The Genius of Gentius

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

Gentiana Acaulis photo by Ramin Nakisa via Wikimedia Commons

If you are a fan of the Aperol Spritz (or Suze and Soda on the rocks), you might not know it, but you are a fan of Gentian. Gentian is a flowering plant that grows wild in the mountains of Europe, particularly the Vosges, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.

Gentian (Gentianaceae) may have yellow, white, blue, or varied-color flowers. The dried root of the gentian plant has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses and is often used as a flavoring agent for bittered wines and spirits–including Campari, Suze, Aperol, Bonal, Fernet, and various brands of cocktail bitters and vermouth.  Gentian root is highly aromatic and adds a range of sweet aromatics as well as a bitter taste to an aromatized wine or a spirit amari.

In addition to the range of gentian-infused amari on the market, gentian liqueurs have a following of their own. Gentian liqueurs originated in the historical French region of Auvergne, which is now part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. This is a mountainous region of central France where gentian grows wild. In these parts, gentian liqueur is traditionally served as an aperitif, over ice and with a wedge of lemon.

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Photo of Salers Gentiane via Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Salers, a bright-yellow-colored liqueur, is considered to be the oldest producer in the area, having started production in 1885. Other brands still produced in the region include Avèze (formerly known as Auvergne), Chantelune, and Gentiane Couderc.

In addition to its role in beverages, gentian root is used in herbal medicine to treat fever, muscle spasms, and digestive problems. This is despite the fact that most scientific studies have shown little to no actual effect on these conditions other than a placebo effect. However, it is widely accepted–in many cultures, east and west–that bittering agents and the taste component of bitter can increase gastric secretions and therefore aid digestion. Just witness the long tradition of “tonics” and digestives made with bittering agents, which might include your own habit of calming a rumbling stomach with a shot of Fernet (it works for me). We might just have to call this debate a draw.

Gentian is named after King Gentius, who ruled as the last Illyrian King (a kingdom near present-day Montenegro that later became part of the Roman Empire) from 181 to 168 BCE. It is believed that Gentius discovered the medicinal and flavoring value of the plant and encouraged its use. Several ancient writings, including those from Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, allude to the fact that gentian was used for a variety of medicinal purposes during Roman times, including as an antidote to poison and in the dressing of wounds.

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

King Gentius of Illyria, designed in Photoshop by Hyllier, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a partial list of well-known beverages that contain gentian. See the “for more information” links for even more:

  • Amère Sauvage
  • Angostura Bitters
  • Appenzeller
  • Aperol
  • Averna
  • Bonal
  • Campari
  • Cinzano Bianco Vermouth
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Picon
  • Salers
  • Suze
  • Underberg
  • Unicum

References/for more information:


P.S. Of course, to get a hit of gentian, you could always have a Negroni Cocktail–that’s always a good idea!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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