“Would you like to try some eau-de-vie?” We were having fondue at our friends’ place. About half-way through a cheese fondue, at least from our experience in Suisse Romande, you often get offered a small glass of kirsch – a clear cherry liqueur. However, on this occasion our host suggested another clear liqueur with a long history in Switzerland: Eau-de-vie de gentiane. So, he poured a small glass for me from a bottle with a handwritten label. This strong alcoholic beverage was made by a relative. I was curious to learn more…
What is eau-de-vie de gentiane?
Gentian, known as gentiane in French and enzian in German, is an alpine plant. People have been using it for centuries to cure various maladies, such as digestion issues. King Gentius of ancient Illyria supposedly discovered this plant and lent his name to the genus, gentiana. The roots of this plant have also been used to make alcoholic beverages. For example, Suze, a French apéritif, was created in 1885.
In Switzerland, the first documented use of gentian for making eau-de-vie occurred in 1796 within the canton of Neuchâtel. Eau-de-vie literally translates to “water of life” in English. Schnaps is the equivalent in German. You can find lots of different eau-de-vie in Switzerland. Most often distillers make it with fruit like plums, pears or apricots.
The Swiss Eau-de-vie de gentiane, which Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse has listed among its directory of traditional food products in Switzerland, uses Great Yellow Gentian (Gentiana lutea). In all, there are hundreds of varieties of gentian. Some examples are the much shorter yellow gentian (Punktierter enzian), also used for making eau-de-vie, and a blue-flowered gentian (Frühlings enzian). Harvested in the fall, the crushed gentian roots ferment for a period of about 2-3 months.
Given the yellow flowers, Swiss Eau-de-vie de gentiane carries the nickname, la fée jaune (the yellow fairy). This refers to its cousin, la fée verte (the green fairy), or absinthe, also produced in Suisse Romande.
What does gentian taste like?
After I received my small glass of Eau-de-vie de gentiane, distilled by my friend’s relative, I noticed an earthy scent. After my first sip, I picked up the flavor of gentian. It reminded me of what I imagine a wild alpine plant might taste like. You drink it straight, without any water or sugar like you might add to absinthe. And, you generally have it at the end of a meal. It typically contains between 40 and 55 percent alcohol by volume.
I had gentian schnaps again this week in the Montafon region of Austria, just across the border from Switzerland. When I paired it with an apple strudel, the sweet dessert helped to balance out the bitter taste of the gentian. As a result, I even bought a bottle to take home.
Where can you find gentian beverages in Switzerland?
Alcoholic beverages: A 2014 article in Le Temps indicated that about a half-dozen distilleries produced Eau-de-vie de gentiane in Suisse Romande at that time. Here are three that, according to their website or information I saw listed via online directories, currently make this alcoholic beverage.
- Distellerie du Risoux, located in the Vallée de Joux region within the canton of Vaud and run by Dominique Bonny and her husband. In 2013, the village of Charbonnières, where you’ll find this distillery, was named a “Village européens de la gentiane,” Tel. +41 (0)79 449 01 56, firstname.lastname@example.org
- In the Jura bernois region, you’ll find Distillerie de L’Echelette, managed by Elodie Gerber, Tel. +41 (0)79 636 26 78, email@example.com
Non-alcoholic beverages: For a non-alcoholic beverage made from gentian, I recommend GENTS – a Swiss roots tonic. Started in 2012 by Zurich-based Hans Georg Hildebrandt, this company produces a tonic water made from beet sugar and gentian root, among other ingredients.
Updated: December 29, 2022