Ginjinha is a sweet liqueur unique to Portugal, made by adding small sour cherries, known as ginja, to Portuguese brandy (aguardente, which loosely translates as firewater!). This mixture, along with some sugar and other ingredients, is left to infuse in a similar way to sloe gin, and produces a rich ruby-red drink. It is enjoyed as both aperitif and digestif, or whenever the fancy takes you.
Ginjinha is associated with three places in Portugal in particular. The towns of Óbidos and Alcobaça have a production which dates back to the 19th century and local cultivation of the essential ginja fruit. Each has their own recipe: In the case of the Alcobaça it is the Cistercian Monks, for whom the famous monastery was built in the 12th century, who are credited with perfecting their mix of only natural ingredients. In the mediaeval town of Óbidos various family-owned businesses compete for the title of ‘the’ Ginja de Óbidos, and the recipe is, again, linked to the ancient practices of a religious order. What gives Óbidos ginjina an edge, however, is that it is served in edible chocolate cups!
This said, for what many would claim the quintessential ginjinha experience, you need to go to one of the tiny open fronted ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type bars in central Lisbon where you ask for one ‘com elas’ or ‘sem elas’, meaning with or without the fruit in your glass. With only enough room for about 4 standing customers, you then take your tiny glass outside, congregate with other ginja drinkers, equally local and tourist, and enjoy.
The most famous is in ‘A Ginjinha’ in Largo São Domingos, just next to the National Theatre on Rossio Square. It was established in 1840 to sell the first example of the drink in the country. A Galician friar by the name of Francisco Espinheira is credited with having invented ginjinha and the attractive bottles lining up here still bear his name.
In adjacent streets you will find another two – perfect for a little tour of comparison! The attractively old-fashioned Ginjinha Sem Rival (Rua Portas de Santo Antão) is also from the 1800s. Ginjinha Rubi (Rua Barros Queirós), founded in 1831, has a little more room indoors and some traditional azulejo friezes depicting the harvest, production and enjoyment of their fare. The most modern of the lot, Ginjinha do Carmo, is the other side of the city centre, where it has revived an old ginja establishment from the 1830s attractively shoehorned into the bottom of a set of Lisbon’s trademark steps.