Génépi- God's Green Goodness
By Lilidh Matthews
The famous Génépi has become a liqueur emblematic of the Alps and in particular the Savoie region. No night-time adventure is complete without a taste of the local fire water.
At the centre of the production of Génépi is the rare alpine plant commonly called Wormwood (Artemisia species) that provides the liqueur’s flavour and colour. Artemisia is a plant that is iconic of the Alpine region and a true symbol of inaccessibility due to its highly specific habitat, as it is largely limited to rock crevices in the wild mountain moraines left uncovered during the cyclic glacial withdrawal. This robust herb from the daisy family tends to be found above 2000m, flowering between July and September and has earnt the name “white gold”, due to its scarcity.
Unfortunately for anyone who is suddenly seeing €€€ signs, foraging for this plant in the wild is strictly controlled. At one time it was not uncommon for mountaineers to make their own liqueur ,but now there are laws regulating the collection of Artemisia and in some areas, foraging for certain Artemisia varieties is completely banned.
Artemisia is commonly referred to throughout history as Wormwood and appears as far back as the Bible and in ancient love charms. Before it became a pick-me-up for skiers, this drink was believed to have medicinal qualities. In the middle ages Artemesia was used as a medicinal herb recommended as a treatment for fevers. Alp dwellers also praised the drink for its properties as an appetite stimulant digestive tonic, and it gained a nickname of “l'aspirine des montagnards” (the mountaineer’s aspirin). There were many other fabled virtues of the plant as an antiseptic, wound healer and perhaps most importantly, as a treatment for altitude sickness. Shepherds in the region of Savoie would traditionally mix Génépi with coffee and drink it out of a wooden shoe – the point at which two traditions started! This evolved for the shepherds into the concept of the grolle, a carved bowl with a number of spouts, known as a coupe de l’amitie (cup of friendship) which is passed around the room and not put down until the bowl is empty.
Many different varieties of Artemisia are native to the mountainous areas of Europe and have been used to make the liqueur. Each requires slightly different conditions, but the one that is mentioned most by the more prominent Génépi producers is Artemisia umbelliformis. Each variety will be selected based on personal taste, tradition and availability. The important part is the flower sprig, which when picked were traditionally dried on open racks. In order to protect the mountain flora and ensure continuous flavor, you will find that almost all sprigs used by distilleries these days come from cultivated plants.
The end of the 18th century marked the spread of traditional maceration techniques (infusing the flower with alcohol) throughout the region by local inhabitants. Each distiller, to this day, has their own process of production, but generally, distillation uses a still, which gently imparts the liqueur’s unique and traditional taste by selective boiling and condensation of alcohol, water, sugar and very gentle treatment of the plants to concentrate selected components of the liqueur. Maceration is a much easier process; the plants are infused in a mixture of neutral alcohol (100% vol) and water (to bring it back down to drinkable levels) for two to three months.
Depending on the ingredients and method of manufacture, Génépi will vary in colour from a pale-gold to green or brown, but should be a clear liquid. It is generally agreed that the greener a Génépi is, the lower the quality, as colouring may have been added. Some Génépi producers actually preserve the flowers by leaving them in the bottle, believing this to enhance the flavour over time.
Making your own Génépi: Although it won’t be exactly the same as the Génépi that is produced down the valley, you can make your own quite simply. Dried Artemisia flower stems can easily be found online – but remember there are over 400 varieties of Artemisia!
Add 40 strands of Artemisia to 1L of alcohol (unflavoured 40% vodka will do) and leave to stand for a 2-3 months or more. Filter out the flower stems and add 40g of sugar. Refrain from drinking for another week, but turn the bottle each day to help dissolve the sugar. You can leave a stem of Artemisia in for decoration.