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Toasting to a cherry good time in Lisbon

Sipping a shot of the delicious Portuguese cherry liqueur of ginjinha at one of Lisbon’s many, tiny hole-in-the-wall traditional bars

Ginjinha is a traditional cherry liqueur in Portugal.
Ginjinha is a traditional cherry liqueur in Portugal. (Istockphoto)

The genial septuagenarian behind the bar counter tells me that I remind him of the late Anthony Bourdain. And not because said bartender is some sort of a clairvoyant who realises that I, too, am a food and travel writer. Certainly not for any physical resemblance, I can assure you. Interestingly, it’s for the number of (five) shot glasses of the garnet-hued liquid I’ve just sipped, he tells me. For the late Bourdain had just as many when he had visited.

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I am standing outside a seemingly non-descript, yet steeped in history, hole-in-the-wall bar. One, that like most of its kind, is simply called by the generic ‘A Ginjinha’ or ‘a ginjinha place’ in Portuguese. Established in 1840, the bar along central Lisbon’s Praça de São Domingos is where Bourdain filmed part of an episode of his food and travel television show, No Reservations, over a decade ago. A segment from the episode was dedicated to one of the most unique tangible cultural icons of Portuguese culture, the sweet and spicy local liqueur called ginjinha, made from one of my favourite things ever, cherries.

Cheery cherry
Given the Portuguese’s predilection for shortening names, ginjinha (pronounced zhin-zhinya) is also known as ginja. Incidentally, the sour morello cherries used to make it are called by this name in Portuguese. The cherries with pits are soaked in a clear spirit called aguardente. It is not uncommon to even use a neutral spirit like vodka, I’m told. A boiled and cooled syrup of sugar and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are then added to the cherry and spirit mixture and allowed to mature for a few months before serving. It’s like a mulled-wine-meets-cherry-brandy.

Though seemingly innocuous, it packs quite a deceptive little punch. Especially after five shot glasses are down the hatch. And with each shot costing as little as €1 or €1.50 ( 90-135 approx.) at the very most, it’s easy to see why.

History special
So taken in am I by this truly scrumptious libation—that tastes like the result of a throupling of the sweet American Leroux cherry brandy, a dry German kirsch and the almond-y Amaretto liqueur—that I seek out its historical underpinnings from my friend and Lisbon host Ignacio Pereira, who is also a fellow food writer.

He tells me, that, like scores of other alcoholic drinks—be it Trappist beer or chartreuse liquor—ginjinha is believed to be the invention of a man of the cloth (any priest or member of the clergy is informally called man of the cloth). But not a Portuguese one. Allegedly—and this is subject to conjecture—Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar of the Church of Santo António, accidentally came up with the drink in the early 1800s while soaking cherries in alcohol to go into a Christmas cake.

With Spain’s autonomous region of Galicia bordering northern Portugal, ginjinha trickled down (pun intended) towards the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where it became the de facto city drink. But it was at the aforementioned, A Ginjinha of the Praça de São Domingos, where it got its name and fame.

Of sips and saúde
Like most iconic drinks around the world, this one, too, comes with its own quirks and social mores. The only real choice one has when calling for a ginjinha is for it to come with (com elas) or without (sem elas) a couple of the long-macerating cherries in it. An ardent cherry devotee, I’ve only ever had it ‘with’ and have never regretted that choice. Though the risk of choking on a cherry pit or two is much more potent after a couple of glasses. And yes, the projectile spit shooting of said pit onto the pavement is not only tolerated, but encouraged, even.

And how one chooses to drink ginjinha is a great way to separate the tourists from a true blue Lisbonite. Just like in Italy where the locals will never be caught dead sitting down and languorously drinking an espresso, the Lisbonites, too, prefer to drink it standing. Hurriedly sipping their ginjinha, standing outside the tiny bars; sidling up to the counter to pick up their next pour of the very more-ish tasting yummy liqueur; and shouting out a lusty “saúde!” (cheers in Portuguese) to random strangers, every time they take their first sip of a fresh ginjinha shot is de rigueur.

New directions

Perchance, if the bar is the more modern kind of establishment, one can expect to find their shot of ginjinha contained in a hollowed out chocolate shell shot glass. I’m told that this idea is not a very traditional one, and came about only a decade or so ago. And yes, one is very much expected to munch down on the glass once it is drained off its scrumptious contents.

Today, many bars around Lisbon have cottoned onto the ginjinha 2.0 trend as it is known in the city. They’re doing this by making several delicious ginjinha-based cocktails. All in a bid, they say, to entice the younger generation into the realm of this drink; one that has culture and history distilled in every single drop.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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