On my very first trip to Lisbon in 2006, I discovered a sweet, herby liqueur and promptly fell in love with it. And with Lisbon, of course.
It took a while to learn the name; I’m a visual language learner and need to see things written down before they stick. Luckily, after several requests for “Beyoo”, “Bayow” and “Bowee”, a bemused waiter realised that I was after Licor Beirão, showed me the bottle and taught me how to say it properly (it’s bayrowng, by the way).
At that time, I was living in Venezuela and had to eke out the one bottle of the precious amber liquid that I was allowed to take home. It’s not the reason I moved to Portugal but by happy coincidence, here I am, reunited with Licor Beirão.
It’s popular among the Portuguese, too.
Look on the shelves in any pasteleria, restaurant or bar in central Portugal and you’ll spot a bottle. I’ve also noticed Licor Beirão stalls cropping up at festivals and events around the country.
The drink has been around for over 150 years so to attract the younger crowd and prevent it from becoming just something your granny drinks, the company invented the ‘Caipirão‘. A twist on the Brazilian cocktail, caipirinha, simply mix Beirão with crushed ice and lime instead of rum. Personally, I like mine straight, on the rocks. If you prefer to fiddle with your drinks, there are more cocktail ideas on the website.
Licor Beirão started life as a medicinal product but when the law changed, it was sold as a liqueur. The present company took over production in 1940 and keeps the recipe well under wraps. Some of the secret aromatic plants and seeds are grown locally, in Lousã. Others are brought in from places like Sri Lanka, Brazil and Turkey for a touch of the exotic.
Tour of the Licor Beirão Factory in Lousã
I visited the factory in Lousã to find out how it’s made but I couldn’t persuade the owner to reveal his secret recipe.
We were greeted by the owner, José Redondo, who inherited the business from his father and now runs it with his own son, Daniel. We stood amid the clanking, hissing and whirring of the bottling machinery, trying to identify the scents of the spices that were mingled in the air as he began to explain the packaging process.
A group of workers stood at the beginning of the conveyor belt, applying gold ribbons to the distinctive green bottles by hand. Once this is done, the bottles are filled and the rest of the labels attached by a series of machines until they’re ready to be boxed up in an impressive display of hydraulics and automation.
This was all very interesting but what we really wanted to know is the secret recipe of herbs and spices that make the unique natural flavour of Licor Beirão. José led us into another building, past steaming copper distilling contraptions and rows of shiny steel vats. The smell of aniseed was strong here. In a small central room, sacks of spices imported from far flung corners of the world were stacked, waiting to be ground and macerated in pure alcohol.
José reached into a wooden box and pulled out a handful of coriander seeds to show us, then a handful of mint leaves, some oregano and aniseed. Whilst he was happy to tell us which spices are used, the exact recipe remains a family secret and is known only to José and Daniel. Every week, he personally weighs out the required quantities that are used to produce around 4 million bottles of this lovely liquid every year.
We followed him back to the main building and up to the bar / mini museum area where a photo of his father graces the walls alongside the history of Licor Beiraõ. I happily accepted a glass of Beirão on the rocks and took in the framed posters from the company’s notorious advertising campaigns.
Hearing laughter, I wandered across to where José was having fun with a small wooden box. This time, he’s willing to share the secret with us and showed us the trick to opening it.
This post forms part of my personal A-Z of Portugal.
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