One of the more unusual features in the streets around Rossio, Lisbon’s bustling central square, are the small bars with their dated interiors selling ginjinha, the local name for morello cherry brandy.
Ginjinha from the bottle is available in most bars the length and breadth of Portugal, but only around Lisbon‘s Rossio Square can you find a scattering of cupboard-sized bars serving pure, high-quality ginjinha straight from the decanter.
But it’s easy to walk straight past and not even notice them. Their doorways are narrow and nondescript with a small 19th-century-style bar almost hidden inside with standing room only, so essentially there’s nowhere to sit down.
Traditionally, ginjinha should be drunk like a shot in a single gulp, straight ‘down the hatch’ as the popular expression goes.
However, the drink’s peculiar flavour is best appreciated with modest sips, and it’s even said to be good for the chest and helps with digestion, thus making it the perfect after-meal drink.
Ginjinha is a pungent liqueur, sweet but not sugary with a slow-burning fuse that’s only beginning to make its mark when it starts to warm the belly.
It is made by steeping the bitter morello cherries in a mixture of sugar and aguardente, a colourless Portuguese brandy. The resulting deep-red liqueur varies from 23% to 25%-proof alcohol.
Morello cherries originally came to Europe from south-east Asia centuries ago and today in Portugal are mainly grown in the central and northern regions of the country.
The bars specialising in ginjinha serve it with (com) or without (sem) the cherries, as you wish.
Try it com. You’ll find that the morello cherry has a surprising but not unpleasantly bitter taste that softens some of the sweetness in the mouth.
A shot of ginjinha is traditionally poured from a glass decanter, always with a wooden stopper, with a speed and skill that allows only two or three cherries to drop out before the glass fills to the brim.
First opened in 1840, the most famous of all the bars (and now the only one exclusively selling ginjinha is not surprisingly called A Ginjinha located on Largo de São Domingos, a stone’s throw from the Dona Maria II National Theatre.
And in very close proximity to A Ginjinha stands Ginjinha Sem Rival, a bar not much larger than its doorway, but the morello cherry brandy is just as good.
But you’ll probably want to visit them both, because one glass of ginjinha is simply never enough.