Blithe Spirits: Quirky French Apéritifs

Suze advertisement, PhotoXpress

Behind the bar in all French cafés lurks a selection of bottles with evocative names such as Byrrh or Suze. They are usually made from aromatic plants to closely-guarded recipes. You still see ancient advertisements for them stencilled onto barn walls – an early form of advertising hoarding. But does anyone actually drink these concoctions? During our recent trip to the Auvergne we set out to find the answer.

Une petite dégustation

Le Bar des Amis, opposite the church in Thiézac, is run by an amiable lady. The local farmers hang out there for apéritifs before roaring off in their 4x4s for dinner. We had heard of a local apéritif made from gentian roots and decided we had to try it. I made the mistake of mentioning Suze. La patronne shook her head.

“You don’t want to try that,” she said. “It’s more chemical and less authentic than the other brands – made for a national market.”

What could she offer us?

“Well, there’s Avèze. That’s the only gentian liquor actually made in Cantal these days, at Riom-ès-Montagnes. There’s also Salers but that’s made in Corrèze. They’re both made in the same way.”

We ordered a glass of each. Viscous yellow liquids were served neat with an ice cube in special glasses. My Avèze smelt like soap. It also tasted like soap. The SF’s Salers smelt like musty old roots and – yes, it tasted like them too. I had a feeling this was a taste I was unlikely to acquire and suggested that we tip the contents down a handily-placed drain.

10 Tasting of Gentiane liqueur

Each served in its own special glass

“There’s not going to be any alcohol wasted,” the SF declared and manfully took charge of both glasses. Instead, I ordered a glass of kir à la châtaigne – chestnut liqueur; also a local product. La patronne then admitted that she didn’t like gentiane, either.

Cashing in on a long tradition

My researches didn’t stop there. I discovered that Salers is the older brand. A Corrèze distiller, Alfred Labounoux, heard about a local peasant drink made by infusing gentian roots in white wine. He developed the recipe using gentian roots harvested near the Cantal town of Salers, from which the drink took its name, and started selling it in the 1880s. The drink soon became popular nationally and even inspired a song. I have tried to track down the song but without success so far.

Avèze was a later invention. Emile Refouvelet owned a liquor and grocery store in Riom-ès-Montagnes. He started to experiment with making a gentian apéritif in the 1920s and by 1938 he was selling 20,000 litres per year.

Getting to the root of it

Both brands are produced in the same way but certain aspects of the recipes are secret. The basic ingredient is the root of the yellow gentian, which grows only at certain altitudes. The roots are up to 1.5 metres long and weigh between three and five kilos. I learned that the plant can live to 60 years old while the roots used are an average of 45 years old. No wonder Salers tastes like musty old roots.

After a long process of conditioning, maceration in alcohol, the addition of aromatic plants and filtration the drink is ready. It’s made in two strengths: 15-16%, intended for national sale, and 20% which better suits the robust tastes of the local montagnards.

Cantal hillsides, from le Bar des Amis

The only people we actually saw drinking gentiane were two other tourists. The farmers stuck to pastis or beer. Someone must drink these beverages, though. Suze was selling up to 13 million bottles in the 1930s but World War II and the Vichy régime’s antipathy to alcohol greatly dented sales. Consumption picked up again after the war and the manufacturers reduced the alcohol content to make it more acceptable as an apéritif.

The most recent figures I can find are for 2003, when Suze had c. 72% of the market and sold seven million bottles. Avèze was next with 9.2% and Salers trailed at 2.6%. The total market must therefore be getting on for 10 million bottles. I can’t find out how much is exported but I would guess it’s a small proportion.

If you want to find out more about the history and production methods, they all have websites:

As for me, I’m sticking to kir.

Copyright © 2011 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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14 Responses to Blithe Spirits: Quirky French Apéritifs

  1. Paul Diamond says:

    Your story on Quirky French Apéritifs reminded of a local alcoholic drink made on ‘our island’ in the Caribbean.
    I am sure its made all the time for local consumption but it is most popular and available at Christmas time, if you know who to get it from.
    Basically its illegal moonshine, raw cane spirit rum but mixed with a wide range of local roots, fruits and spices.
    One of the most popular drinks on the island, served at a very popular beach bar is apparently made with it as its key ingredient.
    Traditionally at Xmas, people would walk from village to village, house to house, sampling each families recipe of this concoction.
    The local name for it is Hammond…apparently named after an early 20th century British Colonial Officer by that name, who objected to the locals drinking alcohol not taxed by the crown, so he made it his mission to stamp out its manufacture…whole unsuccessfully it must be added. And now a 100 years later, the drink he tried so hard to eradicate now bears his name.

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    • nessafrance says:

      What a great story and quelle ironie for Hammond! Every country has its illegally brewed stuff. In Sweden, my husband tells me they make a fiery spirit out of potatoes, as indeed they do in Ireland. Here, they distil plums and make eau de vie. Most of it gets declared, but there’s always a percentage – the angel’s share – that somehow gets left out of the paperwork!

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  2. Deborah says:

    Investigative journalism at its finest! Fascinating stuff, right from the lovely old painted adverts. These liqueurs are all too dangerous these days for my fragile head for alcohol, but I do remember a fondness for “The Green One” during French skiiing holidays – Genepi (with acute accents – I think that’s how you spell it). Another herbal zinger!

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  3. Is there supposed to be a beneficial effect of the gentian root? Is it used for anything else? Very interesting- I’ll have to look into it. -kate

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    • nessafrance says:

      Good question: I should have thought of that when writing the post. A quick look on the Internet indicates that gentian roots have been used for a long time to stimulate appetite and improve digestion. They also apparently have anti-inflammatory qualities. There’s some doubt about whether these beneficial effects have been clinically tested. As far as I know the roots are only used to make the drink in France nowadays. But I guess it’s also possible that they were used in times past in other forms, e.g. dried and powdered, to achieve the medicinal effects that are attributed to them.

      It seems likely that many French aperitifs that are based on aromatic plants or roots have probably developed from an original medicinal use.

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  4. I’ve never tried Salers but once a local farmer gave us a Verveine apero. It was, unsurprisingly, bright green and very syrupy, but delicious. I think it was a concoction the farmer made himself because I have never seen it again despite having checked out many a supermarket shelf. I can’t ask him because I’ve now moved away from that area. Perhaps someone else can shed light on this mysterious drink.

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    • nessafrance says:

      When we were in Cantal last week we saw a Verveine drink advertised. I think it’s made both as an apero and as a digestif. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the name but I notice on the Internet that there’s a version made by Couderc, a distillery in Aurillac. I’ve also come across a website www[dot]cantal[dash]terroir[dot]fr, where you can buy products from Cantal online, including a Verveine liqueur, with which you can make a cocktail or drink as a digestif. Click on La Cave and then Digestifs and you should find it. It ain’t cheap, though, at 28 euros a bottle or thereabouts. But probably a little goes a long way.

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      • Thanks for that info. I shall follow it up, but at €28 a bottle, may well not indulge again.

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      • nessafrance says:

        I expect you can find it more cheaply off the net, but I have to admit I haven’t seen it, although I haven’t been looking. If I do find any for a reasonable price in a national supermarket chain I’ll let you know.

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  5. That’s very interesting and just up my street. Robert and I enjoy the idea of aperitifs, especially in Italy when it’s fun to try the “aperitivo della casa”, which any bar worth its salt will have … mostly secret recipes, sometimes horrible, but often delightfully uplifting! Here, I’ve discovered that I really like Picon … is that considered an apero? Maybe not, but it’s usually what I go for on a miserable day.

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    • nessafrance says:

      The French used to consume a much wider selection of aperos than they do today, I think – at least that’s the impression I get. I have never tried Picon but have just had a quick look on the Internet where it’s described as a “caramel-coloured, flavoured bitters drunk as an apéritif, which traditionally accompanies beer in the east and north of France.” So it’s a sort of beer chaser, then? I’m sure it can be drunk on its own.

      This is interesting! I’m getting to find out about all sorts of other things to try.

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  6. We tried Salers during a cycling holiday in the Auvergne many years ago. It was horrendous!! But since the locals in the bar were watching us, we had to drink it up! Ugh.
    Have you ever tried kir a la chataigne with cider? It’s popular round here, and it’s a lovely warming drink for autumn.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Salers is pretty awful, I admit; very bitter. Not my sort of thing. I must try kir a la chataigne with cider. We brought back a bottle of chataigne liqueur so I will have every opportunity (hic!).

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