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 medal 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 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, making it perfect as the added flair to a classic cocktail. Dauermann sharpens the Gin & Tonic with the liqueur for his Insanely Good Gin & Tonic, which gets a double dose of bitters thanks to a dash of Angostura. In Natasha David’s fresh reimagining of the classic Champagne Cocktail, meanwhile, the addition of Suze is immediately apparent in both color and flavor.
Suze transforms modern classics, too, 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.”
Ingredients that amplify and evoke that aroma work particularly well in cocktails. In Raymond Delaney’s Bring June Flowers, jasmine syrup plays up the liqueur’s floral flavor, while muddled cucumber matches its vegetal notes. Similarly, in Jim Kearns’ Link Ray, celery juice balances that earthiness, paired with lime juice, cane syrup and a spirit of your choice—tequila, agricole rhum, gin or vodka—in a nod to the liqueur’s versatility.
On the other hand, Suze’s bitterness can also stand up against elements on the other end of the flavor spectrum. It counters the smokiness of mezcal in the Fumata Bianca and the subtle sweetness of strawberry and vanilla in Francois Vera’s Moulin Rouge #2. “It brings balance to a cocktail without hurting the palate of those who don’t enjoy much bitterness,” Vera 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.