Into the Woods: The Rise of Pine Liqueurs

In the Alps, pine liqueurs and spirits are a common digestif. But in the U.S., they're an oddball novelty among experimental bartenders. Hope Ewing on why these weird, resinous spirits have found a foothold in America.

Sipping on “The Larry Routine” at LA’s Harvard & Stone, what strikes immediately is the bite of the grapefruit mingling with the subtle sweetness of blanco tequila. The fascinating endnote, though, spooling out past the acid, is more elusive: a bitter, fragrant herbaceousness reminiscent of a cool cross-breeze. But without looking at the ingredient list, it would be difficult to name that flavor as Douglas Fir. 

Appearing on back bars more and more frequently since the late 2000s, traditional tree brandies and eaux de vie from the Alps and their North American craft imitators—like the Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie used in this drink—have added a novel, though not completely unfamiliar, element to the pantries of innovative bartenders.

Meeting a rising demand for complex liqueurs and amari, specialty spirits importer Haus Alpenz brought the sweet, resinous Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps to the U.S. in 2005. Zirbenz has been made by the Josef Hofer distillery in Austria since 1797, a traditional zirbenschnaps—neutral sugar distillate macerated with the red fruit (that later matures into woody cones) of the high altitude Arolla Stone PineZirbenz has a warm, honey like texture, with the pine resin flavor on the finish.

According to Haus Alpenz owner Eric Seed, “Reception from bartenders has been warm, if bemusing.” After all, as Seed says, “the conifer is hardly an essential bar ingredient,” appearing classically in only one oddball cocktail from Jerry Thomas’s 1862 edition of How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. The Professor’s Gin and Pine involved splitting “the heart of a green pine log into fine splints,” and soaking for two hours in a quart of gin. Thomas qualified that, along with the “Gin and Tansy” and “Gin and Wormwood,” this gem was “not much used except in small country villages.”

Provincial origins aside, tree flavors—like many obscure liqueurs and flavorings—have settled into a niche within bar programs.

John Kelly O’Hare of Sonny’s Hideaway in Los Angeles, for one, uses Emile Pernot Liqueur de Sapins 55 as a substitute for Green Chartreuse. “Sapins is a completely different animal, it shines brighter [than Chartreuse], it has less heat and the pine oil lingers on your palate.” O’Hare uses the Sapins with everything from Cynar, rye and absinthe in his Dorothy Valens to Scotch, maraschino and lime in a twist on a Last Word.

Importers Vendetta Spirits first brought the Pernot sapins (fir tree) liqueurs to the U.S. in 2013, and since then distribution has been a challenge, according to CEO Avery Glasser. “We have to first explain that in Southern France—from the Atlantic coast to the Jura—people have been making green herbal bitter aperitif liqueurs for centuries.” Though often compared to the more-familiar Chartreuse, the pine spirits of Pontarlier in the mountainous Franche-Comté region of France are more closely linked to the absinthe for which the town is best known. Zirbenz, which is part of a larger Austrian tradition of pine brandy production, has the rusty color and assertive pine essence of the Arolla fruits, while the Pontarlier spirits are somewhat gentler, made with the small, sticky buds of local fir trees. Both Armand Guy and Deniset-Klanguer (now Emile Pernot) distilleries have been producing sapins alongside the green fairy for over a hundred years, and both claim the original recipe.

Regardless of who can truly lay claim, the absinthe-sapins link is clear: both started as a rural medicinal products, the former highlighting wormwood rather than fir as the dominant botanical. Sapins begins with the soaking of herbs—including fir tree buds—in a neutral sugar spirit and redistilling, followed by a maceration of additional buds to bring about the distinct pine aroma and green color. The result is a rounded (though potent) spirit, arboreal, but less thickly resinous than its Austrian counterpart.

Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon cites the old-world sapins eaux de vie as inspiration for its increasingly popular Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, made with a similar maceration process with Oregon Douglas Fir buds. The slender, bright green bottle has become a familiar decoration on urban back bars. While less sweet and broadly herbal than the Sapins 55, the Douglas Fir “creates a subtle way to translate this very specific taste to cocktails,” says Serena Herrick, Bar Manager at Harvard & Stone.

Newest on the scene, imported from the Dolomite mountain region of Italy by Haus Alpenz since late 2014, is the Elisir Novasalus Vino Amaro from Cappelletti. This amaro—unique even for its place of origin—starts when dry marsala wine is fortified and aromatized with a long list of plants from the surrounding high Alps and flavored with pine sap from Sicily. What comes across is a somewhat confounding salty, pine-y bitterness that sticks in the throat—something of the final frontier for tree spirits.

While it’s tempting to dismiss the Douglas Fir or the Elisir Novasalus as the products of eager importers and bartenders looking to capitalize on the I’ll-try-anything-novel mentality of the current cocktail scene, for more than a century many of our most cherished cocktail flavors have been derived from bark, roots and leaves.

Perhaps it’s just the fir tree’s moment to come down off the mountain.