Though the inherently bitter gentian root finds its way into many back bar staples, from Cocchi Americano to Campari, in Suze, it stands apart. With its unique amber-colored bottle—largely unchanged since it was first introduced more than a century ago—this distinctive, lightly vegetal and very bitter liqueur is also deceptively versatile.
When distillery owner Fernand Moureaux introduced Suze to the French market in 1889, he intended it to compete with existing bitters brands like Picon, Cusenier and St. Raphaël. But he broke from tradition with his vision for a version of the gentian aperitif made without wine, distilling the root and infusing it with a unique bouquet of herbs and fruit extracts.
How the liqueur came to be known as Suze is a more widely debated history: By one account, it was named for a river in Switzerland, while an alternate theory suggests that it derives its name from that of its founder’s sister-in-law, Suzanne Jaspart, who sang the praises of the aperitif upon first sampling it.
She wasn’t alone, either. Following its introduction to the market, Suze quickly became a staple of Parisian café culture, winning a gold metal for quality at the Exposition Universelle both the year it debuted and again in 1900. By 1912, the beloved aperitif was popular enough to inspire Picasso’s painting, La Bouteille de Suze, which depicts a bottle alongside a lit cigarette, set against a backdrop of newsprint in an ode to life’s simple pleasures.
Despite its popularity in France, it took a full century for the French aperitif to be imported to the U.S., at which point the liqueur, which had once been available only when smuggled into a traveler’s suitcase, quickly became a bartender favorite—prized, unsurprisingly, for its bitterness.
“Suze lends a bracing bitterness that’s still very clean, crisp and inviting,” says Chaim Dauermann of New York’s Up & Up, who turns to Suze when looking to sharpen the classic Gin & Tonic. “Often I find that Gin & Tonics just aren’t bitter enough for me,” adds Dauermann, whose Insanely Good Gin & Tonic gets a double dose of bitters by way of a house-made lime cordial and a dash of Angostura.
Suze transforms another modern classic (the Negroni Sbagliato) in Toby Cecchini’s White Negroni Sbagliato. “Unlike some straight bittering elements used in amari, gentian has a fantastically gorgeous aroma,” says Cecchini, a self-proclaimed amari fanatic for over 30 years. “[It’s] completely its own and utterly beguiling.”
Its aroma plays well with vegetal flavors, too, as Jim Kearns demonstrates in his Link Ray, which mixes Suze with celery juice, cane syrup, lime juice and a spirit of your choice—tequila, agricole rhum, gin or vodka—in a nod to the liqueur’s versatility. Francois Vera’s Moulin Rouge #2, on the other hand, counts on Suze to balance the sweetness of strawberries and vanilla: “It brings balance to a cocktail without hurting the palate of those who don’t enjoy much bitterness,” he explains.
He adds, however, that it’s often worth exploring the liqueur the way that it’s been drunk in Paris for over a century; come summer, there’s no harm in taking Suze out of the cocktail equation altogether and serving it straight, on the rocks or with a lemon twist.