bottle is consumed in one swig. We dumped ours down the hatch to much revelry and the reactions were largely “well, that’s different.” Smiles all around!
In truth, drinking from the bottle’s narrow aperture with any sort of vigor is somewhat difficult. The beverage is easily poured into a small shot glass.
Underberg also offers an official glass in exchange for a large quantity (96) of the bottle caps. The bottle caps are currency in Underberg’s loyalty program. In addition to glassware, things like holsters for carrying around the bottles are available.
I’m not sure where to reliably find Underberg. My most recent batch was acquired in a duty-free store in Guatemala’s La Aurora airport. Previously a case of it showed up at the local liquor store, but I haven’t seen it since. What’s weird is that it’s available on Amazon from third-party sellers and occasionally pops up in drug stores.
Let’s be clear: Underberg’s “beneficial effect” is provided not just from the secret herbs and spices. Let’s take a look at the ingredient list, adapted from Underberg’s FAQ:
- 1.3% (by weight) herbal extracts
- natural vitamin B1
- natural antioxidants
- natural proteins
- natural sugar
- no artificial colorants
- fresh drinking water
- 44% alcohol by volume (“to keep the herbal extract in solution”)
Let’s not pretend: These are 2/3 oz bottles of hard liquor. As to how it makes appearances on Amazon and the like, I am guessing it is classed by the FDA as a non-potable bitter (c.f. vanilla, aromatic bitters). Or people are just breaking the law.
With that said, I have a hard time believing anybody is going to try to get drunk off the stuff.
Underberg is perhaps closest in purpose to Fernet-Branca, but this is not a great comparison. It is far less sweet (having only sugars from the herbal extracts) and not as bold (though Fernet’s sugar balances this). Herbal notes and bitterness are certainly at the forefront, but for me the dominating characteristic is a generous dose of gentian and cloves.
The marketing material is entertaining. One quickly discovers the little bottle is a miracle cure, a magical elixir, and best consumed frequently to recover from all ills.
The digestif is a hit at a party. People will give the little bottles a try, and the reactions are priceless. Failing that, if it’s on the menu at a German restaurant, it’s worth a try after dinner.