favorite liquor store for finding unusual products, I came across a bottle of Salers Gentiane, which I'd heard mentioned on cocktail blogs but had never found in person. Did I buy it? How is that even a question?
In all fairness, I brought it home not having much idea what I was getting into. I knew it was similar to other bitter aperitif liqueurs, namely Suze and Aveze, which I'd tried before in drinks like the White Negroni and in a drink or two at the esteemed Pouring Ribbons. What I didn't understand was how distinct these gentian liqueurs were from other aperitifs that I've known and loved.
Salers, as it turns out, is a different beast because of what's used to make it bitter: gentian root. A post on Fred Yarm's excellent blog, recapping a talk at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, first helped me get a handle on this difference. Gentian is a distinct bittering agent from either wormwood (used principally in vermouth, and more famously in absinthe) or cinchona bark (the bittering agent in tonic water and in other favorites like Cocchi Americano*). Like vermouths and other aperitifs, gentian liqueurs are fortified wines, starting life as relatively-bland white wine that's then boosted with sugar and spirits to add flavor and shelf life.
*This is actually a little weird, because Fred's post points out that gentian is generally used in "americanos" but Cocchi is indeed flavored with cinchona. Because this sort of linguistic confusion is everywhere in the world of food and spirits.
What makes gentian different is the quality of its bitteress, which sits between wormwood and cinchona on a continuum. Wormwood is intensely herbal and sharply bitter; cinchona is flat, sweeter, and woodier; gentian falls in the complex territory between. It's like taking a deep whiff of wild brushes. Trying my newly acquired Salers on its own, the flavor was intensely vegetal, bitter like a green pepper, brighter and more herbal than the citrus notes I'm used to in Cocchi Americano or Campari. Still, I reasoned, the formulation, alcohol level, and sweet/bitter balance are all roughly comparable to other liqueurs in the category. Why not give it a spin in recipes that call for other bitter liqueurs?
A Negroni riff seemed an obvious first move, the White Negroni already having been established as a good use of gentian liqueur. However, I'd purchased my Salers in lieu of other white fortified wines, so I decided to use up the last of my Aperol instead. Glad I did, too, because what a pretty color!
1 1/4 oz gin (using the last of my Bombay Sapphire East)
1 oz Aperol
1 oz Salers
Stir and strain over a large ice cube in a rocks glass; garnish with a broad strip of grapefruit peel.
This went down way too easily. It didn't have quite the richness of a traditional Negroni made with sweet vermouth, but the sweetness was on-point and the orange-rhubarb notes from the Aperol balanced the vegetal-lemon flavor of the Salers beautifully. I would happily add this into a regular rotation if I had such a thing.
Given the multiple comparisons I've already made to Cocchi Americano, not doing a Vesper riff would have been stupid. I tried plugging Salers into my standard Vesper recipe, but the final version took a little tweaking to get right.
1 1/2 oz gin (Beefeater this time)
1/2 oz vodka (Lususkowa, a vodka I hope to cover in a near-future post)
1/3 oz Salers
2 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters
Stir very, very well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist expressed over the top of the glass. Next time I might try discarding the peel and adding a basil leaf, just to nail home the look.
I normally use about 1/2 oz of Cocchi (about twice what Ian Fleming's original recipe calls for) because I like the flavor, but Salers was a bit overwhelming at that level. Backing off and supplementing with orange bitters lent a better balance of citrus and greenery.
In conclusion: like so much I've talked about here, Salers is funky stuff. But if you've got a hankering for something unusual to try in spirits-focused cocktails, it might just be worth seeking out.