The Secret to Drinking Like the French
The traditional French aperitif Suze is finally widely available in the U.S. We delve into the history of the gentian liqueur to figure out how to best enjoy it.
Suze, one of France’s preeminent aperitifs, tastes like dirt. Not regular dirt, mind you, but dirt that has been sweetened, colored a bright and fetching yellow and turbo flavor blasted within an inch of its life, like dirt as reimagined by Lady Gaga, Nick Cave and Ferran Adrià, all working together: deeply bitter, stony, woody, dusty, funky, sweet, dry, heady. Intense.
Some of you are going to stop reading right there. That’s OK, you’re not Suze people and there’s nothing wrong with that. You probably don’t like Campari or Fernet-Branca, either, and wouldn’t like Moxie, Maine’s ancestral and ever-polarizing answer to Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper, if you ever stumbled across it. (Nor would you like Malört, the intensely bitter “liqueur” that Chicagoans use to de-worm visitors, but that’s immaterial since nobody likes Malört.)
Campari, Fernet and Moxie, like Suze, all make prominent use of gentian as a bittering agent. (I don’t know precisely what Malört’s bittered with and am disinclined to investigate much.) Gentian—Gentiana lutea, the yellow or mountain gentian, to be exact—is a hardy Alpine flower whose thick, stubborn roots, when dried, look like unwrapped mummy arms and taste like you imagine such things would taste. They’ve been used in European medicine for millennia as an aid to digestion. But while those other drinks use gentian as one of several bittering and flavoring agents, Suze is pretty much all gentian.
Suze goes back to the late nineteenth century, when canny businessmen in France and Italy and elsewhere in Europe were taking standard apothecary’s formulae, monkeying around with them a little, adjusting them for taste and efficiency and visual appeal, putting them in cleverly-designed bottles and sticking up brightly-colored, eye-catching posters devoted to them on every unoccupied bit of wall from Brittany to Brest-Litovsk. In the process, they were converting common cultural property into proprietary brands.
In 1889, a couple of Paris businessmen, Fernand Moureaux and partner Henri Porte, wanted to get in on this action. Moureaux, apparently a member of an old distilling family, had a distillery he had built in 1875 in Maisons-Alfort, a grimy industrial suburb just southeast of Paris. They had a formula, which had either been bought from Hans Kappeler, an obscure Swiss herbalist, or created in 1885 by Félix Lebaupin, the director of the laboratory they maintained at the distillery. In 1895, they finally found a good name for the resulting product: “Suze,” taken either from a Swiss-Alpine stream or Moureaux’s sister-in-law, Suzanne “Suze” Jaspert, who liked gentian drinks.
That’s the story, anyway. Such stories are always a little approximate, or at least the old ones are. Before the internet age, if anyone paid much attention to small startups before they became big brands, they certainly didn’t do it in print. By the time there was any curiosity about a brand, the details of that early history had become soft and blurry. In fact, I can find no trace of Moreaux or Porte at Maisons-Alfort or anywhere else before 1898, nor any trace of their gentian-based liqueur; Lebaupin, however, was in town, but he was running his own business until at least 1886.
It’s possible Moureaux and Porte took over the distillery operated by one M. Plasse, which partially burned down at the end of 1897 with fatal results for Plasse and his daughter, and hired Lebaupin, adopting his old formula. The whole Swiss-herbalist business can be discounted, as the dates that have been advanced for it are well after Suze was registered as a brand, but it does reinforce that fact that there was nothing unusual about a gentian-flavored aperitif or liqueur; that such things were a staple of Alpine folk medicine—gentian was, and still is, reputed to be a great aid to the digestion. What was new was the branding and perhaps the process—Suze uses fresh gentian root, not the usual dried, which is steeped in alcohol for several years before redistillation. (That, at least, is what people say—the process is proprietary.)
In any case, the brand was registered on November 18, 1898, to “F. Moureaux & Co., Distillers, Maison-Alfort.” In 1912, Suze got a redesign, appearing for the first time in the signature tall, rim-bottomed bottle it still uses today. It caught on fairly quickly: also in 1912, the young Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, living in France, portrayed a Suze bottle in high-Cubist collage, pasting what looks like a Suze label in the middle of the thing (in fact, it is a clipping from one of the brand’s newspaper ads). By 1920, Suze was one of the standard French aperitifs.
Unlike some of the other French herbal liqueurs and aperitifs, however, Suze held little interest for foreign drinkers, or at least the ones in Britain and America (large amounts of the stuff were shipped out to France’s far-flung colonies). When A.J. Liebling, the great American gastronome, returned to some of his old stomping grounds in France after World War II, he was at least able to muster some nostalgic affection for the “horrid tasting French drinks like St. Raphaël, Suze and Raspail” that he was once again bumping into after several years of separation. (Just so you know, St. Raphaël is flavored with quinine; Raspail with camphor; I’m with him on that one, anyway.) The British perspective was, if anything, less charitable. See, for example, the cosmopolitan English novelist and travel writer Alex Hamilton’s 1985 description of Suze as “that foul drink, smelling of vapor rub.”
For decades, we had to rely on the taste buds of such authorities when it came to Suze, as it was almost entirely unavailable here. Indeed, in 1947, when the French wine and spirits industry put out a massive guide in English to all the delicious drinks lying around there waiting to be exported again after wartime shipping restrictions had been lifted, Suze was perhaps the only popular brand that did not take out an advertisement in it. I mean, with people like that, what was the point?
Until a few years ago, the only kind of place you’d find a bottle of Suze in America was the sort of oh-so-French bistro that used to dot the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a few blocks of downtown Beverly Hills, where the air kiss was an art form and a single Salade Niçoise would provide an entrée for a table of four.
Then Pernod Ricard, the French spirits powerhouse who had bought Suze back in 1965, reworked the brand a bit (among other things restoring it to its prewar proof, 20 percent ABV) and cautiously brought a few bottles over here. After all, the Negroni was white-hot, Fernet-Branca was a bartender staple and all things bitter were having their day.
And guess what? Liebling and Hamilton and all those guys were wrong. The stuff is delicious. You have to have a reasonable tolerance for bitterness, of course, but if you do Suze has a clean brightness that sets it apart from some of its murkier competitors. With soda and ice, it’s a fine summer refresher.
Where I really like it, though, is in cocktails. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Moreaux and Porte’s ads used to recommend that it be drunk mixed with water and a spot of crème de cassis or lemon syrup in the summer or with orange curaçao or crème de menthe in the winter. We can do better than that, although the cassis is not a bad tip and the curaçao works surprisingly well, as long as you stir them together with ice and strain it. But Suze is a natural in a Negroni variant, such as the White Negroni (really, it should be “Yellow Negroni”) that the O.G. London cocktail-mixer Wayne Collins came up with some 20 years back, with equal parts gin, Suze and Lillet Blanc.
Collins was not the first to mix a good Suze cocktail, though. In 1948, for instance, the French bartender Maurice Bonnet came up with a “Jeunesse Cocktail” that combines one part Suze with one part lemon juice and two parts Cointreau, stirred with ice and strained. It’s sweet, sure, but the acid from the lemon and the bitterness from the Suze work against that and the whole thing comes off as bright and refreshing and surprisingly harmonious and you’d never know its main spirit was a liqueur. Stump your friends.
Let’s get back to that crème de cassis, though. Cassis is a deeply earthy, thick, low-alcohol liqueur that can overpower delicate ingredients. It’s also one of the few things that mixes really well with another earthy spirit, tequila, as has been recognized since the late 1920s, when a bartenders at the Agua Caliente resort and racetrack in Tijuana combined them in the original Tequila Sunrise. Sometimes, with strong or pungent flavors the thing that works best is to throw caution to the winds and pair them with others just as funky: tequila-cassis; cassis-Suze—like that. By the transitive property of mixology, tequila, cassis and Suze should all work together. And voilà, they do: Suze turns out to be the perfect foil for the pair.
As proof, I offer the Tierra Amarga; the “Bitter Earth”:
- 2 oz Blanco tequila
- .75 oz Suze
- .25 oz Crème de cassis
- 2-3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- Glass: Cocktail
- Garnish: Lemon peel
Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a lemon peel over the top.