What the Heck Is Suze?
Belle Cushing, photo by Zach DeStart
“This is the summer of Suze,” Andrew Knowlton, our restaurant and drinks editor, declared in our July 2014 issue. So what exactly is Suze, anyway?
Suze is a pleasingly bitter French apéritif made from the gentian root, which grows in the mountains of Switzerland and France. “It really captures the essence of the earth. You can sense how the root twisted its tendrils into the rocks like an octopus,” says Scott Baird, founder of the cocktail consulting firm Bon Vivants. It manages to be earthy, bitter, and floral all at once.
Sother Teague, bartender at the bitters-focused New York bar Amor y Amargo, would compare it to the less esoteric Lillet. ”Suze has a beautiful soft citrus undertone,” she says. “Though it’s bitter, it also provides some sweetness, and remains very refreshing.”
There’s a whole family of gentian-based booze out there: Salers, Avèze—even old favorites Aperol and Campari contain some of the bitter root. But Suze retains a special cachet. Though it was invented in 1885, it wasn’t until 2012 that French maker Pernod found a willing U.S. importer in Domaine Select. Until then, it could only be found on the back bar of cocktail joints, smuggled over in the suitcases of in-the-know bartenders. (“Every time a friend went abroad, it was ‘Bring me some Suze. Suze, please,’” recalls Baird.) Now that Suze is available to law-abiding citizens, it’s time to give it a chance.
Suze is ideal both for cocktails and for straight sipping as a pre- or post-dinner drink. Baird compares it to adding soy or umami to dishes for that something-special boost. “It works that other corner,” he says. “It has grounded depth, that necessary base note.”
Suze is to booze what high-percentage dark chocolate is to food, Baird explains—it’s an acquired taste, for sure, but it comes with a certain street cred. Expect to see it slipping on the menu at more adventurous cocktail bars, and start experimenting at home. Here are 6 ways to put Suze to good use:
1. Jazz up a 50/50 martini: half London Dry gin, half sweet vermouth, with a splash of Suze for richness.
2. “Order a Suze and soda on the rocks with orange,” says Knowlton. “You’ll impress your bartender, earn envious glances from curious drinkers, and whet your appetite.” One step further? Baird suggests Suze and tonic—the quinine accentuates Suze’s slightly medicinal notes.
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3. “Like the French,” says Baird, with one ice cube in a glass, diluted just a little to cut the sweetness.
4. Try a 1:1 ratio of Genever and Suze with a dash of lavender bitters—”delightfully bracing on a hot summer day,” says Teague.
5. In a white sangria punch, all citrus-y and bittersweet. (recipe below)
6. Straight. If you’re Baird, that’s straight from the bottle, late-night-style, with a bunch of your closest bartender friends. Or sip a little more discerningly. “If you think you like Suze, but are still unfamiliar with it, there’s no better way to understand it than by drinking it and tasting it critically,” says Teague. “No one anywhere made a product thinking, I’ve done it! I’ve made something that will go great with other stuff! Rather, they think, I’ve done it! This is delicious, please enjoy it!“