Ahhh Biska!

In urban myth Tequila is flavoured by a worm in each bottle. This is, of course, untrue. Only certain types of Mezcal (similar to Tequila) bottles have worms – and even those aren’t worms, they’re moth larvae from the Agave plants that are fermented to make the drink. Not worms, and not in Tequila.

Popular belief will also tell you that mistletoe is toxic, dangerously so. So you might think it’s a myth that there’s a Croatian Brandy flavoured with mistletoe, sometimes with a sprig in each bottle.

But the myth here is about the toxicity not the brandy. Mistletoe is toxic, but not dangerously so. Indeed it is a popular herbal tea across much of Europe. And the brandy – known as Biska – definitely exists.

Until last year I’d never tried it but, just before Christmas 2019, some friends brought me back a bottle from their travels in Croatia (thank you Mark and Klay!). This is it (above and right) carefully posed with some, er, mistletoe (I do like my pictures to have context).

It’s interesting stuff, a little rough perhaps and also cloudy, definitely brandy but with a distinct flavour to it – which is not solely due to mistletoe, herbs are added too.  It reminded me, oddly, of whisky.

This got me thinking about how it is made and what range there might be in manufacturers, so I did a l little research back then, updated recently for this blog.

The first, and most unexpected, issue that came to light is that there may be two mistletoe species involved. White Mistletoe – our familiar evergreen Viscum album – and Yellow Mistletoe, Loranthus europeaus, which occurs in central southern Europe . This differs from Viscum in having yellow berries, regularly growing on oak (rare for Viscum) and – key fact alert – being deciduous.  It doesn’t keep its leaves in winter.

Two mistletoes? This could get confusing. And it does.

Most accounts of Biska stress that it is made with White Mistletoe and added herbs. Which is what I expected. The main centre of Biska production seems to be the tiny town (population just 30 according to wikipedia) of Hum which calls itself ‘the town of Biska’.  Hum has a tradition of making mistletoe brandy, inspired by a historic recipe apparently recorded for posterity by Josip Vidov, a herbalist-priest who lived there. Today the town has a Festival of Rakija (brandy) to promote production of various distilled spirits – with a bewildering variety of flavours including nettle, juniper, sage, lemon balm, spruce, lime, spices, liquorice, herbs and fruit.

If you google Biska you’ll find various brands, most saying it is made with White Mistletoe, and sometimes making interesting claims for its medicinal properties. Presentation and bottle style varies immensely – see some pictures below:

The Yellow Mistletoe references are a little harder to spot – but one of the first, spotted last Christmas, was triggered by that bottle brought back from Croatia. The ingredients list label simply says it contains alcohol and mistletoe leaf extract – no identity is given for the mistletoe.  But, on websites listing this particular Biska (e.g. this one), it is described as

“obtained by soaking the leaves of yellow mistletoe (Loranthus europeus) in komovica [a type of brandy].

That seems fairly definitive. Yellow mistletoe!

But a fuller description, on the same website, goes on to list the ingredients as

“komovica brandy, white mistletoe”

A complete contradiction.

So which is it? It’s impossible to say without further information.

It is tempting to suggest that all Biska is made with White Mistletoe and that references to Yellow Mistletoe are errors, or even translation mistakes. After all, White Mistletoe is the evergreen one, and the accounts of making it do suggest the leaves are harvested in winter – when Yellow Mistletoe would have no leaves.

But I suspect there is some use of Yellow, at least for some versions.

Here’s a promotional picture (below), from a website promoting Biska and Hum, that shows a bottle of Biska set amongst some mistletoe sprigs. But those aren’t White Mistletoe sprigs. The leaf shape, leaf positions and branching patterns are all wrong. It is Yellow Mistletoe, Loranthus europeaus.

And here (below) is another contradictory one (from this website), the bottle being promoted against a background of some oak branches complete with Yellow Mistletoe growths across the front of the bottle (though the description, below the pictures, claims the mistletoe is gathered in winter from apple trees – which would be White Mistletoe):

I do wish they would make their minds up about which mistletoe is in which bottle.

For more about mistletoe visit the Mistletoe Pages website.

And if you do want to grow mistletoe why not try a Mistletoe Grow-Kit?  Available from the English Mistletoe Shop website at englishmistletoeshop.co.uk