Even if you don’t know what Gentian root is, it’s very likely that you’ve consumed it in a cocktail. Its prominence in modern drinks can partially be traced back to England during the 1800’s, where countless varieties of proprietary bitters were sold as magical cure alls for a list of ailments. Gentian root was as a dominant ingredient in many of them.
The wild plant, which grows on the slopes of the Alps and the Pyrennees, has been used for its medicinal benefits since ancient Egyptian times. It promotes salivation and soothes the stomach, giving it a very active role to play in aperitifs like Campari and Aperol.
For a cleaner sample of what Gentian tastes like, a whole array of wine-based French aperitifs have become more available in the United States. These all have a distinctive yellow hue and are bitter on the palette without being too herbaceous or unpleasant. Served tall with a soda water, they make for a great refreshing highball.
As for utilizing gentian liquors in cocktails, a White Negroni is a good place to start. Arguably more accessible than your standard Negroni, it also has more of a Martini-like structure, so I prefer it served up. I used Salers in this home recipe because of its friendly price point, but I’m partial to the boldness of the costlier Suze.
The White Negroni
1.5 ounces London dry Gin
.75 ounces Cocchi Americano
.5 ounces Salers Aperitif
Stir in a glass with ice for thirty seconds, then strain into a rocks or coupe glass, depending on how you like it. Garnish with a lemon peel.
For something completely different, and well worth the extra effort involved, there’s the Trinidad Sour. Gentian is one of the few ingredients that the makers of Angostura bitters admits to using for their secret recipe. This cocktail, created by Guiseppe Gonzalez, uses it as a base spirit, resulting in a frothy, dark red beast that tiptoes the line of Tiki-drink excess. You’ll typically find Angostura bitters used in small dashes for drinks such as Manhattans, but I fully endorse trying the stuff by itself. If a shot of straight Angostura scares you, try the Trinidad Sour and your fears may dissipate.
1.5 ounces Angostura bitters
1.5 ounces Orgeat
.75 ounce fresh lemon juice
.5 ounce 100 proof Rye Whiskey
Shake hard with ice and strain into a coupe glass.