My father had an infernal talent for torturing people with shaggy-dog stories, which he could narrate so deftly that people sometimes believed they were hearing a genuine real-life story or personal anecdote — to the point I once saw a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) in the United States Navy throw himself to the living-room carpet and pound it, wailing, with both fists. The first one I ever heard him tell involved the “Tiz Bottle,” which — to make a long story short — is the object of a lengthy, peril-ridden search by a collector who finds but breaks or loses one rare and precious Tiz Bottle after another until finally he gets one home to his Manhattan penthouse, sets it in a row of other rare bottles, then gets out a hammer [audience gasps here] and… carefully taps out on the differently sized bottles the tune “My country TIS’ of thee…”
I remembered the Tiz bottle vividly when I took my first sip of Riga Black Balsam. I have been hunting around for a bottle of this stuff ever since I found out about it. Anything made from “24 different ingredients like plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils and berries prepared in oak barrels,” resulting in a drink that is “black and very bitter,” is right up my alley, given my lust for things like Fernet Branca and Abano Amaro.
Go figure. After months of tracking it down and then having it go out of stock at one online retailer after another — there only seems to be one store offering it in the whole USA at any one time — I finally nailed some last week, at a storefront that seems to stock almost exclusively Balkan liquors with too many consonants in their names.
The bottle looks funky. The liquor crawls down the side of the glass — and possibly up it again, under its own power — just the way you would hope for. (Well, I would, anyway.) The taste was… elusive. And I don’t mean elusive as in hard to identify, though it was that, too, suggesting horehound and sassafras but also stewed tea and bark dust. I mean it was hardly even there. It was a Meh Cocktail.
Reportedly, Catherine the Great drank this stuff while traveling in Latvia and got rid of some ailment — possibly the Riga Two-Step, who knows. It does remind me of some of the herbal drams my acupuncturist used to foist on me, always swearing they were incredibly powerful and life-giving. At least this stuff doesn’t come with instructions to drink it X number of times a day at such cumbersome distances from actual meals that if you really went by directions you would never be able to eat at all. In fact there are no directions whatever, so the protocol for its supposed curative powers remains as elusive as the flavor.
It’s growing on me, as I’ve sampled a sip on three successive occasions, trying to figure out what it tastes like. I figure I’ll polish off the bottle eventually, during puzzle-solving moods, or when I feel strange cravings for — Varsol? Betadine? Lepage’s Glue?
I’m working on it.