A Regional Guide To French Spirits
Whether your taste runs to Cognac, Calvados or Cointreau, many of the best-loved spirits are made in France. Here’s a regional guide to some of the country’s great spirits, liqueurs and fortified wines, plus cocktail recipes sourced from bars and restaurants with a cultural twist.
In the Southwest corner of France, just below Bordeaux, you’ll find gorgeous Gascony. This is the spiritual home of culinary delights like foie gras, and it’s also where Armagnac is made. It’s a grape brandy similar to Cognac, but a bit more robust and rustic. Delord X.O. Armagnac ($55, 40% abv) is a velvety textured spirit to savor. The countryside perfume of this 15-year-old brandy evokes notes of fresh flower, hay, fig and vanilla, with a crème brûlée flavor that fades away ever so gently.
Le Maudit Français
Courtesy Gwladys Gublin, for Experimental Cocktail Club, Paris
Le Maudit Français translates as “Bloody French,” an expression used in Canada to criticize the French in an affectionate way. In this recipe, Armagnac meets Canadian maple syrup for a complementary, fall-appropriate sipper.
- 1¼ ounces Armagnac
- ⅓ ounce oloroso Sherry
- ⅓ ounce orange juice
- ⅓ ounce lemon juice
- ⅓ ounce maple syrup
- 1 dash Bittermens Boston Bittahs
- Orange rind, for garnish
Place all ingredients, except garnish, into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well, then strain into a chilled Champagne flute. Garnish with orange rind.
Located in France’s northwest, Normandy will forever be known as the location of D-Day, the turning point for the Allies during World War II. Although the sweeping coastline yields plenty of delectable shellfish, farther inland, the pastoral countryside is ideal for growing apples for cider and Calvados, the region’s apple brandy. Berneroy VSOP Calvados ($22, 40% abv) is like tarte tatin in a glass, with mellow notes of caramel and gingerbread spice.
Also of note: Normandy is home to Benedictine herbal liqueur, produced by Benedictine monks in Fécamp, along the Northern coastline. The recipe has been kept secret since its creation in the 19th century.
Courtesy Gregory Saavedra, Gaspar Brasserie, San Francisco
The Black Sands cocktail mixes Calvados and dark rum in a bold, refreshingly minty drink that’s ideal for bridging the seasons.
- 1 ounce Calvados
- 1 ounce El Dorado 5-year-old rum
- ¾ ounce lime juice
- ½ ounce Demerara sugar
- 8 mint leaves
- Mint sprig, for garnish
Combine first five ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well, and fine-strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice. Top with seltzer, and stir lightly. Garnish with mint sprig.
Moving eastward across France to Dijon, not too far from Switzerland’s mountainous border, we find a golden-hued liqueur made with tiny white blossoms picked from the French Alps each spring. Compared to spirits with centuries of heritage, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur ($35, 20% abv) is a relative newcomer, dating back just a decade. The liqueur is delicate, with gentle floral notes balanced by citrusy sweetness. It mixes seamlessly in cocktails, which quickly made it a bartender favorite. The gorgeous Art Nouveau-inspired bottle design doesn’t hurt, either.
Courtesy Matt Tocco, Le Sel, Nashville
One of the house cocktails at sleek brasserie Le Sel, this tall refresher subtly balances delicate spice with the floral sweetness of St-Germain.
- 1 ounce Broker’s Gin
- ¾ ounce St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur
- ¼ ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
- 1 ounce grapefruit juice
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce Saigon cinnamon syrup (recipe below)
- Soda water
- Grapefruit peel, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine first six ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice. Top with soda water, and garnish with grapefruit peel.
- 1 teaspoon ground Saigon cinnamon
- 1 cup granulated sugar
In 3-quart saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Stir in cinnamon and sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then strain through cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh sieve. Yields about 2 cups.
France’s Cognac region is worth a visit to inhale the perfume of the generations-old warehouses where barrels age and to stroll along the Charente river. In lieu of a plane ticket, there’s always a bottle of Cognac. Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac ($45, 45% abv) is intended for mixing into punches and cocktails, so it’s stronger than most. But its higher proof translates into robust orange peel and stone fruit, layered with lingering vanilla. For sipping, try the Reserve bottling ($65) or the stellar Selection des Anges ($145).
Courtesy Arthur Combe; adapted from Experimental Cocktail Club
This twist on the Vieux Carré was developed for the once-beloved and former Curio Parlor in Paris. Compared to the New Orleans original, this version features all European spirits.
- 1½ ounces Cognac
- ½ ounce Dolin Rouge Vermouth
- ½ ounce Aperol
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 2 dashes absinthe
- 1 piece of lemon peel
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients except lemon peel. Stir well, and strain into a chilled vintage martini or small coupe glass. Twist the lemon peel over the cocktail to release the oils, then discard it.
The classic orange liqueur Cointreau ($35, 40% abv) is made in the Loire Valley, specifically, a small town called Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou, just outside the city of Angers. The distillery has been on this site since 1849, set up by master confectioners Adolphe and Edouard-Jean Cointreau. The liqueur has a bright scent and a flavor that mixes candied orange slices and bitter orange peel. It’s a must-have for adding sweetness and fruity flavor to a wide range of cocktails.
Between the Sheets
Courtesy Taha Ismail, Requin, Fairfax, Virginia
This cocktail riffs on a classic cocktail with the same saucy name. The original is made with rum, while this full-on French variation ups the brandy and adds gently spiced Benedictine. The Cointreau, however, is a critical component and remains firmly in place for both versions.
- 1½ ounces Calvados
- 1 ounce Cointreau
- 1 ounce Benedictine
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- Sugar, for rimming
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake well, and double-strain into a sugar-rimmed coupe glass.
Pernod Absinthe Supérieure ($70, 68% abv) hails from Marseille, a port city on France’s southeast coast. This company, with two forefathers, two hometowns and two iconic anise-scented liqueurs, has a long, confusing history. The company Pernod Ricard was a merger of two producers. In 1805, Pernod was founded by Henri-Louis Pernod in the town of Pontarlier, where he made absinthe. Paul Ricard began his company, Ricard, in 1932. With absinthe production banned in 1915, Ricard opted to create pastis, a star anise-based liqueur. The two companies merged in 1975. In 2013, the company re-introduced its original absinthe formula, with aromas of fennel, anise and black pepper. Confusing? Sure. Refreshing? Absolutely.
Phillipe the Bold
Courtesy Chris Flannery-McCoy, Maison Premiere, Brooklyn
Maison Premiere is a haven for absinthe and oyster lovers. Pernod adds anise zing to this complex, fall-friendly sipper. Starting with apple-rich Calvados, flavors are layered on with Cardamaro, a wine-based apéritif, and Zirbenz, a stone pine liqueur from the Alps.
- 1 ounce Calvados
- ¾ ounce Cardamaro
- ½ ounce Pernod Absinthe Supérieure
- ¼ ounce Zirbenz pine liqueur
- 1 teaspoon Demerara syrup
- 2 dashes mole bitters
- Orange twist, for garnish
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients, except garnish. Stir, strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice cubes. Garnish with orange twist.
In the south of the Bordeaux region, you’ll find Podensac, an area known for cobblestone streets, picturesque chateaus and, of course, the surrounding vineyards. Here, Lillet ($19, 18% abv) is a versatile wine-based apéritif, available in white, red and rosé. Enjoy it on the rocks with a curl of citrus peel, lightened in a spritz, or mixed into a cocktail like this martini variation.
Lillet Rosé Martini
Courtesy Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, Chicago
Created for the steakhouse’s grand opening, this drink features Lillet Rosé, a fortified wine with floral, melon and sage tones. It’s the first new product from Lillet in 50 years.
- 2 ounces Lillet Rosé
- ½ ounce Hangar One Vodka
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- Lemon peel
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients except lemon peel. Shake well, and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink to release its oils, then discard the peel.
- 1Gascony | Le Maudit Français
- 2Normandy | Black Sands
- 3The Alps | Mercedes
- 4Cognac | Vieux Rectangle
- 5Loire Valley | Between the Sheets
- 6Marseille | Phillipe the Bold
- 7Bordeaux | Lillet Rosé Martini