Suze and gentian root: The power behind the White Negroni
Thanks to the new revival of old aperitifs, Suze is experiencing a second life. Known for its strong notes of bitterness, this French liqueur is made from gentian, which is the source of its success.
Let’s dive into the world of Suze and the gentian root, which is becoming a must-have flavor in bars today.
Bartenders who love Suze can thank Mr. Fernand Moureaux, owner of a distillery in Maisons-Alfort, and, most importantly, the man behind Suze. In 1885, Moureaux became interested in gentian – a plant traditionally used medicinally as a digestive aid. At the time, French aperitifs were mostly wine-based, but with France affected by the terrible disease of the vines, phylloxera, wine was running low. In 1889, Suze finally saw the light of day and was honored at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
Today, it is made by the Pernod Ricard group, and is one of France’s emblematic spirits and the leader in the bitters market. Its slender bottle, its indelible logo, its duo of yellow-orange colors give a ray of sunshine to the cocktail bars of high mixology. Its explosive bitterness provides an incredible source of inspiration for modern drinks. And this is thanks to gentian, its star ingredient.
Gentian is a plant with a primordial past
At first glance, gentian appears like a long wild flower, growing up to 2 meters, and looking radiant thanks to its yellow petals and large, graceful leaves. This “queen of snow gold” is quietly raised on mountainous landscapes between the Alps, the Jura, Auvergne, and Vosges Mountains in France. It loves the chalky, volcanic soils and a fresh and moist atmosphere.
Gentian retains one impressively primordial characteristic: its voluminous root can reach as far down as 1 meter. Gentian root is deeply anchored in the ground and exploitable every 20 to 30 years. Gentian contains ingredients that are of interest to beverage producers and the food and pharmaceutical industry: sugar, aromatic molecules and coloring, and especially extremely bitter substances, including gentiopicroside, amarogentin, gentiamarine, and swertimagem whose concentration varies according to the plant’s age.
Suze and gentian: a love story
To keep volume and quality consistent, Suze is made from 50% wild gentian roots collected in Auvergne and 50% farmed gentian roots, cultivated in a picturesque environment in special fields in Auvergne and Normandy. “This crop can last up to 30 years, it is followed with great attention and pride by the gentianaires (like vine growers for the vineyard) who are the only ones who decide the day we must begin harvesting,” explains Richard Le Moult, Director of Proprietary Brands at Pernod Ricard. From May to September, the gentianaire carefully selects the shoots according to the size of the leaf in order to collect the oldest roots. They must be careful not to confuse gentian with white veratrum, the evil cousin of gentian, which is extremely toxic!
The colossal roots are then sorted, brushed and reduced into cossettes – thin strips of gentian root. To extract maximum flavor, the gentian root strips are left for one year in large stainless tanks. Once the maceration is complete, the cossettes are pressed in order to obtain the divine, bitter gentian juice. Like any conventional production process, the juice is distilled in an alembic still, then mixed with a secret aromatic bouquet, known only as “angelica,” that gives Suze it distinctively strong taste profile. Like Pernod Absinthe, Suze has been produced at Thuir in the Pyrénées-Orientales since 2003. Suze lovers have the choice today between two bottles: the classic at 15% ABV and Suze Saveur d’Autrefois at 20%, which is more aromatic and based on an older recipe.
Suze and Gentian take their place in modern mixology
With a market more and more open to bitter flavors (in particular thanks to the popularity of the Aperol Spritz), Suze has regained prestige and its distinctive gentian taste is once again being appreciated by bartenders and consumers alike. “In France and all over the world, bartenders are among the most suited to the Suze brand, developing original cocktails that have restored nobility to the taste and image of Suze. In England, Wayne Collins created the White Negroni (Suze, Vermouth, Gin), and in France, Remy Savage invented the Bonhomie (Suze, Fermented Grapefruit Juice, Hawaiian Black Salt),” says Le Moult.
Every evening, more bartenders are introducing people to this iconic French liqueur through their cocktails. François Badel, head bartender of the Montfort in Rennes, confirms this vision: “Bartenders as consumers have a real card to play. Being myself an ambassador for Byrrh, a very old French aperitif from the South of France, I feel the interest of our customers on know-how, history, and a return to the source. From the technical point of view, [Suze] is a product very accessible for the price, with a monster potential in mixology.”
In the shaker, Suze is suited to so many classics, as long as you use the right proportion. “The aim: use the bitterness of this French liqueur to raise the taste of the cocktail without dominating. Otherwise the cocktail will be too technical and not accessible. And my cocktail vision is, above all, to reveal to my customers new things but without disgusting them…it is necessary to take the turn softly,” says Nicolas Servettaz, head bartender of the Gossima Ping Pong Bar in Paris. But serving Suze can be a challenge. “It is difficult sometimes because it is necessary to put yourself in the place of the customer, who is not trained,” says Servettaz.
How do other bartenders manage? “I often use a float of Suze or a barspoon to boost a cocktail, in the same way as Chartreuse. I like the simplicity of a Suze drink with sparkling water on the terrace,” adds Luther Werington, head bartender of Moonshiner in Paris. This summer, Suze continued to preach the good words to international bartenders at the last Tales of the Cocktail, sponsoring two awards and inviting renowned French bartenders. Suze and gentian certainly make a colorful French combination.