A Tasting Guide to Gentian Liqueurs
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
Gentian liqueurs are one of the pillars of French Apéro culture alongside vermouth, pastis, Pineau des Charentes, and quinquina. Like the Italian and Spanish aperitivi, French aperitifs are low-ABV drinks that are often both sweet and bitter, designed to stimulate the appetite before a proper meal.
As we see with many fortified wines and liqueurs, there are often parallels between what the French and the Italians drink. When one thinks of Italian aperitivi, one generally thinks of Select, Campari, or any number of flourescent red, bitter liqueurs. The lesser-known French equivalents eschew the red coloring and are either naturally or artificially colored yellow to better represent their defining botanical: gentian.
Gentian is a tall flower found in the Alpine region. Every part of the plant from root to flower is faintly sweet and profoundly bitter. There are hundreds of species of gentian, but spring and yellow gentian are the most prized for French gentian liqueur production. In fact, many producers artificially color their product to convey the presence of yellow gentian.
Both the gentian plant and the liqueurs have a distinct dusty, bittersweet scent and flavor which could be described as fresh soil, dandelion, citrus pith, anise, tarragon, and acetone with the earthy mustiness of root herbs.
Angostura bitters, Campari, Aperol, and a huge percentage of amari and vermouth all contain gentian either as a primary or supporting bittering agent. French gentian liqueurs go out of their way to highlight and complement the plant itself.
Salers, Suze, and Aveze are the most common gentian liqueurs in the world. They are most often consumed chilled, over ice, with or without soda water, and garnished with a citrus twist or wedge. They are rarely called for in classic cocktail recipes beyond the Spritz, but a contemporary classic, Wayne Collins' White Negroni, has secured a place in the cocktail canon for these vibrant liqueurs.
While they may appear visually different across the category, they can be all be identified by their unmistakable gentian aroma and flavor.
There are four defining flavor components of a bitter gentian liqueur:
1) Pronounced gentian bitterness
2) Citrus to compliment the bitterness (many bitter roots exhibit citrus flavors themselves, especially lemon and grapefruit)
3) Sugar to balance that bitterness and acidity
4) Supporting botanicals to round out the profile and provide distinctions among producers
Each of those components will be more or less defined from product to product. For example, Salers has pronounced gentian bitterness, but less sugar and fewer obvious supporting botanicals than its competitors, which makes for an accentuated gentian flavor. While it may technically be just as bitter as Aveze, Aveze has significantly more sugar than Salers, which makes it seem less bitter. Suze comes across as more citrusy than Aveze, but Aveze has a stronger supporting line-up of botanicals. The differences between brands can be subtle at first glance (or sip), but they are surprisingly distinct.
In France and different regions within the EU, many of these gentian liqueurs receive multiple expressions that rebalance proof, sugar, and bitterness across their respective product lines. Outside of Europe, these bottlings are rare – in the US, we only receive the standard export expressions from each brand.
Differences in production, proof, color, and additional botanicals aside, these liqueurs will all be very earthy, faintly floral, and sweetened to balance the prevailing bitterness brought on by the gentian root. As is to be expected, producers are very secretive about their botanicals, sugar content, and methods of production. So beyond "gentian" and whatever romantic marketing terms are thrown around, little of what is actually in each bottle can be verified.
This tasting guide aims to help the average consumer and bartender compare and contrast the major and minor differences and subtleties between the most commonly available brands. Additionally, Italian producer Luxardo recently crafted a gentian-based liqueur of their own for use specifically in the White Negroni as a substitute for the original Suze. Since they intend for their product to work interchangeably with French gentian aperitifs, I thought it fair to include it in this guide.
As with all of my tasting guides, this will be a living guide that will be updated as new information or products become available.
If you're new to the world of vermouth, check out my Introduction to Vermouth post to learn some basics, introduce yourself to some of the terminology used, and get a general overview of how these guides are structured (and why). Then join me back here to get into the details!
Producer: Aveze, Imported by CNI Brands
Known Botanicals: at least 4 (“two bitter plants and two sweet plants”), including yellow gentian
Nose: gentian, orange, lemon, grass, fennel, tarragon
Palate: gentian, honey, dandelion, lemon, mint, anise, juniper, orange
Finish: gentian, mint, anise, pine, lemon, grapefruit, honeysuckle, chamomile, faint toffee
Additional Notes: Vibrant gentian-yellow color identical to Suze. Sweet and soft on the palate with an herbaceous candy nose, Aveze can be considered the easiest introduction to the category of gentian aperitifs.
Most similar in appearance, aroma, and flavor to Suze, but with less gentian bitterness and an abundance of bitter citrus peel to compensate. Aveze also leans into the bitter orange as part of its citrusy backbone, as compared to the lemon and pine of Suze. Dilution greatly dampens the bitterness.
Overall the least bitter of the bunch. A little trickier to mix with as it imparts lots of sweetness and citrus. I find that it works best with barrel-aged spirits like whiskey.
Bittermen's Amer Sauvage
Known Botanicals: gentian, chamomile, undefined “bitter citrus”
Nose: gentian, honey, chamomile, lemon, grapefruit pith, faint white pepper
Palate: gentian, chamomile, honey, candied orange, dandelion, grapefruit pith
Finish: gentian, chamomile, lemon, grapefruit, orange, dandelion, straw
Additional Notes: Rich amber honey color. Hand-down the most bitter of the entire category – almost unpleasantly so. This is easily one of the most bitter liqueurs on the backbar, even moreso than Malört.
Flavor-wise it is most similar to Suze, but with a bitterness that makes Luxardo Bitter Bianco's wormwood-spiked gential liqueur seem like sweet candy. An absolute bully in cocktails that needs to be used in moderation and/or paired with big, bold spirits and flavors.
Luxardo Bitter Bianco
Producer: Luxardo, Imported by Hotaling & Co
Known Botanicals: at least 10, including gentian, wormwood, sweet orange, bitter orange, rhubarb, mint, marjoram, thyme, cardamom, cinchona
Nose: wormwood, gentian, grapefruit, ethanol, lemon, cinnamon, marzipan
Palate: wormwood, gentian, vanilla, grapefruit, cinnamon, lemon, marzipan, orange
Finish: wormwood, gentian, vanilla, cinnamon, grapefruit, lemon, almond, tarragon
Additional Notes: Faintly straw-tinged appearance, nearly identical in color to Salers. Designed and introduced to the market with White Negroni cocktails in mind and as an alternative to artificially colored bitter red aperitivi, Luxardo's Bitter Bianco actually uses the same botanicals as their classic red bitter.
There is a strong alcoholic burn on the nose which is thankfully tempered when diluted. While the gentian is pronounced, the wormwood dominates the palate from start to finish. Dilution also brings out a huge amount of vanilla and cinnamon. In fact, besides the obvious wormwood notes, the biggest difference between this and any French gentian liqueur would be the huge amount of confectionary baking spices found within. In addition to the warmer flavor profile, the significant bump in proof further distances this Italian offering.
Ultimately, this lands somewhere between a traditional Italian bitter red aperitif such as Campari (or Luxardo Bitter Rosso) and the French gentian aperitifs it loosely emulates. When compared to the French gentian liqueurs, its flavor profile is most comparable to Salers due to its bitterness and notes of baking spice.
Producer: Distillerie des las Salers, Imported by Haus Alpenz
Known Botanicals: at least 2, including yellow gentian
Nose: gentian, mint, grapefruit, lime, straw, lemon, graham cracker, faint ethanol
Palate: gentian, chamomile, grapefruit, dandelion, coffee, cacao, bitter almond, lime peel, honey
Finish: gentian, dandelion, chamomile, grapefruit, coffee, cacao, lemon, honey
Additional Notes: Mostly clear, straw tinged appearance, naturally colored, unlike its popular French peers. Claims to be the oldest commercial gentian aperitif producer (1885). Very soft on the palate with a pervasive gentian flavor that builds over time as well as underlying bitter confectionary notes brought on by extensive 3-year aging of the distillate.
Overall the driest and, consequently, most bitter-tasting French gentian liqueur. The more straightforward gentian flavor arguably makes for a slightly less botanically interesting product when compared to Aveze or Suze, but yields a truer expression of the plant itself. Salers is infamous among bartenders for its ease of mixability and its ability to dry cocktails out.
Note: While Salers is no longer bottled as a wine-based maceration, at 16% ABV I've always been instructed to refrigerate open bottles. This is not because Salers will “go bad,” but because it theoretically helps preserve the lighter aromatic compounds which, like wine, will dissipate once opened. Like any distillate, a properly cared for bottle will last years.
Producer: Pernod Ricard (acquired Distillerie Rousseau, Laurens, et Moureaux in 1965 which produces Suze, Byrrh Grand Quinquina, and Pernod Absinthe)
Known Botanicals: at least 2, including yellow gentian
Nose: gentian, honey, mint, chamomile, fennel, juniper, lemon, pine
Palate: gentian, orange, lemon, honey, grapefruit, chamomile, juniper, pine
Finish: gentian, mint, honey, chamomile, grapefruit, tarragon, lemon, bitter almond
Additional Notes: Vibrant gentian-yellow color identical to Aveze (the label unabashedly declares both Yellow #5 and caramel used for coloring). Overall most similar to Aveze, but with a more aggressive attack and a bit more astringency. Dilution accentuates the bitter gentian.
While Salers and Aveze dial in varying levels of gentian bitterness, sweetness, and other botanicals, Suze turns all of its dials to 11. It's the punchiest, most gentian-heavy bitter in the category and contains a fair amount of sweetener to find balance as a result. It's the most "citrusy" of the bunch as well, though more of a juniper or pine citrus than lemon or orange as is the case with Aveze. There is little to no confectionary baking spice flavor to be found.
Suze holds up very well in cocktails on account of its proof and sugar content, typically retaining its gentian backbone better than any of its peers. It works well with most spirits, but can clash with barrel-aged spirits like whiskey.
Notably Missing: Breckinridge Bitters. Will accept donations of any missing bottles.
Check out the individual regional Vermouth guides for more detailed information on regional styles and recommended bottles:
The Complete Guide to Dry Vermouth
Sweet White Vermouth
The Complete Guide to Sweet White Vermouth
Sweet Red Vermouth
The Complete Guide to Sweet Red Vermouth
Quinquina and Americano
The Complete Guide to Quinquina and Americano
Tasting Guide to Gentian Liqueurs
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