Tucked underneath the switchbacks and stairways that separate Bairro Alto from Lisbon’s historic core, where the sound of steel on steel sparks the air outside Rossio Station, a line begins to form outside a stone cavern with enough room for two purveyors and two customers. Inside, glass bottles filled with ruby-colored liquid called ginjinha spread from wall to wall. As the evening light retreats, the sour cherry liqueur pours into hundreds of shot glasses and grooved chocolate cups that look like the paper surrounding miniature Reese’s.
Made from aguardente (an overarching term for “burning water” applied to a multitude of distillates), Morello cherries, sugar and a secret mix of spices (often including clove and cinnamon); ginjinha— or ginja as the locals call it—traces its history back to Galician friar Francisco Espinheira of the Church of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa). The first ginja bar (Ginjinha Espinheira) opened in Lisbon in 1840 and is now in the hands of the fifth generation. Today, over 150,000 liters of the bittersweet liqueur are produced each year with 90% being consumed in Portugal and most of the remainder making its way to the United States (sometimes in luggage).
Tobin Shea, bar director of Downtown Los Angeles’ Redbird, finds ginja to be a superior option to sloe gin when it comes to making cocktails and jumps on every opportunity he can to get a bottle: “Every time I hear someone is going to Portugal, I have them get me two bottles.” Currently, he looks to use it in a traditional Charlie Chaplin cocktail (equal parts apricot brandy, sloe gin and fresh squeezed lime juice), but his ideal version comes with a more Portuguese bent: ginjinha Avuá cachaça, ruby Port and apricot wine. In good news for Tobin, Lisbon continues to rise in popularity as a destination.
Featured on list after list of where to go in 2023, the Portuguese capital’s white tile streets are awash with tourists and wanderlust-stricken expats who pour themselves into the city’s historic neighborhoods. The Church of Santo António of Lisbon sits at the edge of Baixa (Lisbon’s cultural heart and commercial center), with four of the most famous ginjinha bars located within one kilometer of one another.
First opening in the mid-1930s, Ginginha do Carmo (the stone cavern under the stairs adjacent to Rossio Station) reopened its doors in 2011, an ode to the rising popularity of Lisbon as a tourist destination, and ginja as the in-the-know “local’s” go-to way to start or end a day or evening. It’s not just local bars taking interest in the liqueur’s meteoric rise in popularity—a variety of other Portuguese cities now also make their own version, including Alcobaça, Marvão, Algarve and Serra da Estrela—the latter of which is now a protected designation of origin— and Óbidos, which popularized the use of chocolate cups. Stateside, two options are currently accessible: the classic Espinheira Ginja and Ginja D’Óbidos. Espinheira leans more light and a smidge bitter, while the version from Óbidos tends to be sweeter and a touch viscid. For Tobin, it’s all about managing those levels of sweetness and viscosity: “I prefer it sweet, but not syrupy.”
Charlie Chaplin Ginjinha Cocktail
Courtesy Tobin Shea, Bar Director, Redbird, Los Angeles
In an ice-filled shaker, add all ingredients. Shake and strain into collins glass, add ice and top with soda water. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: June 6, 2023