Gentian elixir from the mountains
The yellow gentian grows in the Alps and Auvergne, at an altitude of 1000 to 1500 m. This Gentiana lutea has a long taproot, the beneficial effects of which mountain residents learned early on, long before the South American cinchona tree was discovered. It is good for the digestion and removes fever.
Harvest and preparation
From late summer to the first snow, the roots are harvested, using a special two-pronged fork as the harvesting means; it is a tough job, because the root is very long and well anchored. The harvest is taken to the distillery, the roots are selected, cleaned and peeled, cut into equal pieces (cassettes) and crushed. When this was still done by hand, it was very hard work, but nowadays everything is automated and a lot of Yellow Gentian is grown. [cassettes)engekneusdToenditnogmetdehandgebeurdewasdatzeerzwaarwerkmaartegenwoordigisallesgeautomatiseerdenwordterveelGelegentiaangeteeld
The pieces of carrot macerate in alcohol in large tubs and are constantly stirred. During the maceration, which takes a few months, the alcohol takes over the aromatic components of the gentian. Sugar and gentian alcohol obtained by distillation of part of the extract are added to the drained and filtered product. The amount of sugar and the bitterness of the drink vary by manufacturer and brand, but the alcohol content is up to 30%, often less.
One of the oldest brands of gentian liqueur has a special history. In 1858, Brother Raphaël, who is also a doctor, is urgently called from the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse to the heavy delivery of a farmer’s wife.
Because of this humane act, he can no longer remain a member of the monastic community. He becomes a citizen again and takes his original name, Hippolyte Bonal. In the monastery, however, he learned to prepare plant liqueurs, a great specialty of the monastery ‘La Grande Chartreuse’. Bonal decides to devote his life to developing a liqueur. He makes a drink that includes quinine and gentian, which he calls Raphaëlle, in memory of his monastic past.
He settles in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont and comes with an aperitif, Bonal, based on the same plants, which was very successful between the First and Second World War. Suze, currently the best-selling gentian drink, was born in 1889. It is the nickname of Suzanne Jaspart, sister-in-law of the drink’s inventor, Fernand Moureaux. A few years earlier, Fernand had become director of his brother-in-law’s Paris company, which made wine-based liqueurs and aperitifs. He soon teamed up with Henri Porte, a banker’s son with many new ideas. Inspired by Picon, which was all the rage at the time, they developed a new aperitif, Picotin. They believed in advertising and engaged the animal draftsman Benjamin Rabier to make a poster showing two donkeys from a large bowl of Picotin drinking, ‘l’apéritif américain’. Strangers (undoubtedly competitors) then pasted a piece of paper on all posters that read: ‘Enfin les ânes ont trouvé leur apéritif’ (‘Finally an aperitif for donkeys’)! Picotin was immediately over, but Suze, with that easy-to-remember name and original long bottle, did a great job. Sales continued to grow, not least because of the absinthe ban.
Suze even appears in a painting by Picasso, which by the way was silkscreen reproduced in 1992 on a limited number of bottles of Suze. Suze is now sweeter and less strong than before: the drink used to contain 32%, now 16% alcohol. Sales declined slightly in the 1950s, but after the company was bought by Pernod in 1965, we see a real come-back, mainly thanks to a large-scale advertising campaign that emphasizes Suze’s inimitable character and tells about the desperate attempts by one professor Lambert to make ‘Ruse’. Not entirely wrong, by the way, as many have tried to make such a drink.
Gentian in the Auvergne
The Auvergne is a region where the gentian plant was originally harvested and manufactured, and that’s where the different brands come from, especially Auvergne Gentiane. Production has been running since 1930, stopped for a while during the Second World War and started again in 1951. In 1963, the company was bought by Saint-Raphaël, who wanted to expand its range of spirits. The name of the drink is changed to Avèze and becomes the subject of a major advertising campaign, in which its natural character plays the leading role.
Close to the town of Salers, the eponymous gentian drink was made, which has many loyal fans. It is still prepared in the traditional way.
Two of Gentiane’s best-known brands are owned by Pernod-Ricard (Suze) and Saint-Raphaël (Aveze) respectively. The third known name is the Salers from the Egletons distillery of the same name. None of these three brands has a clear link with the Auvergne, the region of origin.
Gentian liqueur is drunk as an aperitif, with an ice cube, mixed with fresh water to taste. After dinner, a glass of pure gentian liqueur also works wonders for the digestive system. It usually tastes very bitter, but bitter in the mouth makes the heart and especially the digestion healthy.