Underberg is somewhat of a cult classic on Smallflower, one of our all-time best sellers. For those out of the loop, though, the beverage can seem like a bit of a mystery. The brand’s motto is perplexing – “It cannot be explained; it must be experienced.” What is it about the tiny bottles and amber liquid that has captivated so many for so long? Read on to learn a little more about this unique German find.
What is Underberg?
When you first experience these peculiar bitters, you’ll notice the distinct smell. Herbal and a little spicy, almost like the scent of the Christmas season. You may expect a syrupy or sweet taste due to the glowing amber hue. If so, you’ll be in for a big surprise! They’re called bitters for a reason – the taste is intensely herbal with notes of licorice and a fiery kick at the end. This “fire” works to settle your stomach and quickly soothe any digestive discomfort.
The drink only comes packaged in single-serve 20-ml bottles with a hexagonal neck. Natural, straw-colored paper encircles each bottle, keeping the glass clean and preserving the flavors of the bitters. Underberg developed this one-of-a-kind design early on, as a way to deter counterfeits and prevent crooks from refilling used bottles. This ensures that customers always receive real, high-quality bitters.
The History of Underberg
On June 17, 1846 Hubert Underberg did two things at the Rheinberg, Germany Town Hall: he married Karharina Albrecht and established the company Underberg-Albrecht. Throughout his education in the Netherlands and Belgium, Hubert had been aware of a certain herbal elixir diluted with genever (a juniper-flavored gin), in whatever quantity the maker thought appropriate. It bothered Hubert that the quality of this drink was so inconsistent, due to the fluctuating amounts of ingredients used. He wanted to combine the healing properties of this drink with modern, more sophisticated production methods.
Thus the Underberg brand was born – and along with it, a standard of production known as SEMPER IDEM, or “always the same quality and effect.” The company prospered quickly, and Hubert was showered with awards and honors, such as the prestigious Purveyor to the Court. He won medals for his creation at World Exhibitions in London, Paris, and Philadelphia. In 1851, he registered the bottle’s design with the Commercial Court of Krefeld–a sort of precursor to the trademark. This is one of the reasons why Underberg has remained so unique and unmistakable to this day.
The unique German bitters first made it to the United States in 1860, with a shipment arriving at a port in San Francisco. During Prohibition in the 1920s, it was still allowed to be brought into the US, since it was technically classified as a food product.
Production of Underberg had to be stopped between the First and Second World Wars, because the family couldn’t reliably procure the high-quality herbs necessary for the recipe. They came out of this period with a bang, however: in 1949, Emil Underberg introduced the single-portion bottles. Since then, the company has enjoyed unrivaled success.
How to Drink Underberg
You can, of course, drink Underberg straight from the bottle–the little one-shot portions guarantee that you’re getting the perfect amount of herbal goodness each time. But Underberg purists will tell you that this is an inferior way of drinking the bottle’s contents–the tapered neck makes it impossible for the liquid to reach your mouth all at once! It’s considered proper technique to serve Underberg in a specially designed glass created just for consuming the little drink.
The glass was developed by the founder, Hubert Underberg, with the help of glass artisans from Murano, Italy. It perfectly houses a single portion of the bitters, designed with a shape that flaunts the herbal aroma and allows the full flavor to hit your palette all together. The unusually long stems (24 cm, to be precise) makes it so that the little glasses stand out in a table setting, creating a sophisticated and unmissable look.
The Closely Guarded Ingredients
The exact recipe for Underberg has been a mystery ever since its creation in 1846, known only to the family. We do know that it consists of a blend of herbs from 43 countries around the world, 44% premium-quality alcohol that maintains the herb extracts, and well water that’s regularly subjected to laboratory controls. This mixture rests and matures for several months in casks made from Slovenian oak.
The precise composition of the herbs is still chosen by the 4th and 5th generations of the family of founder Hubert Underberg. The formula is naturally gluten-free, certified by the German Coeliac Society. It’s also kosher-approved, as certified by the Orthodox Union. The herbs are low in histamines and offer a boost of natural antioxidants.
The Rewards Program
Ever since its introduction in the mid-19th century, Underberg has boasted a large fanbase. To this day, clubs and organizations for enthusiasts exist to celebrate the German digestif. One of the reasons it remains so popular is thanks to a generous loyalty program, called “Tops & More.” Customers who collect a certain amount of Underberg caps can mail them in to Germany. The company then sends back a reward based on how many caps were sent in. These rewards range from keychains to decks of cards and the special serving glass. You can learn more about Tops & More rewards here →
The Future of Underberg
For over 40 years Underberg has concerned itself with ecological sustainability. The company seeks out environmentally sound procedures, and they’re at the core of Underberg’s corporate values. In 1991, the company created a 10-year vision statement, “Vision 2001.” Guided by the desire to put the customer first at all times, they summarized their philosophy in one sentence: “There’s nothing that can’t be done better.”
The straw paper, labels, and glass packaging is all made with sustainability in mind. Underberg asks that you think about recycling your waste from the product. Just be sure to separate the paper and the bottle, and place the bottle in the colored glass bin. If you send in your caps for the “Tops & More” rewards program, Underberg assures that they will be disposed of in an environmentally conscious manner.
The Underberg Revival
In the last 20 or so years, Underberg has seen a resurgence in popularity. Always in fashion with Germans after a heavy meal or night of indulgence, it’s become a common ingredient in trendy cocktails across the United States. Take this recipe from Tyler Fry of The Violet Hour, a James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar in the heart of Wicker Park here in Chicago:
1 bottle Underberg Bitters
2.0 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
.75 oz Lemon Juice
.75 oz Simple Syrup
Shake. Strain. Serve up in a coupe with sidecar.
Garnish with a lemon peel, expressed over the cocktail and discarded.
Serve with the empty Underberg bottle inverted in the sidecar.
Hopefully, now that you’re armed with a little more knowledge about this unusual German drink and its history you’ll give it a shot–figuratively and literally! You can shop our entire Underberg collection here →