Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bonal, Lille

As we walked from the train station to our hotel earlier this year, I could hardly miss this ghost sign looming high above the Rue du Molinel in the city of Lille.

Several aperitifs, such as Dubonnet, St Raphaël, or Byrrh, contain cinchona while gentian is the key ingredient of Suze. The combination of both cinchona and gentian root, together with herbs on a mistelle base is at the heart of another French aperitf: Bonal.

The recipe was elaborated in 1865 by Hypolite Bonal, a former novice at the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the Carthusian order. In 1858 Bonal, who studied medicine to become the monastery's doctor and was about to become a monk, was called to a village nearby to help a woman deliver her child. Since the strict rules of the Carthusians prevented contact with outsiders, he was expelled from the monastery and settled in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, where he opened a medical practice and later a chemist's shop. Both for his job and out of interest he studied the plants growing in this part of the Alps and prepared different concoctions. In 1865, by combining gentian roots that had macerated for months in mistelle, with herbs from the surrounding mountains, cinchona root, and orange zest, he developed a drink that could be both refreshing and tonic. This drink, which he called La Raphäelle - Liqueur Bonal was first sold to locals but became rapidly popular outside the Alpine valleys (Brother Raphäel was going to be Bonal's name in the monastery. The drink became known simply as 'Bonal').

Gentiane - Quina

Over the following decades other aperitifs emerged from the distillery he had set up with the help of his wife in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont: Génépi des Alpes, Elixir and Arquebuse Saint-Bruno, but Bonal remained the most demanded. In 1907, two years before the death of Hypolite Bonal, Bonal became a limited company but remained controlled by the family.

The inter-war years corresponded to the heyday of Bonal. In the 1930s the company produced 7,000 litres of aperitifs a day and employed 100 people in its distillery. For its advertising campaigns it relied on celebrities of the day as well as a bold posters by some of the most famous designers, including Cassandre (who also designed some of the best posters for Dubonnet) and Charles Lemmel. Cassandre's poster cleverly showed a man drinking from a bottle of Bonal with a giant key in his stomach, a reference to Bonal's slogan, "L'apéritif qui ouvre l'appétit" (litterally "The aperitif that opens the appetite"). Contrary to Cassandre's stringent geometric work in clear Art Deco style, Lemmel included typical Alpine scenery in several posters from the late 1930s (here, here, here, and here). In the 1950s Lemmel designed a new series of posters for Bonal, illustrating another of the company's slogan "L'ami des sportifs" ("The sportsmen's friend"). Sports represented included football, rugby, basket ball, cycling, horse riding, bowling, and boxing (see some here).

However after the Second World War sales of Bonal, and of other gentian and cinchona aperitifs, began to decline sharply as the younger generation adopted whiskies and aniseed-flavoured drinks instead. While many of its competitors joined forces and even merged to strengthen their positions, the Bonal family tried to go it alone. This lack of vision led to the collapse of the company. In 1976 the distillery in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont closed down. Bonal was then acquired by the Société Dolin, maker of the Dolin vermouth in Chambéry. Bonal is still available nowadays but sales remain modest.

This painted sign for Bonal was the first ghost sign I saw in Lille. Over the following days I'll post some more from this city.

Location: Rue du Molinel, Lille, Nord / Pictures taken in June 2012

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