Bringing It Back Bar: What to Do With Kümmel

Every bar sports marginal bottles that elude even the most seasoned drink-makers. That is, until someone dusts them off and uses them in a new way. In "Bringing It Back Bar," we shine a light on overlooked bottles and devise recipes to take them from back bar to front shelf. Up now: caraway- and cumin-infused kümmel.

The past several years have seen an explosion in the popularity of herbal liqueurs, with the likes of Chartreuse, Cynar and Fernet (and many other amari) now making regular appearances both behind the bar and at home. Even Jägermeister is staging a relatively unironic comeback.

But there is one member of that family that has remained mostly unexplored Stateside, in spite of its status as an herbal O.G.: kümmel. 

Kümmel (also spelled kimmel, or kummel) is a colorless herbal liqueur flavored with spices and herbs—most notably, caraway seeds and cumin, which impart a distinctly savory-spicy flavor. Lore has it that the liqueur was created by Dutch distiller Lucas Bols in 1575. It’s here in Holland that it was encountered by Peter the Great in the last decade of the 1600s, while he was illicitly gathering intel on Dutch shipbuilding methods. He apparently enjoyed it so much that he brought it home with him to Russia, where it ultimately became a mainstay. Kümmel began to further establish itself in Eastern and Western Europe in 1800s, when one family in Riga, Latvia—then under Russian ruledecided to go commercial with its traditional recipe; today that brand, Mentzendorff Kümmel (now produced in France by the Combier distillery) remains one of the most popular producers of kümmel, along with Combier (France), Gilka (Germany) and Wolfschmidt (Denmark). 

In the 1850s, the Metzendorff brand began exporting to London, where kümmel was warmly welcomed into British booze canon—most notably among that bastion of elite society: golf clubs. As Will Lyons notes in the Wall Street Journal, “There is a rumor in the British wine trade that more of it is drunk in the clubhouses of St. Andrews, Prestwick and Muirfield than any other place in the world. Certainly when I contacted the steward at Prestwick Golf Club … she told me their members consume three dozen bottles a week, which is more than five bottles a day.”

On courses across the UK, kümmel is often referred to as “putting mixture.” And while one urban myth has it that players used to rub a splash of it on their hands to prevent them from sticking to the club, golfers now traditionally down the liqueur before hitting the green to help steel their nerves, or after large club lunches as a digestif, typically served chilled over ice.

Not just a standalone spirit, kümmel has worked its way onto bar menus, where it’s prized by bartenders for its unusual, savory flavor profile. Ali Reynolds, bar manager at London’s iconic Hawksmoor, describes the taste of kümmel as sweet with a hit of caraway, along with “white chocolate, pink peppercorn, olive tapenade and walnut.” It appears at Hawksmoor in the form of Prince Philip’s alleged favorite cocktail, the Silver Bullet (simply gin, kümmel and lemon juice), but Reynolds also likes using it in The Night Shining. “I wanted to create a more robust, stirred, down drink,” he explains, as a counter to kümmel’s usual appearance in shaken, citrus-laced cocktails. Here, he stirs it with Campari and aged rum, where “the olive flavors I pick up from Ron Zacapa 23 work well with the caraway and chocolate notes,” he says.

Across the pond, in Washington, D.C., Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s Trevor Frye finds that kümmel can work nicely as a substitute for aquavit—most notably in his riff on the modern-classic Trident. In Jack Rose’s Kümmel Trident (an off-menu cocktail Frye keeps in his back pocket “as a dealer’s choice option… for people who are looking for something outside of the norm”), he pairs the liqueur with equal parts amontillado sherry (in place of fino) and Cynar for a savory, lower-proof aperitif cocktail.

At Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, the liqueur appears in the High Chicago, a vegetal and savory drink that doubles down on kümmel’s herb-and-spice notes by partnering it with Suze and Greek mastiha. “This is an expression of sun-kissed beta-carotene plants and vegetables and colors,” bar director Will Elliot notes, in reference to the spectrum of spirits in the mix, from Greek mastiha (distilled from tree resin) to apricot eau de vie.

Some American bartenders have even shoehorned the liqueur into the most unlikely of genres: tiki.

“We first encountered kümmel in a funny-looking bottle featuring an image of a ‘kaiser penguin,'” says Billy Helmkamp, co-owner and co-beverage director at Chicago’s The Whistler, referring to Gilka Kaiser-Kümmel. The unique caraway and pepper notes (the latter is dominant in the Gilka brand, in particular) immediately intrigued. In the South Pole Swizzle, those flavors are a balancing addition to the tiki trio of passion fruit syrup, citrus, bitters and gin.

“You wouldn’t think to use kümmel in a tiki drink,” says Helmkamp. “But that’s exactly what we did.”