The gentian plant makes an apt metaphor for life. It’s a bit flamboyant, with many varieties sprouting come-hither flowers atop tall stalks. Yet the whole of it—roots, leaves, petals—is appallingly bitter to the taste. You wouldn’t want any of it near your mouth.
Except, apparently, you do. Bitters made from gentian root had their heyday in the late-19th century, and are having something of a revival of late, despite—or perhaps because of—an astringent flavor profile that many say is reminiscent of loamy topsoil. (They mean that in an entirely favorable way, I’ve been assured.)
People may commend the first person to eat an artichoke, but he or she was just a fluffer for the first person to consume a potion made from the tuberous gentian root found in the uplands around the Alps and Pyrenees. Those who first concocted this spirit were no doubt involved in medicine; when one explores the overlap between “drink” and “bitter,” the pharmacy is typically involved, at least pharmacy as practiced in the days of the witchery and alchemy.
The science behind gentiane—as the class of gentian-based drinks are known—is pretty straightforward. Humans evolved to quickly reject anything bitter, as that would give them forewarning of poisons, which tend to be bitter. (Does it taste bitter? Spit it out. Easy.) But early medics figured that bitter could also serve a positive role: When the body detects the presence of bitter, it steps up the production of saliva and digestive juices to more quickly usher out toxin. As such, non-poisonous bitters could be conscripted to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion.
A spirit distilled in the Alps from gentian root was evidently first written up in 1789; not long after that, production became commonplace in France, Germany and Switzerland. Travelers often remarked on the ubiquity of gentiane. In 1853, Dr. T.W.C. Martius, for instance, reported that at his Swiss lodging they “placed before us a bottle of gentian spirit” that was of “peculiar odour, and slightly bitter taste.” He consumed a small wine glass of it, whereupon he “felt a strong inclination to vomit, violent trembling, and coldness.”
The dramatic effects on Dr. Martius were apparently an outlier. Gentian became vastly popular and eventually even crossed the Atlantic, where it was employed as a bittering agent in aromatic bitters, including Angostura. It also served as the backbone of Moxie soda, which was first bottled in 1884 and for years outsold Coca-Cola, which was founded two years later. Moxie is still manufactured today, and according to a University of Virginia website, is made “with a somewhat different formula but with a taste that many still consider unpleasant.”
While aromatic bitters were an integral part of the America’s 19th-century cocktail scene, potable bitters—i.e. bitter liqueurs—remained staples chiefly in the regions abutting the Alps in Europe; outside that area, they were long regarded as curious-tasting interlopers, favored chiefly by the preternaturally adventurous.
But with the recent craft cocktail revival, North America has, at least in certain precincts, rediscovered the appeal of gentian—not only in legacy liqueurs like the Salers Aperitif (1885), Suze (1889) and Avèze (1929), all three of which are still made in France, but in domestic liqueurs as well.
While many amari, like Averna and Montenegro, incorporate gentian into their blend of herbs and spices, the purest representation of the root’s flavors and brand of bitterness come by way of aperitif liqueurs that are un-aged, blended with other herbs and often less sweet. While these liqueurs are typically used for mixing these days, gentian liqueurs were originally concocted to cure what ails you, and I suppose should be taken like medicine, straight up, if you want to be historically accurate.
But are we savages? We are not. Pour some over the rocks, and add a squeeze of lemon. Then, watch an upside world slowly right itself.
Salers Aperitif La Bounoux Gentiane Liqueur
This is the oldest of the French gentian aperitifs made in the Auvergne region of France, where this class of liqueur first arose. Concocted here since 1885 using hand-harvested gentian root, it comes across on the first sip as a fairly austere spirit. (The low ABV appears to encourage this shyness.) Yet a moment afterwards, the earthy, raw essence of the yellow gentian moves to the forefront, where it remains uncluttered by other herbal notes.
Earthiness is relative here—rather than being dark and heavy, it’s bright and luminous, with a touch of lime peel. The astringent finish is persistent—explaining why some bartenders use this this as a go-to spirit to dry out a cocktail that’s skewing sweet. Try it over ice with a squeeze of fresh orange or lemon, or for swapping out the Campari in a White Negroni.
- Price: $22
- ABV: 16 percent
This French liqueur also traces its lineage to the Auvergne region, although it’s not quite as historic as others, dating only to 1929. But like others of its class, this starts with the roots of yellow gentian harvested in the nearby foothills, which are then chopped and macerated (along with other herbs) in alcohol for up to nine months. It’s then distilled, and left to rest for another six months, followed by filtration and bottling. This has a high gentian content, but it’s balanced out with the other (secret) herbs, creating a less bitter, more complex liqueur. It serves as a good on-ramp for those starting to explore the gentian category—it’s less assertive, with attractive notes of orange and mint and a richer mouthfeel.
- Price: $27
- ABV: 20 percent
The Bartender’s Best Friend
Suze has a long and rich heritage—the inventors bottled it starting in 1889 in a striking amber-yellow bottle that was almost as recognizable to Parisians as the Coca-Cola bottle was to Americans. It’s made with gentian farmed in Auvergne and Seine Maritime, which is then harvested, sliced and macerated in high-proof alcohol for an extended period before being mellowed with sugar and other herbs. Suze has been something of a cult hit with bartenders, although much of that has stemmed from its elusiveness outside big cities. (Now it’s more widely available across the United States.)
The formula has evidently been doctored somewhat in recent years, but the taste remains historic and immune to objection. Your first thought upon sipping may be “topsoil candy!” (still, in a good way) as you’re hit with a blend of sweetness and earth. But it immediately becomes softer and rounder, with a bigger bite of orange peel. Few will object to this simply poured over rocks.
- Price: $28
- ABV: 20 percent
The American Cousin
Cascadia American Bitter Liqueur
Tom Burkleaux founded New Deal Distilling in Portland, Oregon, in 2004, and after he got his legs under with vodka and gin, devoted two years working out a proper gentian-based liqueur. He ended up recruiting two bittering agents—he found he could soften the gentian by mixing it with less-forward angelica root—and employed a traditional double maceration method, first macerating the roots in neutral spirit, then redistilling, and doing a second maceration with the redistilled spirit.
Like others, this is tempered with herbs, including rose, lavender, tarragon and cardamom. It has a more floral aroma and finish than most, which reduces the bitter profile significantly. He was aiming to use Pacific Northwest products, including locally grown gentian, but found that the region wasn’t yet ready, and so imports gentian from French farmers, who’ve learned a thing or two our about growing at scale over the past two centuries. “You can do it as a labor of love on a small scale, but when you want to move a product to market, there’s the ‘estate showpiece’ approach, and then there’s ‘production-ready,’” Burkleaux says.
- Price: $39
- ABV: 35 percent