Europe,  Latvia

Black Balsam: A Latvian Grandmother’s Medicine

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Travelling is the best thing ever. At least until you’re sick. Then all you want is to be in your home, in your bed, with your mom checking in to see if you’re ok. Sadly, if you are overseas, that’s not quite an option. I learned this thi hard way after ending up with bronchitis while travelling through Europe. I tried what seemed like a million pills, lozenges, and syrups but in the end it was a liquor called Black Balsam that seemed to do the trick.

Getting Sick on the Road

It started In Ireland, but followed me through Scandinavia, and into the Baltics. What began as a cough turned into fever, headaches, feeling sore and tired, and then hacking my lungs out. There was no doubt I wasn’t healthy (and pretty disgusting too, to be honest) but with a fast-paced itinerary already booked I refused to let it get the best of me, and ploughed through each destination making sure I saw it all. But at night, while my dorm mates would shower and dress up for a night out, I would pull on my sweat pants and climb into bed. Nine nights out of ten I was fast asleep before they had even left.

I had a stack of mysterious medications that I had bought along the way; tablets from Ireland, a cough syrup from Sweden, lozenges from everywhere because I seemed to go through a pack a day. Some things were over $30CDN while in Tallinn, the pharmacist recommend a $3CDN solution. I had no idea what I was taking but relied on their expertise, praying that something would finally make me feel better. But, up until Latvia, I had no luck. If anything, I seemed to be getting worse.

Riga from above


Black Balsam: The Pub Crawl Cure

On my last night at my hostel in Riga, I was curled up in the corner of a couch in the common room with a few other backpackers; a Spaniard, a few Germans, an Aussie, and a couple of the girls working in the hostel. We were chatting away about our travels when the club promoter came in.

‘You’re all coming on the pub crawl tonight, right?’ she asked.

The Germans and Aussie were quick to jump on board while my Spanish friend and I declined.  For what seemed like the millionth time over the past couple of weeks I was asked why not.

“I’m sick.” I explained, with a rather well-timed cough.

Usually this was enough. I’d get a few “oh poor you”‘ s and then everyone would leave. The nice ones would ask if they could get me anything or check on me one last time before they headed out, but for the most part my excuse was accepted. Not this time.

“Have some Black Balsam.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, and it clearly showed on my face.

“You know” my Spanish buddy prompted, “the local liquor.”

That rang a bell. I’d heard of it, but hadn’t tried and had no idea why she wanted me to drink alcohol when I was sick.

“Seriously” one of the local girls told me, “my grandma says Black Balsam fixes everything. She even gave it to me when I was a kid. It’s like medicine; there are all kinds of herbs in it. It’s good for you!”

The other Latvian girls nodded in agreement, encouraging the manager to pull me into the bar room.

“Here.” She said, slamming two shot glasses down in front of me. “This is the original Black Balsam” she told me, pouring one and handing it to me. Tipping my head back I took the shot as she poured me a second, the blackcurrant version. “You’ll feel better soon, and now you’re coming on pub crawl.”

Shot glass

I have no idea how to describe what Black Balsam tastes like. It’s not good, though I will admit that the black currant version is significantly better.  But now, with two free shots of black balsam in me, I had little choice but to hand over my ten euro (while convincing the Spaniard to join too) to the club promoter and agree to a night out with my new found friends.

Yanking on a clean top and swapping my sweatpants with jeans, I handed over my small make-up collection to one of the hostel workers and sat as she did my hair and make-up. Not long later I joined the rest of the group in the games room, starting the night with a few shots from the bar. While other backpackers got a mix of things, I just got more Black Balsam.

“Feel better yet Canada?” she asked as I tossed back my 4th shot of Black Balsam. I couldn’t help but nod, because although my throat still hurt, I kind of did feel better. But whether it was because the Black Balsam was actually some kind of medicine or I was just feeling the general buzz from alcohol, I didn’t know.

I spent the night with my hostel mates dancing and drinking around town. When we hit a boring bar we left, striking out on our own for an Irish pub we had seen earlier. We talked, danced, and laughed until early in the morning, by which point it was time for us to stumble back to our beds and get a couple hours of sleep before going our separate ways in the morning.

The next morning, when I dragged my butt out of bed, I had an epiphany. It was the first night in weeks I had slept through without coughing myself awake. Brushing it off as fluke, I packed up and checked out. I had a little more time to explore before my flight to Poland and I wanted to pick up a couple of souvirs. Oh a whim, I decided that maybe one of those souvenirs should be a bottle of Black Balsam. Just in case it was actually working.

Exploring Old Town Riga

So, Did Black Balsam Actually Work?

Three days later I was still sleeping through the night. I still coughed and lost my voice if I talked too much, but I wasn’t the same sore-all-over and exhausted that I had been for so long. I was staying up later, felt well enough to do more sight-seeing, and when I was invited to go out partying with a crew in Krakow, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

So was it a fluke? Or did the Black Balsam actually work? Did my hoard of mystery medications finally kick in? Or was I finally able to just get over my sickness on my own? I’ll probably never know but just in case those Latvian grandmothers are on to something I’m hanging on to my souvenir bottles- for next time I get sick!

My stash


Fun Facts About Black Balsam

  • Black Balsam, despite it’s odd taste, is actually an award winning liqor
  • Black Balsam dates back to 1752 and, as per tradition, only one master brewer and two apprentices can know the recipe at any given time.
  • Black Balsam was created by pharmacist from Riga named Abraham Kunze.
  • The original recipe for Black Balsam was actually lost during WWII, but a few elite workers came together to re-create the recipe. It hasn’t been changed since.
  • Black Balsam is made from 24 natural ingredients, 17 of which are botanicals.
  • Legend says that Catherine the Great of Russia was cured by Black Balsam.



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