It’s about 11 in the morning, and my sister and I are on a ski lift, headed up the mountain at Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md. The only sound is the hum of the cable; the sky in the distance is beginning to gray with the threat of snow. Rarely a morning drinker, I’m making an exception: From a flask in my pocket, I take a swig of génépi, a liqueur that — far off in the Alps — is part and parcel of the mountain experience.
It was a taste I missed completely when I was in its place of origin. Because our dad was in the Foreign Service, my sister and I learned to ski in Europe, and I can recall warm lodges filled with jovial French and Germans, stomping in and out in a thunder of boots, gathering near fireplaces to sip — what?
What were they drinking? I don’t know. Our parents weren’t barflies, and for my sister and me, après-ski meant finding the least organ-based item on any menu and ordering it loyally everywhere we went. (There was a week in Bavaria where we survived on breakfast rolls, Nutella and schnitzel, and I will never forget a time in France when we were served a cheese that appeared to be sprouting a thick head of hair. I was not ready for that cheese at age 8. I might not be ready for it now.)
I was hardly sampling local spirits at that age. I never encountered génépi as most Europeans do: on ski trips, as an after-dinner quaff. As with that hirsute cheese, as with the spiritual meaning of cathedrals and the historical import of so many castles and battlefields, I missed it. I was just too young.
Which is why I’m swigging it now, trying to comprehend from afar what I missed from a-near, to bring some Alpine sophistication to the ski slopes of Maryland.
The sip has a floral, herbal, perhaps slightly minty sweetness. The breath that follows the sip brings the freezing air into my mouth and tracks across my palate, creating a sense of clean freshness — a bright green taste in the midst of winter.
Génépi/génépy/genepi (the spelling varies based on which country you’re in) is specific to the European Alps, a member of the family of alcohols flavored with species of artemisia, a category that includes the long-persecuted absinthe. Its age is tricky to pin down, but it’s probably safe to say the first génépi was made several hundred years ago. Several native species of artemisia grow wild at these high altitudes. They are harvested in summer and macerated in alcohol, then the brew is sweetened; other herbs may be added to enhance the taste.
Peter Schaf of Tempus Fugit Spirits, which specializes in absinthes and other historic spirits, notes that the addition of other herbs probably is partly due to the scarcity of artemisia plants. “It was overused medicinally in the past, and thus its harvest is VERY regulated and limited,” he told me in an email. “This makes it expensive, so most commercial brands don’t use near as much as was used in past liqueur protocols.”
When I first tasted génépi in a cocktail, I mistook it for an absinthe rinse. When I finally had it neat, the error seemed ridiculous: Its sweetness and lower alcohol by volume clearly separate it.
“It’s very much its own product with its own historical identity. This isn’t something trying to be Chartreuse: It predates Chartreuse,” says Eric Seed, founder of importer Haus Alpenz, which brings in a roster of spirits treasured in the craft cocktail world, including Dolin Génépy des Alpes. “The origin of sticking herbs in something alcoholic is one of the oldest forms of drink. Flavoring wine with botanicals to either improve its character or mask its flaws, that dates back before the age of Christ.”
With génépi, Seed says, “the way it’s been sustained and celebrated is . . . very much as a taste of the Alps. . . . If you talk to an old French chef and you mention génépi, he will say, ‘Ah, we went skiing back in 1963, and we had génépi after!’ ”
Many varieties of génépi are produced in the Alpine region. “You can do a simple maceration [of the artemisia] and you get a lovely floral, herbaceous element, but it’s what’s blended with it that really makes it more complex,” says Seed. “There are other spices and plants that give it that certain sensation of the Alpine air.”
I admit that my desire to learn about génépi sprang partly from interest in Chartreuse, the complex herbal liqueur that has been produced for centuries by secretive Carthusian monks. (There are yellow and green varieties; the green is more the darling of the cocktail world.) Green Chartreuse tastes to me like a génépi that has been complicated by many other herbs and spices, most prominently the highly fragrant angelica.
I would love to understand more about how the region’s spirits evolved and how they overlap, but Chartreuse guards its secrets zealously. A while ago, I emailed the company to ask how Chartreuse fit into the génépi tradition. I got a polite response referring me to the scant information on the company’s website and explaining that the monks make their own line of génépi, separate from Chartreuse. It’s not available in the United States. That may be because of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s strict regulation of the chemical content of spirits made with artemisia, but I can’t be certain; further queries were met with what I’ve come to think of as the Green Wall of Silence.
It’s hard to find a wide variety of génépi locally. I picked up the Guillaumette brand in New York, and it’s more rustic than the Dolin: sweeter, more singularly floral, with a sprig of artemisia suspended in the bottle. My guess is that it’s a traditional version, but I prefer the more complex Dolin. I’ve also infused several homemade variations. If you’re not drinking it on the ski slopes, try it after dinner as a digestif. Seed says most locals drink it with tonic and lemon, or in hot cocoa; I’ve enjoyed it with gin and tequila and mixed equally with good dry vermouth.
As I sip from my flask on the chairlift, I feel a connection between this herbal taste and the crisp, cold air stirring the trees around us. I can almost imagine that we’re thousands of miles away, that we might come off the lift to crest a sparkling slope and look over a snowy valley, its nooks pocked with little French villages.
But as we glide upward, we spot a trash barrel right beneath us. It’s overflowing with beer cans and little empty bottles of booze that skiers have dropped from the lift. It roots me where we really are. Skiers in the highfalutin Alps may drink génépi, but around here, they’re sucking down hundreds of mini-bottles of Fireball cinnamon-flavored whiskey.
Seeing the pile, I realize that I’m going to miss out on a place’s native drinking culture once again. I’m just too old for it.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
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18 servings (makes 4 1/4 cups)
This recipe does not make a true génépi, because it has been complicated with nontraditional herbs, but you might think of it as a transatlantic cousin. It makes for a bright, wintry after-dinner sip. In the Alpine regions, génépi/génépy/genepi is made by infusing the flowers of local species of artemesia into alcohol and adding sugar.
Serve this liqueur chilled and neat or over ice or mixed with a good dry vermouth.
MAKE AHEAD: The herb-infused vodka needs to sit overnight. The dried herbs and spices need to infuse the strained herb vodka for 1 to 4 days. The herbal liqueur can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.
We found some of the less-common dried herbs, such as the wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, mace blades (coarsely chopped instead of ground mace) and angelica, at Bazaar Spices in Union Market; they can also be ordered online.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
1/2 cup fresh arugula leaves, chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon dried wormwood (see headnote)
1 teaspoon dried lemon balm (see headnote)
1 teaspoon dried hyssop (see headnote)
1 teaspoon mace blades (see headnote)
1 teaspoon dried angelica (see headnote)
One 750-milliliter bottle 100-proof vodka
1 cup simple syrup (1:1, see NOTE)
Combine the arugula, basil, mint and tarragon in a large glass jar; pour in the vodka and allow to infuse overnight, then remove the herbs and discard.
Combine the wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, mace blades and angelica in a tea infuser or nut-milk bag; add to the infused vodka to steep for 1 to 4 days, tasting daily to check the flavor.
Once the vodka is infused to your liking, discard the sachet of herbs, then add the simple syrup, stirring to incorporate. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 weeks. Shake or strain before using.
NOTE: To make the simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a slow, rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through; store indefinitely.
Nutrition | Per 2-ounce serving: 150 calories, 0 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
Recipe tested by M. Carrie Allan; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org