Words by Simon Difford
Gentian liqueurs tend to be bright yellow and taste on the bitter side of bittersweet. As the name suggests, their flavour comes from an infusion and distillation of gentian root, usually the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) variety, although the roots of blue Hungarian (Gentiana pannonica) red gentian (Gentiana purpurea) and spotted gentian (Gentiana punctata) may also be used.
Gentian grows in Europe's mountainous regions: the Alps, the Massif Central the Jura, the Pyrenees and the Vosges, but yellow gentian is mainly harvested in the Massif Central, particularly in the Auvergne region.
The harvesting of wild gentian is strictly controlled so most of the gentian used in beverage production is specifically cultivated. It takes seven to ten years after planting for gentian to reach sufficient maturity for harvesting. In France, the harvesters are traditionally called Gençanaïres and use special fork known as Devil's Pitchfork.
Gentian liqueurs originated in France in 1885 and continue to be a popular French aperitif, traditionally served over ice with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Gentian liqueurs are increasingly being used as an interesting flavouring and bittering ingredient in cocktails. We have a growing collection of gentian liqueur cocktails on Difford's Guide and if you have a particularly good cocktail using gentian then please email your recipe to firstname.lastname@example.org