Five Facts About Bärwurz
This spirit can give you double-vision in more ways than one. The Bärwurz plant (pronounced “behr-vurts”) is known in English as baldmoney, spignel, bear fennel or Alpine Lovage. Its natural home is Germany’s Black Forest region, and in the German language there is a slight-but-important distinction between the masculine Bärwurz and the feminine Bärwurz. Here we try to clarify the confusion between the two interpretations of this recently rediscovered Black Forest treasure.
In Germany’s Black Forest, Bärwurz is as integral to the local folklore as gentian is to the Alpine culture just down the road. The distilled spirit made from the Bärwurz plant is equally at home as an old man’s preferred poison, an Alpine dare or an Aprés-Ski chill-out potion. But the aromatic plant behind the drink and the gender confusion surrounding it is currently enjoying a major comeback as a botanical in German gins.
1) Him or her – And does it matter?
The Bärwurz plant bears the botanical designation Meum athamanticum, and the feminine form in the German language. That has to do with the fact that “Wurz” is essentially short for “Wurzel” (root), which is feminine in German. But once it’s distilled, German-speakers have to remember that the spirit takes on the masculine form in the language. And while those familiar with the German language might be tempted to think that the distilled spirit’s masculine character is somehow related to Bär, which means “bear” in German, it isn’t. Not at all, in fact. But none of that is our problem, right? So let’s find out more about the plant and the drink.
The root is used for the distillate called “Bärwurz”, but most distilleries use the more highly cultivated masterwort. The stoneware bottles it comes in are as integral a part of a Bavarian forest dinner as bread and bacon.
2) Alpine Lovage and Salt – An all-around plant
Baldmoney was already recognized as an important healing plant back in medieval times. No less than acclaimed German pharmacologist Hieronymus Bock praised the plant in 1539 in his “Kreutterbuch” (‘Herbal Book’) as an all-purpose weapon against ailments of all kinds. Alpine Lovage was also used extensively during births…both for humans and for cows!
Bärwurz seeds also proved to be an export hit for the Black Forest region in centuries past. “Bärwurzsalz”, or baldmoney salt, was created by taking the leaves harvested in the springtime, drying them and mixing them with sea salt.
3) So how does Bärwurz taste?
The plant is found in pastures and meadows at a certain altitude. Baldmoney can be found as easily in the Scottish Highlands as it can in the Black Forest. Some have compared the taste to lovage, anise, dill, caraway and curry. Since every part of the plant contains all of these aromatic qualities, it is also used in recipes for all kinds of foods.
Mark Williams’ company “Galloway Wild Foods” gathers wild Scottish plants and uses Bärwurz in its carrot bitter. Mark additionally notes that in earlier times the plant was also a popular additive in snuff.
4) What’s behind the Bärwurz comeback?
Bärwurz has recently been rediscovered by distillers in the GSA territories in the wake of their current return, quite literally in the case of Bärwurz, to the “roots”. This rediscovery is no news however for Reinhard Penninger from the Alte Hausbrennerei distillery in Hauzenberg bei Passau, who has always distilled a Bärwurz distillate. For Reinhard it was no great leap to use Bärwurz as a botanical in his “Granit Gin”, which took no less than second place in the MIXOLOGY Taste Forum. “Reini” even offers a Bärwurz-flavored salami as the perfect accompaniment.
Christoph Keller also distills a pure Bärwurz spirit at his Brennerei Stählemühle distillery, but he only uses the seeds. His fascination with the plant began when his architect friend Hardy Happle brought Christoph a 24-pound sack of seeds from his own Bärwurz pasture in Bavaria, which Christoph then distilled into an extremely limited edition spirit (125 Euros for a 0.35 liter bottle).
Christoph went on to suggest Bärwurz seeds as the 48th botanical for this year’s “Monkey 47” Distiller’s Cut gin to his partner Alexander Stein. 80 pounds of seeds later, the Black Forest Bärwurz macerate “Limited Edition” is currently maturing in stoneware containers until its premier at this year’s upcoming Bar Convent Berlin.
5) Where can I get Bärwurz?
Bärwurz is a protected plant. Commercially utilized Bärwurz fields are strictly controlled and generally only supply specific purchasers. The plants are available from specialized suppliers. Ten plants can be purchased for around 37 Euros from the Staudengärtnerei Gaissmayer gardening operation in Illertissen, Germany. Cut Bärwurz leaves are available from the “Zimtstangl & Muskatblüte” online shop at 8.50 Euros for 35 grams. And if you want to plant your own Bärwurz field, you can purchase seeds for 2.60 Euros online. Roots are available from Dragonspice at 6.50 Euros for 50 grams. Now roll up your sleeves and get planting!
Translated by John J. Collier.