Jonathan Ray

Kummel and Soda, sir?

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Jonathan Ray encounters his new favourite drink. 

The other night I had a drink I’d never had before and I positively lapped it up. Indeed, I don’t think my life will ever be the same again. I’m completely smitten.

What so unexpectedly seduced me was a kümmel and soda. Actually, to be honest, it was a kümmel and sparkling mineral water, namely Menzendorff Kümmel and San Pellegrino, served in a tumbler over ice with an accompanying sprig of rosemary. And goodness me it was delicious!

I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know already, but kümmel is a colourless, caraway-flavoured liqueur that was first distilled in Holland in the late 16th century by one Lucas Bols, since when it has been something of a staple drink of the Dutch, not to mention the Danes, Germans, Russians, Latvians and so on. Here in the UK, though, it’s rarely seen beyond the confines of the golf club (where it’s known as ‘putting mixture’) or the gents’ clubs of St. James’s.

Alongside my favourite brand Mentzendorff, leading producers include Wolfschmidt, Bols, Gilka and de Kuypers, and for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of its acquaintance, kümmel could best be described as a grown-ups’ type of gripe water – please don’t be put off – that ancient remedy for colic and general indigestion in children.

I’m not a golfer (my father always taught me that it was unsporting to hit a stationary ball) but I’ve long been a huge fan of kümmel. I’ve often felt something of a lone voice over the years, though, as I extolled the liqueur’s virtues and tried to convert anyone who would listen to its beauty. Hardly anyone seems to have heard of it.

I remember in my courting days introducing my then girlfriend to the richly-flavoured joys of kümmel after a particularly self-indulgent, shirt-popping supper and I’ll never forget the slow smile of utter pleasure that spread across her chops after she took her first sip. I knew then that she was the girl for me and, dear reader, we were married soon after.

There are many fine post-prandial drinks of course – cognac, armagnac, single malt, Grand Marnier, calvados and so on – but none can really claim to be a true digestif the way kümmel can. Fennel, dill, ginger, camomile, aloe and peppermint are all used in the production of kids’ gripe water, but the plant that gives it the distinctive aniseed-like flavour is caraway, a carminative noted for easing gastrointestinal discomfort, including gas. And it’s caraway upon which kümmel is based too, thanks to which this grown-up version boasts similar gut-soothing properties (albeit at 38-40%vol). I mean, it really does help one digest in a way other spirits don’t. They just give you a pleasant feeling of well-being without – if you will forgive me – actually helping the slow-cooked crispy pork belly, slab of stilton or tarte tatin on its way.

Mentzendorff Kümmel is still made to its original 1823 recipe although not in Riga, where it originated, but in Saumur in the Loire Valley. It’s produced for Mentzendorff by the tiny Combier distillery, situated just yards from Saumur’s celebrated cavalry school, the Cadre Noir.

The distillery was founded in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier, a confectioner by trade and a radical and an anti-cleric by conviction (he was twice arrested for making offensive remarks about the Emperor). He built a number of copper alembic stills (within an iron frame designed by the great Eiffel himself) in which to manufacturer liqueurs for his chocolates, and soon found his spirits outselling his confectionery.

Today the small team of ten at Combier make many toothsome spirits such as the original Triple Sec (far better than the upstart imitator Cointreau), a fabulous cherry liqueur and several fine, this’ll-put-hair-on-your-chest absinthes. They’re rather baffled by the kümmel, though, since nobody in France appears to drink it.

They make it how it’s always been made. Caraway seeds are macerated for twelve hours overnight in neutral alcohol and water and place them in the still. The distillation is started in the morning, with the still being heated gently by steam rather than fire, just like a bain-marie. This takes seven hours, during which time steam rises into the still’s ‘swan’s neck’ condensing back into a liquid. Only the heart of the distillate is kept, being mixed with water and sugar before filtering and bottling.

I’ve always like my kümmel on the rocks or – at a pinch – straight from the freezer in a shot glass. I love its spicy caraway-ness, its oiliness and the way its rich sweetness gives way in the mouth to a dry, multi-layered finish. It is truly a king amongst drinks and genuinely makes one feel far less full and bloated after an over-the-top lunch or dinner whilst giving one a nice little buzz of alcohol too.

What I have never done hitherto is drink kümmel mixed with anything else. But there I was the other night among several liqueur-loving mates being handed a glass of kümmel and soda on ice as an aperitif. It was 1 ½ measures of kümmel to four of San Pellegrino and the sweetness of the spirit and the saltiness of the water combined beautifully, especially when set off with said sprig of rosemary. It was both refreshing and invigorating.

We then decided really to put the Mentzendorff Kümmel through its paces. We started with a so-called Silver Bullet (two parts Spectator Gin, one part Mentzendorff Kümmel, one part fresh lemon juice, shaken over ice) which is supposedly Prince Philip’s favourite tipple. It went down a storm, although one or two of those present preferred the purity (or more likely the neat alcohol) of the Silver Streak – exactly the same as the above minus the lemon juice.

A Quelle Vie followed, made up of 2 parts Delamain Pale & Dry Cognac and one part Mentzendorff Kümmel. Powerfully alcoholic, it was a tongue-tingling delight, the flavours evolving with each sip.

The hands down favourite, though, was the mock Negroni (one part Mentzendorff Kümmel, one part Spectator Gin, one part Martini Rosso and two dashes of Angostura Bitters stirred over ice) which was greeted with huge applause.

As a Negroni devotee I loved it, although I did rather miss the bitterness of the Campari. It didn’t stop me draining the glass though. After which I refreshed my palate with the aforementioned kümmel and soda. This if nothing else is definitely now part of my cocktail repertoire.

Mentzendorff Kümmel is available at Berry Bros & Rudd for £23.65 per 50cl or £71 per 150cl.