Herbalist or no, you probably have Gentian in your home. It’s in the pantry next to that weird bottle of alcohol you got as a gift and never opened. Can’t find it? Don’t worry. Gentian is in every bar in America, Europe or wherever you’re reading this. People take it for its flavor, but it’s not what you think.
Gentian is bitter. Very bitter. The king of bitter herbs.
There are hundreds of species scattered across the world’s mountaintops and alpine meadows. For our purposes, we’ll talk about yellow Gentian. A tall yellow flower that grows wild in the French, Swiss and German alps. (If the hills are alive with music, they’re likely also alive with yellow Gentian.) When the plant is mature, people harvest the long tuberous root. (Editor’s note: we get ours cultivated to avoid threatening native Gentian populations. Ok, back to the action…)
Don Draper drinks Gentian. So did the famous Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. And before that, so did the ancient Egyptians. Papyrus recipes with Gentian date to more than 1200 BC.
The Romans used Gentian to make an ancient remedy called “Theriac.” This was a paste made of bitter herbs and honey. They used it to treat almost any ailment or poison—you name it and you could find an ancient Roman using Theriac to treat it. But mostly, it was used for digestive complaints.
By the renaissance, Gentian moved from cure-all ingredient to its modern role as a digestive aid. Gentian’s bitter compounds promote salivation, and in turn, support the body’s natural digestive mechanisms. So the herb became a star ingredient in digestif (before the meal) and aperitif (after the meal) liquors. The bracing bitter flavor of Gentian was exactly the point. It balanced out the other sweet and floral flavors. Nowadays you can find Gentian in Campari, Aperol, Suze and hundreds of other liquors.
Which gets us back to where you can find Gentian in your own home. Gentian is a star ingredient in cocktail bitters. You get a few drops of Gentian whenever you order a Manhattan, Moscow Mule, Negroni or Don Draper’s favorite Old-Fashioned.
We make digestive bitters with Gentian here at Herb Pharm, and you most certainly do not have to take them in a cocktail to get their effects. They are included in our Better Bitters formula and are great before a big meal or some spicy take out.