Every Portuguese person knows of the existence of two highly-guarded secret recipes in all of Portugal. The first is the recipe for Pastéis de Belém (known to six people); the second is the recipe for Licor Beirão (known only to two). So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to visit the Licor Beirão distillery, which isn’t open to the general public. I would actually get to see how this delicious drink was made and gain insider knowledge on the recipe that makes this drink so special. Spoiler alert: I learned a great deal about both the production and the recipe and I am sharing it all with you here.
The distillery is set in a rural area by a town called Lousã. Driving up through the gates, you come across a modern building to your right and a large orchard on your left. I met my guides who took me around the distillery whilst explaining how this liqueur was made and how it all began.
The origins of the drink began in the 19th century. A drinkable concoction of various herbs, said to cure stomach problems, was sold at a pharmacy in Lousã. The daughter of the man who originally produced this medicine married a young salesman in the port wine business. The rest, as the say, is history! He decided to manufacture it as a commercial beverage – not medicine – and pursue the business full time. And I can see why: medicine shouldn’t taste this good! But I’m not the only one who thinks so: it was awarded its first gold medal in a competition in 1929.
But it was José Carranca Redondo, the man featured in this image, who really put Licor Beirão on the map. With his iconic advertizing campaigns, Licor Beirão became known as the “liqueur of Portugal” (o licor de Portugal). Today, Licor Beirão is still a family-run business. And it is also the #1 best selling alcoholic spirit in Portugal with circa 3.5 – 4 million bottles sold. But this number actually takes on a very different meaning when you realize the amount of manual labor that goes into the process…
Something most people don’t realize is that Licor Beirão still has a very manual side to its manufacturing, unlike other drinks nowadays, which are all machine-produced. The ribbon around each bottle is hand-tied by several women who tie up to 25,000-30,000 ribbons a day! Can you imagine?! Once the ribbon is attached and the contents poured into the bottle, labels are placed (this time by a machine) and another person manually checks that each label is stuck correctly. When they aren’t, they get sent back and re-done. It’s wonderful to see how much pride goes into each single bottle to ensure only the highest quality.
Even more impressive: each miniature bottle of Licor Beirão is hand-decorated (ribbon and stickers)! I will never look at a miniature Licor Beirão bottle in the same way again.
“But what about the secret recipe?”, you ask. That’s what I wanted to know too! Ok, so everything I’ve found online only names four of the 13 aromatic herbs and spices that go into this exquisite elixir: eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary (just like my logo!) and lavender. I can officially reveal a few other ingredients: aniseed, orange, mint, and oregano. Some of the ingredients are picked directly from the orchard on the distillery’s grounds. The ingredients are soaked in alcohol for at least 30 days before undergoing a double distillation process where it is mixed with sugar (which gives the drink its distinctive golden color), and spring water directly from the Serra da Lousã. The exact quantities of all these ingredients are known only to founder José Carranca Redondo’s son and one of his sons. The orchard also grows pear trees which are used to make limited edition brandy, each with a pear growing inside.
Our fascinating tour ended – naturally – with a drink at the bar in the modern building we saw as we came in. We talked about how some of the people who work at the distillery have been working there their whole lives and how the company is basically one big family (around an actual family). We drank our Licor Beirão in a traditional way: on the rocks with an orange peel. So simple, yet so delicious! We also discussed how young people in Portugal were using Licor Beirão in cocktails and even I was surprised by how versatile the drink was. I had only tried Caipirão cocktails before, but there’s a whole world of Licor Beirão cocktails – and food recipes – waiting to be discovered. We even experimented a little by mixing it with some bourbon and it (perhaps not too surprisingly) worked nicely.
Did I find out the secret recipe for this drink? Not exactly; but I did get an insider’s view of the ingredients and the production process, which I never realized was so interesting. I had an amazing time at the Licor Beirão distillery and really got to know more about this drink that is so ingrained in Portuguese culture. After witnessing the attention to detail, manual touches and the quality ingredients that go into creating this product, I fully understand why it’s known as the liqueur of Portugal.