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American-Made Génépy Has Arrived

February 28, 2020

Story: Laurel Miller

photo: Lizzie Munro

A close cousin of Chartreuse, the herbal liqueur is forging a new identity stateside.

For centuries, French-Swiss alpinists have consumed herbal génépy (called génépi in Italy) as a restorative and post-fondue digestif. Stateside, however, the traditional liqueur had, for many years, remained little more than a curiosity. That is, until importer Haus Alpenz began bringing in Dolin Génépy des Alpes in 2013, contributing to the straw-colored liquid’s current cult status among American bartenders. Now, it’s caught the attention of American craft distillers too.

More subtle and floral in nature than its relatives Chartreuse and absinthe, génépy is made from “lesser” wormwoods that grow in craggy nooks at high elevations—a proclivity that makes the plants difficult to cultivate. After a single bloom in late summer, the white and yellow flowers are harvested and dried, stems on. Most commercially distilled génépy is made by macerating the dried flowers in high-proof neutral spirit and sweetening it into a liqueur. But a more obscure tradition, practiced in génépy’s place of origin, the Savoy and the adjacent Aosta Valley, calls for a wine base instead—it’s this interpretation that has long interested Aaron Fox and Daniel de la Nuez of Brooklyn’s Forthave Spirits.

The duo has a passion for crafting arcane botanical spirits, which they categorize by color (the forthcoming génépy, out in April, will be branded “Yellow,” which joins an amaro, “Brown,” an Italian-style bitter liqueur, “Red,” and an American gin, “Blue”), but they’re also driven by their own personal tastes. “We were inspired to make génépy because we love it,” says Fox. “We’re less concerned with market opportunity and instead are guided by our curiosity and palates.”

Forthave sources flowers from a friend in the Savoy who grows white génépi and allots them a small portion of the annual harvest (the rest goes to local producers); the distillery macerates the flowers twice before infusing them into a fortified wine base fermented from Cayuga grapes grown by Liten Buffel in Middleport, New York. Winemaker Zack Klug, who specializes in low-intervention releases, worked with Forthave to develop a cuvée that would complement the notes of elder, chamomile and papaya that are released during maceration. “We wanted something clean, high-acid and very precise, similar to Chablis. The Cayuga is lemony and high-toned with some minerality, and dovetails well with the floral elements,” explains de la Nuez.

Those pronounced characteristics are balanced with a touch of raw turbinado sugar, resulting in an aperitif that offers an alternative to the brasher, spirit-based génépy expressions currently on the market. “We wanted something lighter and delicate that could be consumed on the rocks or in a soda or Spritz,” says de la Nuez.

Forthave’s Yellow comes on the heels of two other American-born génépy liqueurs, although it remains the only wine-based iteration to date. In 2016, Colorado’s Golden Moon Distillery released Ex Gratia, a liqueur augmented by “exotic herbs and spices,” and two years ago, Milwaukee-based Heirloom Liqueurs, founded by Nicholas Kosevich, Ira Koplowitz and Brandon Reyes of Bittercube, released its own version, produced at Minneapolis’s Lawless Distilling. The latter is infused with 28 different botanicals including tarragon, domestically grown Artemisia absinthium and Midwestern sunflowers, all sweetened by a small quantity of regional honey. “The sunflowers lend a gentle nuttiness that enhances the chocolate notes in the wormwood,” says Reyes. “It was a way to put our stamp on it.”

After nearly 200 years as the reigning elixir of the Western Alps, génépy is forging a new identity in America at the hands of distillers with a thirst for lesser-known spirits. The inspiration, it seems, is infinite. “We’re always investigating new botanicals to work with,” says Fox. “Whether they’re inspired from history, our travels or found in our own backyard.”