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Originally, the words kümmel, kummel, and kimmel are somewhat generic terms in the German, Dutch, and Yiddish languages, respectively, meaning both caraway and cumin. For instance, in German caraway is called Echter Kümmel and cumin is called Kreuzkümmel, but the term Kümmel is also used for the liqueur flavored with these spices.
According to the Dutch, kümmel liqueur was first distilled in Holland during the late 16th century by Lucas Bols. It was then taken to Germany and Russia; the latter is now the principal producer and consumer of kümmel.
The Berlin-made Gilka Kümmel goes through a longer distillation process and has a smoother taste than the Russian kümmels, and it has become the accepted standard of kümmel quality for the past century.
In the UK, it is a popular drink at many of the more traditional golf clubs.
In popular culture
A principal character drinks Gilka in the French film Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which is however set in Germany.
SS officer Kaempffer downs a glass after a frightening incident in The Keep (novel) by F. Paul Wilson.
In a Simenon's novel, Jules Maigret drinks kummel with his hostess while investigating a murder ("Maigret se fâche"). He doesn't like it and even despises it.
In Peter Straub's novel The Hellfire Club kummel is named as being frequently drunk by the character Davey Chancel, husband of the protagonist, because it was his favcurite author Hugo Driver's favourite drink.
On the other hand, in Dennis Wheatley's World War I novel, 'The Second Seal', a bottle of kummel is polished off by Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust and the Duc de Richeleau to celebrate the Duc's acceptance of a secret mission to Belgrade. The mission is aimed at stopping the outbreak of the Great War, and the Duke half-humorously threatens to back out unless Sir Pellinore gives him half the kummel. It is described as 'the real Russian kummel', indicating that Wheatley, a former wine merchant, rated that as the best quality of kummel. He probably meant Mentzendorff kummel, as it appears throughout his World War II novel 'The Scarlet Imposter' as both a reward and the basis for a code used by secret agent Gregory Sallust. Pre-(Great)War kummel is mentioned as the best type of Metzendorff "but now" laments one character, "not even Justerini's can get it".
Kummel is consumed in large quantities (mainly in golf clubs) across Europe and notably the UK with suppliers main focus in Scotland where its marketed as an after dinner liqueur. The smoothness and the natural release of jubilation involved in consumption has led to some golfers using it to enhance their golf game by taking a couple of mouthfuls before a round to relax first tee nerves. Some may even indulge in a streak or bullet which are a mix of kummel and vodka or gin respectively endorsed by top selling brand Wolfschmidt. The latter are normally reserved for the golfers with high anxiety on the first tee or those who have been duly fined for reasons set out in Angus Smithson's brainchild, the Kümmel Invitational - a tournament established in 2008 and now held twice a year The Nairn Golf Club and once at a specially selected 'away tour' course.
Kümmel consumption has seen a drastic increase across the whole of the UK since the invitational came to fruition and has flourished year on year. In 2012 the "Kümmelians Golf Society" was formed. Also based at The Nairn Golf Club, the original committee of Angus Smithson, George Asher and Dr. Alistair Adam aim to promote foursomes golf in the North of Scotland with a focus on the post-match social aspect and their favourite after-dinner tipple.
In the Ian Fleming novel Goldfinger, the drink is specifically mentioned in relation to golf. Fleming's spy James Bond muses about "the ten pound Nassaus with the tough cheery men who were always so anxious to stand you a couple of double kümmels after lunch."
Kümmel is mentioned in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. The main character, while in a hospital, drinks kümmel from a bear shaped bottle.