The bitter root of knowledge

IT WAS ONE of those nights when everything was going just right. In the bar business, so much depends on your clientele. The more savvy they are, the more savvy you must be. The more demanding they are, the more accommodating you must become. And if they don’t know what they are doing, well, you get the picture.

Adaptability is the nature of the business, because without clientele, a bar is just an empty building.

Our bar was the opposite of an empty building: guests were ordering their appetizers first; they were waiting for places to be cleaned before plunking down all their belongings; they waited graciously for people to leave, forming an unspoken queue for available bar seats. They knew what they were doing, and they were doing it well. Meaning that the staff was better able to deliver everything expected. Everything was perfect.


They sat twice, in front of other couples who had waited longer, and they had to be asked to get up, twice, before finally securing two seats in front of me.

“Do you have that Manhattan on the website?” he asked.

“Which one?” I asked while pouring three glasses of chardonnay for the threesome next to them that had ordered simply by looking my way and nodding.

“You know, the one with the root liqueur.”

All of our Manhattans come with some sort of root liqueur.

Gentian, pronounced “jen(t)shen,” is a type of flowering plant whose root has been used as a bitter flavoring for centuries. Named after the last Illyrian King, Gentius, who fought the Romans and was defeated (the Balkans spent the next millennia under Roman/Byzantine rule). Gentius is credited with discovering that herbs have medicinal properties.

True to form, yellow gentian has been used as a stomachic and a tonic ever since. Gentian found its way into red Italian sweet vermouth (made from white wine and colored with caramel) and later into “dry” or “French” vermouth. Later gentian worked its way into the many versions of Italian bitter liqueurs called Amaro.

By extension it then arrived in the New World in Angostura bitters, and then in the many “bitters” that followed, including: Peychauds and Fee Brothers. All of which found themselves later combined with various types of whiskey into the drink that has now become a category called the Manhattan.

So really, root liqueur could mean just about anything.

“We have a Manhattan made with Avèze,” I said.

Developed in 1929 by French merchant Riomois Emile Refouvelet, Avèze was first marketed under the brand Auvergne with Gentiane as the label. Avèze is based loosely on a another liqueur called Salers, which was developed in the 1880s by another Frenchman named Alfred Labounoux. He, in turn, pilfered the idea from Cantal peasants who had produced gentian-infused white wine. Avèze has a bitter, dry flavor and light viscosity. Combined with its yellow color, Avèze adds enough bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of whiskey and is low enough alcohol (40 proof) to overwhelm it in a Manhattan.

“No,” said my inquisitive guest. “It’s the one on the website.”

“Our website?”

“No, THE website.”

I stopped the dozen things that I was doing simultaneously.

“Sir, there are thousands of websites.”

“The bartending one.”

It didn’t narrow it down.

Eventually someone next to him produced an iPad and after several minutes of searching, found the website and the liqueur.

Root liqueur, purportedly based on a 1770s recipe for Root Tea, is a new product created by a small producer in Philadelphia. Root is flavored with sarsaparilla, sassafras, birch bark and other roots, none of which seem to be gentian. Its literature claims the original mildly alcoholic tea was the basis for the later “root beer” invented in the 1880s by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hines, which, ironically, later lost its alcohol but has now regained it in force, in Root (80 proof).

All of which taught me two things:

• No matter how much you know, you can always learn something new, or else risk being left behind. Evidenced perhaps by Livy who wrote of the Illyrians, “In a few days, both on land and sea did Rome defeat the brave Illyrian tribe, who had relied on their knowledge of their own territory and fortifications.”

• Sometimes, it takes a wrench in the gears to get the gears turning in a new direction.