by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown
Kümmel. Few liqueurs from the early cocktail repertoire have so much confusion surrounding their names. Some say that it is a cumin liqueur. Some say that is a caraway liqueur. The Netherlands, Russia, and Germany have all claimed to make the finest. What’s the truth behind this herbal liquid with the German name?
There has always been confusion surrounding cumin and caraway. Both are herbaceous annual plants whose seeds bear more than a close resemblance. In more than one country the names for these botanicals are frighteningly similar. In Scandinavia, caraway is called kummin, while cumin is called spiskummin. In Romania, chimen (caraway) and chimion (cumin). Even in German, kümmel (caraway) and Kreuzkümmel (cumin) walk hand in hand.
Cumin plays a large role in Asian and Mexican cuisines because of its strong aroma and flavour. It’s also used in the Netherlands to produce Leidse and Frisian clove cheeses. Caraway, on the other hand is more closely related to fennel in its character and appears in Scandinavian, German, Middle Eastern, and even British cuisine. In fact, one of the world’s largest crops of caraway is grown in the Netherlands and traditionally harvested in the dead of night.
According to Dutch claims, the Bols family produced a cumin distillate along with other products when it first established operations in 1575, in the Netherlands. It gained rapid popularity in Denmark and Latvia, where it was valued as a remedy for indigestion and children’s colic. A century later, the Dutch distillery de Kuypers, also put kümmel on its product roster. The simplest recipe for this liqueur relies entirely on cumin, distilling 900 grams with 11 litres 80° neutral grain spirit. The resulting 10 litres of distillate are diluted to 40° with 1:1 sugar syrup.
Kümmel won the heart of Russia’s Peter the Great, when he first tasted it in 1696 while living in Amsterdam for 18 months to learn shipbuilding (under an assumed identity, of course). He even went to the Bols distillery to see how it was made. Upon his return, he introduced it to his court. Naturally, it was an overnight sensation.
But this liqueur did not garner half the reputation or commercial success it would see until a century later when, in Latvia in 1823, Dutch Baron von Blanckenhagen established the Allasch distillery on his country estate near Riga so he could produce his family’s personal kümmel recipe: a distillate of cumin, caraway, and sugar beet spirit. The business rapidly developed and, in 1850, the baron approached Ludwig Mentzendorff to export the product to London. The young man agreed on the condition that his name appeared on the label and the rights to the products were his and his alone. Thus Mentzendorff Kümmel was born.
It’s fair to say that Mentzendorff Kümmel was not the only Riga-based producer of this liqueur. Albert Wolfschmidt founded a distillery in Riga in 1847, producing vodka and schnapps, including kümmel and Riga black balsam.
By 1868, kümmel made its mark on the British palate. Chamber’s Encyclopaedia defined kümmel or doppel-kümmel as the “principal liqueur of Russia” made “in the ordinary way with sweetened spirit, flavoured with cumin and caraway seeds, the latter usually so strong as to conceal any other flavour.” The entry included a critical comment: “there are two qualities: that made in Riga is the sort in common use, and is not the finest; the better sort is only manufactured in smaller quantities at Weissenstein, in Estonia; the chief difference is the greater purity of the spirit used.” Obviously, the British love for kümmel elicited passion, almost as much as for the country’s traditional seed cake, which is flavoured with caraway.
Around this same time, kümmel also made its way into the United States and into cocktail recipes crafted by Harry Johnson and Willy Schmidt. Johnson went as far as to recommend that every well-stocked establishment should have a bottle of “Allasch Russian Kümmel” and specified a “Berlin” kümmel for his Prussian Grandeur Punch.
PRUSSIAN GRANDEUR PUNCH.
(Use a large bowl.)
1 1/2 lbs. of loaf sugar;6 lemons, cut in slices;1 gill of anisette;1 bottle of Berlin kummel; 6 oranges, sliced;1 bottle of kirschwasser;
1/2 gallon of water;6 bottles of Nordhauser brantwein;1 gill of curacao.Stir up well with a punch ladle, and surround the bowl with ice, and serve in a wine glass.
Founded in Berlin, in 1836 by Carl Joseph Aloys Gilka, the J.A. Gilka distillery was famed for its Kaiser-Kümmel, which was favourite of royal courts in both Germany and Austria. This version contains a higher level of caraway than its Russian counterpart, thus making it easier to enhance with the addition of anisette.
“The Only” William Schmidt made a vermouth family cocktail—The Beginner–that favoured the Russian style.
A goblet with fine ice,
2 dashes of gum,
2 dashes of orange bitters,
1 dash of absinthe,
1/2 [glass] of French vermouth
1/2 [glass] Russian kümmel.
Stir this well, strain, and serve.
Numerous producers attempted to recreate both styles. A 1918 French distillation book, listed four formulae and a few cold-compounded recipes that blend botanical essences with spirit. Kummel de Breslau distilled cumin seeds, fennel, and Chinese cinnamon. Kummel de Dantzig employed cumin seeds, coriander, and orange peel. Kummel de Magdebourg upped the anise component by combining cumin seeds, anise, and fennel. The Bardi distillery in Livorno, Italy, opted to use cumin flowers in its “Doppio Kümmel Italiano”.
In the 1940s kümmel even made its way into Tiki drinks in the hands of Trader Vic Begeron, who crafted a Kaiser Cocktail.
3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz kümmel
2 dashes French vermouth
Stir with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Then kümmel disappeared from the back bar, relegated to service as an after-game sip amongst British and Scot golfers who call it “putting mixture”: the perfect digestif after a hearty Welsh Rarebit. It is for that market that the Combier distillery in France’s Loire Valley continued to produce the Allasch distillery’s original 1823 recipe.
Was it because anisette, pastis, and other anise-style beverages were easier to acquire and cheaper to purchase that kümmel went off the radar? We’ll never know. But the complexity of kümmel—not in name or origin alone, but the excellent flavour–makes it worth further experimentation in this grand new age of cocktail making.