Roots and Herbs of Cocktails
Spirits, for the most part, are a vegetarian endeavor. Most of us are familiar at least a little with the grains, fruits and cultivated plants that produce our favorite bottles. Grapes for cognac, corn for bourbon, agave for tequila and mezcal and so on (and in the near future we plan to do some deeper exploration of all these tasty categories just like we did with rum last month) - but in this post we want to dig a little deeper and unearth a few plants (and their respective bottles) that happen to be an evergreen part of any well cultivated bar.
Botany and history are quite a pair of entangled vines - and this is no less true when it comes to the history of some of our favorite cocktail ingredients. All the spirits, vermouths, liqueurs and the like, have roots in their own local regions with often fascinating reasons for how they were born out of local flora. It would take a book to cover the vast garden of plants that make up the enchanted forest of spirits (and this is fact what Amy Stewart did in her captivating book, The Drunken Botanist) - in this article we wanted to focus on a small bunch that we find our visitors most curious about.
The next three sections will cover (1) Gentian - a common ingredient for the bitterness we crave in some of our favorite cocktails, (2) Cinchona Bark - otherwise known as the source of quinine, it’s use in tonics and liqueurs, and (3) the family of plants and bottles that we like to refer to as Alpine Liqueurs (Chartreuse being the most notable example).
Even the name of this yellow flower, commonly found in Alpine meadows hints at it’s foundational properties. The root of the word (one often mistakenly taken to be of eastern origin) is shared with “genesis”, “gender”, “genus” - signifying the concepts of beginning, conception, creation, and production. Which is fitting given that without it, we wouldn’t have some of our most basic genre (hey, another related word!) defining cocktails like the old fashioned, negroni, and manhattan among many others.
According to Pliny The Elder (this guys really comes up often in our mixology research - even talking about the origins of Falernum here), the plant got its name from King Gentius, the ruler of a powerful tribe in Illyria (roughly modern day Albania) between 181 an 168 BC. It is said that Gentius oversaw the discovery of the supposed healing properties of the plant - though there are older records of the plant being used in this capacity, even 1000 years earlier in Egypt. So let’s say Gentius was pretty good at self promotion? Gentius did have a close, though tumultuous relationship with the Roman empire, and this was likely the venue by which Gentian found it’s way into more widespread use.
Many modern day liqueurs originate from tonics of the middle-ages. As monastic herbalists gave way to industrious apothecary proprietors of the 18th and 19th century - finding a more pleasant way to imbibe healthful tonics became a common trend. The alcoholic content and addition of more well rounded, softer flavors, certainly helped. There is no clear point at which gentian became used solely for its flavor, but its use in vermouths and some of the oldest liqueurs suggests that gentian was integral to the rise of the modern era of liqueurs and cocktails.
There are two main reason behind gentian's desirableness as an ingredient for liqueur makers. The first is gentian's ability to stimulate the appetite, making it an ideal ingredient for an aperitif. The second lies in the bitter property inherent to the species Gentiana lutea. This bitterness, which can be strident at first, becomes more pleasant with familiarity and goes a long way as a perfect companion to sweeter and floral flavors, giving a drink the structure it needs. Without it, a drink can feel hollow or or too ephemeral. This is the simple reason for combining bitters such as Angostura with a whiskey to make an Old Fashioned - the warm bitterness provides a contrast that makes the flavors of the spirit shine through.
The number of alcoholic beverages that utilize gentian is immense - Campari, Angostura bitters, Aperol and Amer Picon just to name a few - the Gentian Research Network at Rutgers University compiled a larger, though by no means exhaustive list here: http://gentian.rutgers.edu/ethno_drink.htm . So while there is an almost 100% chance that you have had cocktails with gentian in them, we want to spotlight a few bottles in which this wonder-plant takes more of a center-stage role: Suze, Salers, and the California local - Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro.
Suze stands out from most of the other gentian containing liqueurs and aperitifs by featuring gentian as the central flavor, versus the background bittering agent it normally plays. Fernand Moureaux made Suze to be different from the very beginning - he refused to base it in wine, and in doing this contrasted with the common aperitifs of the day. In 1889, Suze debuted in France, and within 10 years was sweeping awards and cemented itself as an emblematic staple of Parisian cafe culture central to the creative outpouring of the Belle Epoque. Picasso literally made a painting of it. It only took about 100 years for Suze to be imported into the United States - but we’re glad it’s finally here.
So what does it taste like? Well, Suze is a great way to learn what gentian truly tastes like as it possesses a distinct aroma of wild gentian harvested from the Alps. It is complex and aromatic with notes of bittersweet herbs and subtle accents of vanilla, candied orange and spice with a delicately bitter finish. If you’re wondering if Suze is for you, a good gauge might be how you feel about Campari and Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc - if a cross of those two sounds appealing, you may have found your bottle!
And what do you do with it? The preferred way, for the many decades before Suze made its way to into cocktails was to drink it on the rocks with a lemon twist (on a hot summer day?). In cocktails though, Suze can serve a role similar to Campari (after all, they share a similar bitter gentian taste). So naturally, a White Negroni (though it does turn out more characteristically Suze-yellow, the natural gentian color):
The White Negroni (adapted from Death & Co., New York, New York)
Combine all ingredients (except for peel) and stir over ice. Strain into a glass with one large ice cube. Express oil from orange peel and garnish.
Alternatively, consider sending Suze back to it’s more vegetal roots with a lower ABV mezcal cocktail from the 3-Ingredient Cocktails book by Robert Simonson. This lightly smoky drink offers a very different way to experience the pleasant bitterness of Suze.
Combine all ingredients (minus grapefruit peel) in a tall glass. Fill glass with ice and top with club soda. Express oil from the peel and garnish.
Keep in mind that these recipes are meant to keep the taste of Suze at the forefront, but there is no real wrong way to use it, and a bar spoon of this liqueur can go quite a long way in any cocktail that could use a touch of bitterness. Experiment away! For the record: one of the top world expert’s on gentian, Dr. Struwe of Rutgers University, prefers her 2 oz of Suze with an equal amount (or up to double) of soda or tonic and a lemon twist.
Salers is definitely more bitter then Suze. It is also a more traditional French aperitif in that, unlike Suze, it is wine based. Salers is also older (by about 5 years) and earthier then Suze. Think of Salers as an even more pure expression of gentian flavor, even though the wine base and the lower ABV brings that flavor to your attention in a lighter way. The earthiness is bright, and the bittersweetness is accompanied by hints of lime peel, mint and anise.
Similar as with Suze, drinking it on its own is encouraged, and the previous recipes would work great with Salers (especially the Fumata Bianca). Where Salers outshines Suze is in cocktails that are already quite sweet - Salers works like a charm to cut through sweetness and brings in a grounded dryness.
The following recipe plays up the vegetal earthiness of Salers by combining it with agave rich tequila for a lighter, more savory cocktail.
Cloud 9 (originally by Jeremy Oertel of Mayahuel of New York, New York)
Combine all ingredients (save the lemon peel) in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a Nick and Nora glass. Express oil from lemon and garnish.
We could go on highlighting more fantastic gentian-forward bottles like Aveze or Cascadia, but we want to wrap up our tour of Gentian aperitifs on something more unique and closer to our home, The Gentian Amaro made by Lo-Fi in Napa, California. This bottle is almost a cocktail all on it’s own, and as before, a few ounces over ice with a twist is highly encouraged. This liqueur is less bitter then the other two and is much more steeped in sweet citrusy fruit notes with hints of ginger, flowers and spices. It’s crisp but refreshing and brings a floral bouquet to any cocktail where it used as the bitter liqueur or Campari alternative. While the other two bottles show of the more bracing side of gentian bitterness, this one showcases just why this bitterness is such a fantastic partner to sweeter flavors.
We love this take on a Boulevardier, planting the gentian flavors alongside firmly American roots.
Combine all ingredients (save the orange peel) in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Express oil from orange and garnish.
Cinchona trees are the world’s source of highly sought after quinine, a compound that has proven very useful in the treatment of Malaria. The Quechua, natives of regions we now call Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia are the first known people to use the cinchona bark for muscle relaxing properties. They mixed it with sweetened water to fight the bitter taste of the bark and in so doing, produced the world’s first tonic water. We’re not sure when this tonic was first made, but we do know that it made its debut in recorded history when Jesuit missionaries learned of it in the 1500s, while dealing with the sort of ailments one encounters when venturing unprepared into new lands. They gave it the nickname “Fever Tree” as one of the noted properties of the bark was a as a fever reducer, and alleviator of the shivering that came along with fever.
The western name of Cinchona was officially given to the family of trees in the 1700s based on a then-200 year old claim that the bark helped save the life of the wife of the Count of Chinchon. However, from the very beginning, the story of Cinchona has been laced with dubious claims, hear-say storytelling, confusion and miscommunication. Even the name of plant has seen it’s share of controversy with different parties defending various names ranging fro Chinchona, to Cinchona, China (for those wondering where the commonly used China China liqueur got its name) and Quina Quina (the most likely original name of the plant). Things were even further complicated by misidentifcations which weren’t cleared up until proper assays testing for quinine levels were developed in the 1800s. Even then, the road to ubiquity wasn’t simple.
In the mid 1800s, Charles Ledger set out to provide the British Empire with a quinine source, but failed at identifying the correct species. On a second attempt, that cost his partner his life, he did secure proper cinchona seeds, but by then the distrust of the British government found him selling the quinine seeds to the Dutch and in this establishing a Dutch monopoly of the western world’s quinine supply. World-wide turmoil of the first half of the 20th century sky-rocketed the demand for quinine as the militaries of the western powers found themselves time and again in the throes of malaria epidemics.
A need for a more pleasant way to ingest the bitter tasting but life saving quinine led to the creation of the most prevalent cinchona based cocktail: The Gin and Tonic. The British military long held the tradition of giving rations of gin to their troops, and they quickly got around to using that gin with some soda water to make the medicine go down easier. Turned out that this way of following the doctor’s orders was quite tasty - and here were are still sipping on this ration more then a hundred years on.
Over the last several years, what once was the basic Gin & Tonic has expanded into a fantastic family of improvised cocktails - just read Joe’s account of exploring Gin and Tonics in Barcelona last year: https://www.bittersandbottles.com/blogs/cocktailshop/i-found-religion-in-barcelona-it-was-at-the-gin-tonic-bar - today’s Gin and Tonic is anything but basic.
But quinine has given us so much more than just tonic. Similarly to gentian, quinine is used as a bittering agent for many a liqueur, amaro and vermouth. The oldest and most often utilized family of these are the Quinquinas, aromatized wines that evolved in a similar way to the gentian-containing, wine-based aperitifs we mentioned before. In fact, so close is the evolution of gentian and quinine in the imbibing culture of the 20th century, that the two can often be found in the same recipe. This is especially true in quinquinas.
Quinquinas are fairly diverse, but can generally be summarized like this: a pleasant light wine is infused with other light flavors like citrus, floral herbs or fruit and then, to make the mixture more well rounded and give it some backbone quinine (and possibly other bitter herbs like gentian) is added. This usually means that these aperitifs are less subtle then wine, but are packed with a bouquet of fun, complementary flavors.
Lillet, Cocchi Americano, Dubonet, Contratto, Maurin Quina, among others, all offer variations on the Quinquina formula. They are wonderfully refreshing to sip on their own, and make a lovely alternative to vermouth in most cocktails. Here we’re going to spotlight two older quinquinas that have stayed popular with good reason: Byrrh and Bonal.
Byrrh (read as “beer” - and yes, this did create problems when they started exporting to English speaking countries) was created in France in 1866 by a pair of cloth merchants who sought to bring something new to the wine-craze of the time. In order to avoid the appearance of competition with the powerful wine sellers, Byrrh was flavored with cinchona and sold as a “health drink” at pharmacies. This reputation as a restorative made Byrrh popular in Europe and America alike, but this was not to last as Prohibition and world wars transformed the drinking climate. Byrrh made a return to United States fairly recently (2012) - and bartenders and home mixologists alike were ready.
Think of Byrrh as the perfect bridge between a vermouth and a bitter aperitif (like Campari). Would you like a more gentle Negroni? Use Byrrh. A more aggressive Manhattan? Byrrh. This is a difficult ingredient to misuse and it’s easy to see this in a cocktail that essentialy simplifies a Negroni as Byrrh can play both parts: the sweet and the bitter.
Combine all ingredients (save the orange peel) in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Express oil from orange, garnish, serve up.
Bonal Gentiane Quina is the goldilocks aperitif of this article as it really lives at the cross-roads of gentian, cinchona and alpine herb spirits (the ones we’ll be talking about in the next section!). This melding of diverse ingredients makes for the truly diverse character of Bonal, and in turn makes it a great solo sipper as well as a very useful cocktail ingredient. If Byrrh lives somewhere between a vermouth and a bitter aperitif - Bonal occupies a similar space but between a vermouth and an amaro. Bonal has a more full bodied flavor, summoning up notes of raisins and prunes to meet the grape and herbal notes common to other quinquinas.
Similarly to showing the strengths of Byrrh in a gin cocktail, we can show off the flavors of Bonal in a simple Manhattan-like cocktail.
The Bonal Manhattan
Combine all ingredients (save the cherry) in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish, serve up.
The name alone makes alpine herb based spirits more self explanatory then the first two we’ve looked at in this article. Though it is a little bit of a fool’s errand to attempt and bring all the alpine spirits under one umbrella, we’re going to, for the sake of simplicity, consider the role of the génépi in the alpine family.
The etymology of the term has not been clearly determined, but there is a bit of consensus that it may have originated from a specific plant, evolved to generically refer to aromatic plants that are native to the Alps and finally became the umbrella term for beverages made from those plants. While technically the word génépi applies only to a specific family of plants from a specific Savoy region, the word has become associated with a type of liqueur more then anything else - almost regardless of actual geographical origin. There are some EU regulations that protect the word as one applying to some specific regions, but they do not specify methods of production or even any concrete ingredients.
Now all of this can make it sound like Alpine liqueurs are free for all with little in common, but on the contrary, they have quite a few similarities and therefore are pretty easy to identify and use. While specific recipes are kept fairly secret, common ingredients include: lemon verbena, citrus peel, mace, star anise, fennel, angelica, and local herbs. As Amy Stewart puts it, "If it grows in the French countryside and it’s not likely to kill you, it’s probably in there.” We’re going to talk about three génépi style liqueurs: Chartreuse, Dolin Génépi des Alpes and Leopold Brothers Three Pins Alpine Liqueur
Chartreuse is a legendary liqueur with a rich history and a wide record of cocktail use. We could easily dedicate a whole article to it (and will!) so please consider this just a short primer.
Carthusian monks have been making Chartreuse more or less continuously since 1737 (based on a 1605 recipe). Named after the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the Chartreuse Mountains outside of Grenoble, France - it is the liqueur that gave its name to the color and not the other way around. Made from a secret recipe of 130 alpine roots, flowers and herbs, it is one of the few liqueurs that continues to change and evolve in the bottle - meaning that older bottles of Chartreuse can carry quite a bit of value.
Chartreuse has a very assertive flavor - it’s sweet, pungent and vegetal. The spice on the end makes Chartreuse especially well suited for cocktails as it helps round out the flavor and bring volume to many recipes. But it’s strong personality also means that it can dominate most flavors and so using a tiny amount is frequently called for.
One of the better known exceptions that calls for Chartreuse in equal parts is The Last Word. This cocktail is easy to experiment with, and the boldness of the Chartreuse flavor always shines through while being tempered by the acidity of the lime.
The Last Word
Vigorously shake all ingredients together with ice. Strain into a martini glass or a coupe and garnish with lime twist.
This is the only true génépy on this list. Compared to Chartreuse, the Genepy Des Alpes is more floral, delicate and decidedly simpler. It still contains the pine and herbal notes that you would expect, but focuses more of its attention on a single ingredient: an Artemisia, wormwood-like herb central to most genepys. All this means is that uses for this génépy can be very similar to that of Chartreuse, but it can be used in larger amounts without the risk of it taking over the flavor as quickly. Consider trying it in a Last Word variation with a smaller amount of lime to make the gin stand out a bit more.
Three Pins is a confidently American take on the Alpine liqueur genre. Trading the Alps for the Rockies, it’s made from 15 herbs and flowers that carry the flavors of Colorado instead of France. The spice here is a bit more on the warm cinnamon side. The herbal notes bring forth more eucalyptus and grass. Bottles like these make us thankful for the spreading of regional liqueur styles. There is something really intriguing about comparing the taste of the Old World mountains to that of the new and appreciating the uniqueness of both.
These mountain infused bottles carry a strong sense of the terroir of their regions (a concept we dive much more deeply into here) and for our part, we are more then happy to tour these lush meadows through our glass.