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What is Byrrh?

By Laura Evans
Updated May 16, 2024
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Byrrh is a French beverage that is consumed before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Developed in 1866, this aperitif is a combination of red wine and quinine water, although tonic water can be used instead of quinine. In addition, the wine can include spices such as Ceylon cinnamon as well as elderberry peel and cacao. Grapes used to make this wine include Grenache, Carignan and Muscat. Production of this wine beverage centers in Thuir, France.

Developed by two French brothers, Simon and Pallade Violet, who were drapers, the aperitif was originally sold as a tonic in pharmacies and then later, to restaurants and bars. Drapers were men who sold cloth or clothing. After a lawsuit was filed by the French pharmacist union, the Violets dropped references to quinine and advertised the beverage under the Byrrh label.

Many art nouveau and art deco posters were created to advertise this aperitif, including one that was made in the early 1900s by Austrian illustrator Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917). Kirchner's work was quite risqué for his time. His illustrations were quite popular with soldiers fighting in World War I.

Although production of Byrrh continues in Thuir today, the popularity of the drink started to wane around World War II. In addition, the Violet family is no longer in the business of producing this aperitif. This red wine beverage is rarely exported from France and is hard to find in the United States.

Byrrh should be served cool. The aperitif has a citric or orange aroma and can be paired with olives or nuts. In addition to the "regular" quality red wine mix that is aged for three years, a more expensive variation is available that ages for almost ten years, uses higher quality wines, and has a richer taste.

This red wine beverage can be enjoyed by itself or with a twist of lemon or orange peel. In addition, Byrrh is also a component of mixed drinks. For example, two ounces (about 57 grams) crème de cassis and four oucnes (about 114 grams) of Byrrh combined with soda water results in two servings of “ Byrrh Cassis” that should be served over ice. Another variation for two servings of a mixed drink using this aperitif is two ounces (about 57 grams) rye, two ounces (about 57 grams) dry vermouth and two ounces (about 57 grams) byrrh shaken over ice, strained, and served.

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