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Gentian: Herbal Drink of the Auvergne Highlands

Gentian…a more sure remedy cannot be found to prevent the pestilence than it is; it strengthens the stomach exceedingly, helps digestion, comforts the heart, and preserves it against faintings and swoonings.

-Nicholas Culpeper

Spend some time outside a brasserie or bistro in Puy-de-Dôme or Cantal, and chances are you’ll spot a cluster of cigarette-holding bar regulars enjoying a yellow-coloured drink while waiting for their meal. This earthy, somewhat bitter-tasting aperitif is “gentian”. Made from the root of the gentian plant (Gentiana lutea) — a tall herb that grows in the Auvergne highlands — gentian has been an integral part of Auvergnat drinking culture for over a century. Although nineteenth-century French distiller Ambroise Labounoux is widely regarded as the inventor of gentian liqueur, the herb itself has an ancient pharmacological history. In fact, records show that Ancient Greek physicians readily employed gentian to treat various physical ailments.

Gentian root. Image via Avèze

Some of the most popular brands of gentian include Salers (which has its origins in Corrèze) and Avèze, which sources its plants from the mountains of Cantal. You can also find a number of locally made gentian liqueur varieties in villages throughout the Parc des Volcans.

Drinking Recommendations

Gentian, in my opinion, is best served either on the rocks or as a highball. If you want to go the highball route, which is perfect for summer soirées, add three cubes of ice and fill your glass about one-fourth full of gentian. Top it up with a sparkling water of your choice (preferably something from Auvergne, such as Chateldon), squeeze in a few drops of lime or lemon juice, and add a sprig of fresh mint.

Want to learn more about Auvergne liqueurs? Click here.