A Primer On Gentian Liqueur, The New Bitter Spirit

What you need to know about gentian liqueur

If it's bitter, liquid and boozy, there is a good chance there is a bartender obsessed with it.

And when it comes to the latest emerging bitter-spirits category, gentian liqueur, the obsession is more than warranted. The skinny:

How It's Made: Gentian liqueurs have a long history as a popular aperitif in France, specifically in the region of Auvergne, where the drink was originally produced. To create the liqueur, the root stalks of gentian plants, along with a few other key botanicals, are macerated in grain alcohol, then filtered.

Light and Easy: Unlike popular bittering agents such as Fernet Branca and amari, gentian liqueurs are light in color and in ABV (20 percent to Fernet's 40 percent). As Toby Maloney, a bartender in New York and Chicago, puts it: "They offer complexity without getting you hosed."

How to Drink It: In France, the spirit is enjoyed as an aperitif over ice with a hearty squeeze of lemon. Eric Seed, importer of the gentian liqueur Salers, says this simple cocktail is crucial: "When you taste it neat for the first time, it's easy to think that the French must be crazy for loving it. The lemon and ice really bring out the full flavor." But in the States, where it is just coming on the market, gentian is more popular as a cocktail component: See our favorite brands and cocktail recipes here.

Created by a grocer in France in the 1920s, Avèze is your gentian entry point: The liqueur is invitingly sweet, with a bitterness that dissipates quickly. Drink it like the French do, or challenge yourself with the In Spades cocktail (see the recipe), which doubles the gentian dose.

The newest version on the market has one marked distinction: It isn't French. This creation arrived in 2011 and is produced by the United States-based company Bittermens. Darker in color and with a slight botrytized flavor–think dessert wine with a bitter tinge–we like this one in place of bourbon in a julep.

The grandfather of gentian liqueurs is Salers, which first came on the market in the 1880s. It is still made in the Auvergne and is one of the few options that doesn't use artificial coloring. Toby Maloney uses it to make his Polka Dot Negroni (see the recipe), with high-proof gin and grapefruit bitters.

Long the workhorse of the gentian family, Suze is also the most acquired taste. When sipped solo, we found the bitter finish overpowering–and it lingered for hours. But it stands up beautifully in a White Negroni, first popularized at New York's Dutch Kills (see the recipe).