Spirits & Liqueurs More Spirits

Switzerland's Spirits Scene Is Anything but Neutral

Image: DucMityagov

In Europe, alcoholic beverages are commonly connected to a country of origin. Scotland has scotch, Spain is tied to sherry, France has cognac, and Italy is associated with amaro. Switzerland, curiously, has failed to equate itself to any one category. The birthplace of absinthe allowed the Parisians to flee with the green fairy. Blame the umlaut, perhaps, but most drinkers dream of Germany when downing shots of Goldschl?ger, which was made in the Swiss Alps until the mid-90s.

Make no mistake, though. This is fertile land for exceptional elixirs. High in the mountains, crafts-men and -women are weaving foraged ingredients into liquids unlike anything you’ll taste elsewhere. And it’s not just the distillers. Mixology is developing in the Alps, hoisting an herbal-forward cocktail scene upon a world stage.

Kronenhof hotel barroom.

“The popularity of gin has increased significantly within the last couple of years,” says László Medgyes, the bar manager at Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina. “Many small distilleries were established that create gins with a regional touch. Swiss gin in general is distilled with an influence of local mountain herbs.”

He recommends a delicate offering from a local label called Breil Pur. Among its native flavorings are chocolate mint, alpine rose and mountain juniper. “It’s made in a distillery with a history of 200 years of spirit making,” says Medgyes. “Each bottle is manually filled and numbered.” The liquid inside is far creamier in texture and softer on the palate than any standard London dry expression. The recipe traces its lineage back to an era during which these botanicals, steeped in spirits, were said to hold medicinal value. Even today it’s hard to deny their ameliorative effect.

L??szl?? Medgyes making a Martini.

The dramatic barroom of Kronenhof, facing the glacier-capped peaks rising sharply out of the Engadine Valley below, imbues its many Swiss spirits with an undeniable sense of place. The backbar leans heavily on gin, and you can literally taste the terroir of the scenery: Appenzeller Dry Gin 27, with its hint of pine sap; Swiss Crystal gin, with the essence of dried whortleberry; Morris, a “wild Alps” gin offering the aromas of wet winter forest; Ojo de Agua gin brings forth a blackberry tea; Schloss K?sers Tschin gin is distilled with elfinger juniper and cherry blossoms.

The Swiss are also serious about their mixers. “We often recommend Swiss gin together with a Swiss tonic,” says Medgyes. A growing trend among the modifiers, as well as the base spirit, is the incorporation of Swiss glacier water in its production. “When both ingredients of a G&T are the same, the harmony in the taste is great.”

Kronenhof backbar.

You needn’t be in the remote hinterlands of ski country to enjoy these alpine sips. The Swiss spirits renaissance is heading down from the mountain into the big cities and beyond. In 2007, Yves Kübler reintroduced his family’s absinthe to the U.S. after a 92-year absence. It’s made in the birthplace of the spirit, Val-de-Travers, near the country’s western border with France.

As with much of the underheralded booze from this part of the world, it’s built of botanicals said to alleviate all that ails you: hyssop, Roman wormwood, lemon balm—a laundry list of ingredients that mark Swiss spirits as wholly unique. Whether or not you believe in their healing powers is a personal matter. Their transportive effect, however, is difficult to ignore. To a world thirsty for discovery, Switzerland sends its greetings.