Underberg is lots of things. It's a bitters; an apéritif; clarity in a 20 milliliter bottle; the perfect companion to a good meal, or a heaven-sent cure for the worst jägermeister hangover. Simple, it's not. The back of the box warns, after all: "Underberg... it cannot be explained: it must be experienced."
How’s that for a slogan?
I first discovered Underberg when I was innocently strolling down the international aisle of my local supermarket, where they stock such exotic items as salsa con queso and egg noodles. There, sandwiched between some stale German schwarzbrot rye and a tin of dry breadsticks, was an alluring dark green box containing exactly three bottles of Underberg. The ingredients were few, but intriguing: spring water, alcohol (44% by volume, or 88 proof), and natural flavors from the herbs and roots of the genus gentiana.
"Gentiana? What's that?" I thought. I'd never heard of it, and I've tried just about every family of herb you could imagine. I used to be a regular at Ancient Formula in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which kept a constant supply of underground favorites like crushed deer antler (for those in need of a little testosterone boost). Yeah, I’ve been around the block.
But what really sold me, though, was the blonde flying Nordic goddess faerie on the front of the box cupping some shining, mystical combination of Germanic herbs and flowers. I had to try Underberg. And ever since, I've been in love.
Underberg is striking in several ways. Visually, the three miniature beer-like bottles wrapped in brown paper, seemingly designed for the drunk down at bus stop, immediately grab your attention. Once opened, the distinctive smell - almost minty, almost licorice-like, with a hint of fresh earth and a hefty dose of alcohol – is a shock to the senses. Poured, it looks like flat Coca-Cola, but a quick whiff removes any illusions.
Then, of course, there’s the taste. Underberg is like straight absinthe condensed into a 5-hour Energy bottle, the wormwood replaced with the devilish gentiana. It's a powerful potpourri on the tongue.
Ideally, you should down a bottle of Underberg all at once, so it's like a bitter shot to the brain – that’s absolutely the best way, and it’s recommended by Underberg. The hairs on your arm will tingle; your spine, straighten; your toes, curl. A few minutes later, a purer form of lucidity will overtake you. You’ll exist in the transitory world of Underberg, a brief 10 minutes of sheer happiness. You might even suddenly find yourself with an urge to strap on some blue suspenders and grab an alphorn. Yes, the moment is that magical.
And it all raises the question: what's up with this gentiana stuff? Unfortunately, the genus gentiana has over 400 plant species in it, and Underberg's recipe is fiercely guarded family secret, so pinpointing the exact pharmaceutical effects of the drink is next to impossible. While many bitters use gentian herbs and roots for flavoring, none compare to Underberg. The best we can do is look to history for clues to the drink's seductive appeal.
Supposedly, the genus gentiana is named after King Gentius, the last Illyrian king of the obscure Ardiaean kingdom, which was situated along the east Adriatic Sea. The story goes that King Gentius discovered the medicinal qualities of the genus, only to fall onto the wrong side of history and meet an ignominious end when he sided with the Macedonians instead of the Romans during a war in the 169 BC. Though King Gentius would die a Roman prisoner, the legend of genus gentiana has lived on in Eastern Europe in myriad ways. I like to look at that as a form of redemption - rock on, King Gentius!
And indubitably, sometime during the 1830s while on a trip in the Netherlands, a young Hubert Underberg tried a local concoction of gin mixed with herbs and roots of the gentian family that was believed to aid digestion. Wowed by the drink’s invigorating powers, he would eventually found H. Underberg-Albrecht in Germany in 1846 to sell a bitters based off of traditional folk recipes with the help of his extremely wealthy wife Catherina Albrecht.
Luckily for him, Hubert proved to be something of a marketing wunderkind, besides a keen appreciator of fine bitters. He enthralled guests at the popular world fairs and exhibitions of the time with his new product, and later even impressed the Emperor of Japan enough that the Emperor had crates of Underberg shipped to his imperial palaces. Underberg soon became so popular that cheap rip-offs like Unkerberg and Unterbrecht started appearing on the shelves to steal sales, prompting Hubert to take out newspaper ads vigorously defending the integrity of his brand against all the fakes. It was the secret recipe that made Underberg what it was, he said in the ads. And no other company had it.
When mass production was introduced to the world by Henry Ford in the early 1900s, Hubert took advantage of the new techniques without delay to sell more Underberg than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of bottles were filled a day. Only shortages during World War I and II could stop Underberg’s insane momentum – the dainty act of picking herbs and collecting roots from the mountainside while the entire European continent was a bloody battlefield just unfortunately didn't fit. As soon each war ended, however, production picked right back up from where it had left off like nothing had happened. Prohibition couldn’t even stop Underberg, as Hubert’s son Carl somehow convinced the US government to make an exception for his family’s product. It was heralded as a small victory for desperate lushes everywhere.
Through it all, Underberg has maintained an intense, dedicated and altogether deserved following. The company has even deigned to recognize its devoted customer base with a world-renowned, one-of-a-kind loyalty program. Underberg addicts the world round can trade in bottle tops from spent Underbergs for Underberg card games, Underberg tall glasses, Underberg herbal trucks and truck-trailers (vroom vroom!), Underberg herbal plates, and much, much more. I’m currently saving up for an Underberg crystal-glass display – only 132 tops to go!
I’ll leave you with this juicy tidbit from Underberg’s website:
After your question: "Did you enjoy your meal?" just add: "May I recommend an Underberg?"