Portugal’s Devotion to Ginja: A Cherry Liqueur Mainstay

Slightly off Rossio Square, which is Lisbon’s unofficial center, are a few standing-room-only bars. It’s obvious they have been around for ages, what with their vintage posters and decor. What catches my eye, besides their colorful facades, is their non-ending stream of customers. Many are older men with weathered faces and pot bellies. One man enters with his wife and small child, all dressed in their Sunday best. Some are tourists.

“Com ou sem fruta?” is asked of all customers as euros slide across the tiny counters in exchange for a shot glass of ginja with or without fermented cherries inside.

At its inception centuries ago, ginja was used for digestive purposes. Eventually the sweet liqueur made its way to wealthy clients, then into fado establishments. Today the drink enjoys record popularity and is sold everywhere. Lisbon’s ginja bars open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Lisbon’s Ginja Bars Are the Real Deal

“These four Rossio Square ginja bars are the most famous. Ownership passes from generation to generation, some at the fifth level,” said Filomena Brás, part-owner of Experience Portugal Travel, a top-notch tour company. She’s my guide for the day and watches alongside me as ginja-drinking customers come and go at A. Ginjinha bar, located at Largo São Domingos 8.

Ginjinha Sem Rival Bar in Lisbon
Typical ginja bars are often a hole in the wall. Just walk in and buy a shot. Photo credit: Judith Glynn. FWT Magazine.

As I stalk them, I sense the brilliant-red, pick-me-up with a pungent cherry aroma and alcohol potency around 18 percent just might be an addiction for many. It isn’t even noon and customers, many familiar to the barkeeper, throw back a shot(s) in one gulp, wipe their mouth and walk out. One man buys his daily bottle. Women seem to be sippers. Tourists take photos and younger girls giggle holding the plastic shot glass. “We were told we had to try this in Lisbon,” one remarks.  Drinking age is 18 in Portugal.

How and Where the First Sip Began

Blame the Romans for the hoopla. They brought Morello cherry (ginja) trees to Óbidos, a medieval town about an hour’s drive north from Lisbon, also famous for its castle that King Dom Dinis gifted to his wife Santa Isabel in the 13th century. Much later, nuns incorporated the small red cherries into desserts especially since they are too sour to eat. When a friar put the berries in Portuguese aguardente, added sugar, water and cinnamon and let the concoction ferment, the result was ginja liqueur, also referred to as ginjinha — both consumed with a passion.

Óbidos on a Ginja High

“There’s a big fight about quality. Everyone says their brand is the best,” Filomena said, as we drive to Óbidos where the best brands originate and where the liqueur got its first big marketing push. Her business partner, Jorge (George) Lourenço, accompanies us.

Obdios street scene
Narrow streets are the norm in Óbidos, home to ginja, and about an hour’s drive north from Lisbon. Photo credit: Município de Óbidos. FWT Magazine.

I have enough travel-writing under my byline to cringe when a once-quaint medieval town like Óbidos turns touristy. Shop after shop here on the main street offer ginja in a plastic shot glass or in a one-inch-deep, dark chocolate candy cup to be eaten or not. The latter was introduced about a decade ago, mainly for tourists, at the town’s International Chocolate Festival (March).

“This is the best place to drink ginja in Óbidos and where its growth began.” George said escorting us into dark and funky Bar Ibn Errik Rex, located at the end of Rua Direita.

According to legend, the former antiques shop was owned by a woman whose marketing strategy was to offer homemade ginja with a purchase. When a man came into her life and saw the people were more attracted to ginja than the antiques, the village liqueur replaced the antiques. The rest is history.

Bar Ibn Errik Rex in Obidos.
Nothing finer at Bar Ibn Errik Rex in Obdios than linguica cooking, cheese, fresh bread and homemade ginja. Photo credit: Judith Glynn. FWT Magazine.

Do visit Bar Ibn Errik Rex with some antique relics still on view alongside old ginja bottles. Order a terra-cotta slotted dish with linguica cooking on top. Complement the small meal with cheese, bread and homemade ginja. This is where I forget about refusing ginja all day to maintain research alertness. A shot was poured, slid my way and down it went, slowly. Reaction: a sweet yet robust drink similar to port. A small bottle of Ginja Nobre, the restaurant’s homemade brand, was slipped into my purse.

Atop a nearby hill is the luxury-laden Pousada Castello Obidos, transformed from the gifted castle into a stunning government-run hotel with 14 double rooms and three suites (eight more in a new wing). Worth an overnight or walk in the castle’s gardens.

See Where Ginja Is Made

When a company owns approximately 25,000 ginja trees spread over 62,000 acres (25 hectares), it’s no wonder LicObidos is a major player as manufacturer and distributor of all things ginja. Jam is in their future. Filomena and George took me to their Gaeiras plant, family-owned for 50 years and winner of top awards. You can visit by special request.

Harvested red cherries (ginja) from Obidos
Harvested bright red cherries will become ginja when fermented with alcohol and other ingredients. Photo credit: LicObidos

June and July is the fruit’s harvest (farms can be visited). Fermentation at the plant is year-long. Gleaming machinery and workers in sterile garb produce 2,000 bottles of ginja an hour.

LicObidos takes credit for introducing the Belgium dark chocolate ginja cup into the marketplace. It’s possible to buy them and other products at the company store.

Tailor-Made Itinerary for Authentic Portugal

Guides extraordinaire, Filomena Brás and Jorge (George) Lourenço, logged countless miles throughout Portugal to form their tailor-made Experience Portugal Travel tour company. It services individual clients or tours in a van for eight. The duo are corporate drop-outs. In George’s case, 25 years as an operations manager.

“We once saw a Chinese tourist drink beer with pastel de nata (pastry) and knew he wasn’t having an authentic Portugal experience,” Filomena said on our way back to Lisbon. “Why are people going to Starbucks and McDonald’s in Portugal? Big tour busses go to the same places because they get commissions. I don’t work with tourists, I work with travelers to Portugal,” she said.

Contact Experience Portugal Travel about your trip and expect a personal call from Filomena (usually via Skype). No itinerary or budget limit. She’ll even meet you when you arrive in her country.

Porto Bay Liberdade Is a Luxurious Oasis

Run, don’t walk, to the elegant and luxurious Porto Bay Liberdade in Lisbon. Rossio Square and those famous ginja bars are close by. The new boutique hotel is the latest addition to the Porto Bay Hotels & Resorts organization based in Madeira.

A row of three apartment buildings on a quiet Lisbon side street, right off the once-neglected Liberdade boulevard, were beautifully refurbished by Architect Frederico Valsassina who preserved the historic facades. The 98 elegant hotel rooms are spacious, painted soft colors, complemented by gleaming wood and aviator décor. Three extra floors were added on top of each building, earning the hotel well-deserved accolades and reviews.

If You Go

Contact Portugal’s office tourism office for information about Lisbon and all of Portugal. For contacts in this article, please refer to the links where they are referenced.

Judith Glynn

Judith Glynn’s intuitive curiosity when researching a destination results in detailed and eclectic travel articles. She encourages the locals to chime in, which adds a distinct touch. Judith is the author of A Collector of Affections and The Street or Me. She resides in New York City and Rhode Island.