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Spirits

Ibiza’s Answer to Chartreuse

July 06, 2022

Story: Jeff Koehler

art: Mallory Heyer

Spirits

Ibiza’s Answer to Chartreuse

July 06, 2022

Story: Jeff Koehler

art: Mallory Heyer

Meet hierbas ibicencas, the geographically protected herbal liqueur made in homes and distilleries across the Spanish island.

Stuffed into the clear, tall, long-necked glass bottle was a mass of herbs, a few leaves and what looked like a piece of bark. “Fennel, rosemary, lemon verbena, chamomile, wild thyme, sage, eucalyptus, lemon leaves…,” the young bartender began to list, as he poured a short glass of Ibiza’s most famous spirit, hierbas ibicencas (or herbes eivissenques, in Catalan), literally “Ibizan herbs.” Either out of failing memory or professional secrecy, he stopped. “Eleven of them,” he said, “macerated in anisette for months.” 

Sitting on a sharp bend of the main road that passes through Sant Carles de Peralta, a small interior village in northeast Ibiza, Ca n’Anneta—better known as Bar Anita—opened in 1942 and gained fame as a hippie hangout in the 1970s; it remains a beloved classic that produces some of the best hierbas on the island.

I had come first for a plate of their frita de pop, a classic fisherman’s dish of stewed octopus, potatoes, onion and peppers, and thick slice of flaó, Ibiza’s iconic cake made with fresh goat cheese and mint leaves. Moving from the tree-shaded patio to the wooden bar inside, I ordered an hierbas, a drink that serves as both an aperitivo and a digestivo. 

Like the great herbal liqueurs of Europe, from Chartreuse to génépi, hierbas ibicencas captures the unique flavor of the local hills. What differentiates it is that it began with a DIY bent and continues to have one; despite the availability of commercial versions, many homes still prefer to make their own versions using family recipes and herbs that they have gathered themselves on the island. In 1997, the Spanish government bestowed protective Denominación Geográfica Hierbas Ibicencas status on the liqueur, and while all have a through-flavor of herb-inflected anise, the individual selection of herbs and the exact ratio of sweet-to-dry anisette impart a unique imprint on the final taste of each version.

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Production of the liqueur traces back to antiquity, when islanders began picking native Mediterranean herbs and creating medicinal infusions. These were first commercialized in 1880 by Hierbas Familia Marí Mayans, today the largest and best-known brand, producing some 500,000 liters of hierbas a year, of which 75 percent is sold in Ibiza and Formentera (Ibiza’s neighbor and the smallest of the Balearic Islands).

On a recent trip to Ibiza, it was late spring and the main season to prepare the liqueur had begun. “I make hierbas all year round,” explained Vicente Vidal of Herbes Can Vidal, another of the island’s small, highly regarded producers, “although the best time is May to June, because that is when chamomile is flowering and collected for the whole year, as is thyme, fennel and lemon verbena.” 

With the help of a skinny stick, sprigs of herbs get laboriously pushed down through the neck of the bottle, which is then filled with anisette, which Vidal purchases from a company in Barcelona. “Normally it’s made with sweet anise, although you can put a little dry anise to make it not so sweet,” he explains. Once corked, the bottles are left to macerate for at least three months, as they develop intense aromas and, thanks largely to the chamomile, brilliant lemony-gold colors. 

The most common way to enjoy the liqueur is chilled. And while purists balk at the idea, some drinkers add an ice cube. In summer, as Ibiza transforms into Europe’s party capital, hierbas becomes part of the club scene as a popular shot. Bartenders on the island have begun using it in cocktails as well, like the Ibizan Cosmo, in which the herbal liqueur stands in for the flavored vodka of the original.

Before leaving the island to head back to Barcelona, I stopped by the Estanco San Juan, the tobacconist shop in Sant Joan de Labritja that doubles as the home of Herbes Can Vidal. In 1928, Vicente Torres inherited the shop and with his wife ran it and a restaurant next door, where they began selling their homemade hierbas. Today, under his grandson and namesake, it continues to be produced following the same recipe. 

For Vidal, the key ingredients are fennel, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, chamomile and mint. “We have never put lavender in it, and rue is very strong and if you add too much it can dominate. For the same reason, we don’t put in eucalyptus either, which is not native here,” says Vidal, noting that his grandfather used to include juniper bark, and that orange and lemon leaves could also be added. He then paused before offering, in summary, a popular saying: “Cada maestrillo tiene su librillo”—everyone has his or her own way of making it. 

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Tagged: culture

Jeff Koehler is a James Beard and two-time IACP book award-winning writer and cook. Phaidon will publish his eighth book in spring 2023. He divides his time between Barcelona, Menorca, and North Africa. Instagram @jeff_koehler.