Drinking Tour De France - the Spirits and Liqueurs
The Homes of Calvados, Benedictine, Cointreau, Lillet and Chartreuse
France is justly famous for its wines, but that’s not all it produces. For a true drinker to properly experience the country, they have to look beyond the Bordeaux and the Champagne and get to grips with the lesser-known liqueurs, aperitifs and spirits that add more regional character than a drop of red or white ever could. David Whitley has a look at what you can raise a glass of, and where.
The ground and climate of Normandy is not quite like that of the rest of France, being far more suited to orchards than vineyards. Therefore, it is no surprise that the area’s signature drink is made from apples. Calvados is a couple of steps along from cider, with the original product being distilled twice and then aged in oak barrel until it becomes a brandy. A good drop should have strong apple characteristics, although they shouldn’t be overbearing. It should also be a lot sharper and more bitter than a regular brandy. As a general rule of thumb to go buy is that the longer it has been aged, the better it will be. Like Champagne, the name Calvados can only be used in relation to the drink if it is produced according to certain standards in small pockets of Normandy and Brittany. The most protected comes from the east of the Calvados region, with the Pays d'Auge appellation restricted to a small area around Lisieux. Amongst the best is the Calvados Roger Groult, just south of the town. It sources all apples locally, and the orchard (+33 2 31 63 71 53, www.calvados-roger-groult.com) can be visited on weekends and public holidays for tasting at source.
Practically guaranteed to turn any peaceful social gathering into a gibbering mass of staggering drunks, the exceptionally powerful green Chartreuse is something that should be handled with care. At 110% proof and coloured with chlorophyll, one shot of it is more than enough, and as with most of the world’s mostly lethal drinks, it is made by peaceful, unassuming monks.
The exact recipe, including 130 herbs, is known only by three of the Carthusian brothers, who live in the Grand Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble.
It’s a recipe that is almost impossible to reproduce as well, as the French government discovered when they expelled the monks in 1903. After several desperately unsuccessful attempts to copy the drink, the brothers were practically begged to return, and when their distillery was destroyed by a mudslide in 1935, they received assistance in building a new one at nearby Voiron. The monastery is closed to the public, although it can be seen when driving through the Chartreuse Massif. However, the troubled story of the monastery and the Carthusian order is told at the Musée de la Grande Chartreuse near the village of St Pierre De Chartreuse. Those wishing to knock back some of the green stuff, or its mellower yellow equivalent, should head to Voiron, and the Caves de la Chartreuse (+33 4 76 05 81 77, www.charteuse.fr). This is where the drink is now bottled, and a tour, including 3D films and tasting at the end of it for those not planning to drive back along winding mountain roads, is free.
Fruity, but bitter, this decidedly upmarket drop is designed as a pre-meal appetiser, and is sometimes used as a key cocktail ingredient in very expensive bars. Originating in Podensac, 40 minutes south of Bordeaux, Lillet has a series of strange ingredients, including orange peel and Peruvian quinine. It’s essentially a fortified wine, but comes over as lighter than a port or sherry, and can be drunk alone or with soda.
Lillet – named after the brothers who founded it, not the northern French city – organises guided tours of its cellars and distillery on request all year round, whilst it is open for tasting between July and September from 10am to 6pm, and at other times with advance booking. For more information, go to www.lillet.fr or call +33 5 56 27 41 41.
Thought to be the oldest liqueur in existence, Benedictine is another potent monk-made effort, this time based on cognac. However, unlike the Carthusian monks who managed to keep their magic formula, the Benedictine brothers of Fécamp in Normandy let theirs slip. It was uncovered in a secret coded message in a book of spells by Alexandre Le Grand, who immediately set about cracking it. In 1863, he managed to reproduce the drink thought lost during the French Revolution, and soon moved production back to Fécamp, building an ornate palace and museum around the distillery. It certainly knocks most industrial wineries and breweries for six in terms of impressive architecture, that’s for sure.
Le Grand was more careful with the sweet-tasting blend of 27 herbs, however, and today only three people know the true recipe. Many have tried to fake it, and bottles of the counterfeit Benedictine have been stored in the museum in a triumphant, gloating manner.
You can tour the building today, learning the history of the drink, sniffing the ingredients (some give a fair old headrush: be warned), and finding a bit out about the monks who first made it 1510. To organise a tour, call (+33) 2 35 10 26 10 or go to www.benedictine.fr.
Though thought by many to be a style of drink in its own right, Cointreau is actually just a premium brand of Triple Sec, albeit the most well known one. Over thirteen million bottles of the clear orange liqueur, based on brandy, are sold every year.
The recipe was first created in 1849 by brothers Adolphe Cointreau and Edouard-Jean Cointreau, confectioners by trade. They noticed that traditional heavy, dark spirits were declining in popularity and set out to make the opposite.
They succeeded, and the recipe has been passed down through the generations in the family, never to be leaked to anyone else. The oranges used are sourced primarily from Spain and Haiti, with the alcohol made from sugar beet.
The drink is made, as it has always been, in the Loire city of Angers. The company has a well-developed visitor centre (+33 2 41 31 50 50, www.cointreau.com), too, with exhibitions on the production process as well as the family’s colourful history. At the end of the tour there is, naturally, the opportunity to try the product, but it’s not one of those tours that everyone wishes to rush through quickly to get to the tasting. It’s mercifully interesting even to those who don’t like the stuff.
on 27 June 2007.
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