Drink Like Royalty: Berry Bros. & Rudd's King's Ginger Hits America

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Created specifically for King Edward VII by this centuries-old London merchant, King's Ginger is finally available on American shelves.

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In the summer of 1903 King Edward VII could often be found touring the English countryside in a luxurious "horseless carriage" -- a topless Daimler, of course, fitting his German heritage. The king, who had only recently ascended to the throne after the long reign of his mother, Queen Victoria, had spent most of his life as a famous playboy, a lover of good food and friendly women known to the wags as "Edward the Caresser." By the time he became king he was a corpulent 62 year old, plagued by occasional health problems, but hardly kept in check by them.

"When it first started it was exclusive to the nobility. Until about five years ago, the store didn't even put labels on the bottles."

And so his doctor, fearing the effect that so much damp air might have on His Aging Majesty, paid a visit to Berry Bros. and Rudd, a centuries-old London merchant that held the royal appointment for wine and spirits. He told them he needed some sort of liqueur that he could put in Edward's driving flask (those were the days) to fortify him against the elements. Berry Bros. soon returned with a brandy-based quaff infused with ginger and honey: the King's Ginger, they called it.

Edward loved the stuff. Not only did he drink it on the road, but he took the King's Ginger with him hunting, and made sure anyone who accompanied him on a shoot got some too. Edward died in 1910, but Berry Bros. kept producing it for the royal family -- and, as word spread, for much of the aristocracy, too. There was no fixed recipe, and it was only available at the Berry Bros. shop. In a good year they'd sell 250 cases or so.

"When it first started it was exclusive to the nobility," says David King, the marketing and strategy director for Berry Bros. "Until about five years ago, the store didn't even put labels on the bottles."

One day a young bartender showed up in the shop asking for a bottle; somehow he had come across a supply, and had found it made an excellent ingredient in a range of traditional and modern cocktails. The problem was, he told the shopkeeper, that while the quality was always high the taste was inconsistent. Was there any chance, he wondered, that Berry Bros. might start producing the King's Ginger for the masses? News of the visitor trickled up to King, who soon located a boutique distiller in the Netherlands to modernize and standardize the King's Ginger recipe.

The new version debuted in English liquor stores two years ago, and late last year began to appear on American shelves as well. Instead of brandy, the recipe calls for infusing grain-neutral spirits with ginger; it then mixes in lemon oil and distills the whole thing in a pot still. The not-so-secret ingredient -- Glenrothes single malt Scotch, another product in the Berry Bros. portfolio -- goes in next, along with a little sugar. The result is thick and sweet, with a warming ginger kick backed by a smooth honey and lemon coat.

It makes for a nice nip on a cold night, though most people use it for mixed drinks, says King, who is now president of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco (Berry Bros. is a major investor in the distillery, and though he now lives in California, King has kept his position there). King recommends using the King's Ginger in place of ginger syrup or triple sec, naturally, but also as an alternative to crème de cassis in a kir royale, or in place of Drambuie in a rusty nail.

It's gaining adherents in cooking, too; King's wife adds it to banana bread. "I'm learning every day about new ways people use it," he says. "I recently tried a ceviche made with the King's Ginger and lime."

Image: Berry Bros. & Rudd.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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