A legend with a twist

These eight notes are sufficient for anyone who has grown up in Germany to recognise what the product is: the beginning of the "Colonel Bogey March", which immediately conjures up an image of a small bottle of herbal digestif wrapped in a twist of khaki paper – rather than the "Bridge on the River Kwai". The march whistled in that classic film by prisoners of war has, for decades, been the signature tune for Underberg, one of the most revered brands in the Lower Rhine region. It was Emil Underberg who had this brilliant marketing idea. Today, this traditional company that started in Rheinberg is managed by his daughter, Hubertine Underberg-Ruder, who lives at the headquarters of the Swiss parent company, and represents the fifth generation of the company. The Underberg Group achieves an annual turnover of around 500 m euros and employs a staff of about 900.

The view from the large panoramic window shows the wonderfully green herb garden of the Underberg family. However, what one will not find here is the secret ingredients gathered from 43 different countries that are used to make the famous digestive. "Here we grow kitchen herbs, aromatic herbs, herbs that were mentioned in the Bible, and many more", explains Dr Hubertine Underberg-Ruder with a smile. Today, she is one of the faces of the enterprise, which is headed by her husband, Franz Ruder, and her parents. Emil and Christiane Underberg. The idea of the family is a central aspect in the company's traditional home near the market place that has defined the image of tranquil Rheinberg, near Wesel, since the mid-19th century. The foundation stone of this building, and of the company's success, was laid by Hubert Underberg in 1846, who launched this unique beverage.

In the large room overlooking the terrace, his descendant tells the story of its success: "My great great grandfather was originally in a business that, today, would be called a chemist's. During his training course, he visited a number of different countries and came into contact with many interesting drinks." He was particularly taken by Boonekamp, a kind of juniper-based herbal elixir. "But he quickly noticed that it tasted different in every pub that served it", explains Dr Underberg-Ruder, who did her doctorate in biology. This led him to think up an idea for a product whose quality would always be the same and always have the same effect. The Latin motto of the company is "Semper Idem", which translates as "always the same". But that does not mean "always the same recipe," she emphasises. "We believe in taking any necessary action that will make the product even better. This is the same approach that my great great grandfather, the visionary, also pursued." Right up to today, the company has avoided introducing any line extensions: "We are a single brand", stresses Hubertine Underberg-Ruder.

In Rheinberg, people emphasise the uniquely rounded flavour: "Our Underberg is neither a herbal liqueur nor a fernet", they say out in Underberg street. The recipe includes exclusively natural herbs, spring water and alcohol – nothing else. This is, as it were, the Underberg purity decree. The final product is created in the Lower Rhine region but bottled in Berlin, and that is a tradition, too – as one might expect. Adding sugar is frowned upon, which might explain why not many people under 30 know what the typical Underberg aroma is really like. "If everyone over 35 were to enjoy a regular Underberg after meals, in healthy quantities, that would be the best thing that could happen to us", says the great great granddaughter of the founder. And talking of health: for legal reasons, the company is not allowed to advertise with the claim but everyone in the family knows full well that the product has a beneficial effect on digestion after a "good meal" – and millions of customers are also convinced. This is guaranteed by the herbs sourced from 43 countries, of which only gentian is publicly known to be one. In every other respect, the recipe is a closely guarded secret, known only to the inner family circle and three Catholic clerics, who are friends of the family.

When talking about such a famous digestif, the question of one's favourite meals from the region must also crop up: "Just to choose one would be impossible for me", answers Hubertine Underberg-Ruder. "One of my favourites is potato fritters with stewed apple, but another is traditional marinated braised beef." As a snack, I love sweet bread with raisins in it and a slice of Gouda cheese, "From the Lower Rhine, of course, with sweet apple spread".

Semper idem Underberg GmbH
Hubert-Underberg-Allee 1
47495 Rheinberg

Phone:  +49 2843 92039-0
Fax:  +49 2843 92052-2


As of 2016