Regional Guide - French Spirits

Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and a raft of historic producers ready to be rediscovered.

France may need no introduction or opening argument to convince anyone of its epic spirits legacy.

From the early schools of medicine emerging from Italy and via monasteries into Southern France, the subsequent admiration and dedication to alchemy from French monks and physicians, the budding signs of ‘proto-gins’ and centuries upon centuries committed to the craft of Brandy.

French producers shaped the rules, created the trends, built the folklore around spirits like Absinthe and gave birth to entire sub-categories of spirits like Cognac and Calvados. They are responsible for some of the most enduring brands of all time and the country's distilling history is one of the most storied in the world.

But when it comes to touring round and understanding the region today – how best to go about exploring that provenance?

The French Drinks Scene

The legacy of French spirit - in both the figurative and literal sense of the word – lives not in just the reputation and respect that precedes generations of French producers, but entire categories in themselves. To put it into perspective, how many countries can claim to have both created three world-renowned spirit categories and to have defended that provenance for so long? Then add champagne and all the other wine regions. 

Tackling French spirited history in its entirety is a monstrous task and too large to absorb in one sitting. It’s important to understand the cornerstone regions and their famed spirits though, as through engaging with their past you’ll understand both the beauty and the frustration with French spirits. Their history is both an inspiring legacy and a cumbersome burden for those looking to modernise.

If you’re going to whittle French drinking culture down to the most renowned categories, here are the four major areas we recommend looking out for in particular.

Let’s start with the first two, Cognac and Armagnac. 

What is it? Cognac is a double-distilled grape spirit made from specific varieties of fermented grapes (predominantly Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche) in pot stills and aged for a selected period in Limousin oak. Armagnac is once distilled with its own specific grape varietals in a different kind of still (column), then aged. Both have very strict rules over the production itself, the timing of production and the regions the grapes can come from.

These regulations protect the integrity, authenticity, and production of each category. They have been key to their long term success and without them the legacy, provenance and luxurious status of either may not be as clear cut. 

Some of the brands around today are ancient. Some even predate national railways. The 18th century then saw the first signs of the Cognac names we see today, with the formation of both the Martell and Rémy Martin Cognac Houses, now two of “the big four”. The likes of Castarède Armagnac have been trading since 1832, while Château de Lacquy’s winery was first built in 1876 to age the Armagnac.

There’s an ingrained reverence that follows these brandies. The GI’s and protected status is what makes Cognac so special, and it’s impressive to see how French bureaucracy has been so incredibly proficient in ensuring that the legacy lives on. But it’s not come without a cost. 

Many drinkers feel intimidated by them, while some producers have bemoaned the lack of innovation it allows them to pursue. There’s a trade off, and as with most things in France, it’s difficult to shift the status quo when it’s so enshrined in national identity and history. This means that the scene today can feel like a paradox - a little stuffy and archaic, frustrating, but special and reserved in equal measure. 

Let’s move swiftly onto another type of Brandy, this type made from fruit; Calvados. 

Calvados is distilled using the finest apples in Normandy (sometimes along with Perry Pears to inject some acidity). What’s important is that Calvados also holds an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status, meaning that it must be made from the 200 varieties of apples cultivated in Normandy. A complex blend of sweet, bittersweet, bitter and bittersharp apples are pressed and wild fermented before being distilled into an eau-de-vie and aged for at least two years in oak barrels. 

It too has a complex past with significant government involvement. Namely, in 1956 the government stopped supporting the calvados industry and combined with land redistribution and rural depopulation, it resulted in the decline of traditional farmhouse production. Thankfully, regions like the Pays d’Auge maintained historical practice and now produces more than a third of the apples in Lower Normandy.

France is also known for its liqueurs. Cassis from Dijon and other fruit liqueurs from Burgundy, big names like Cointreau, Benedictine, Grand Marnier and Chartreuse. French pharmacist Emile Giffard is often cited as the inventor of crème de menthe – the list goes on. Why is this important to know in the context of today? Other than the fact that they are household names - these are brands that form an essential backdrop to European history, culture and lifestyle. 

Take the 19th century alone when absinthe took the literary and artistic world by storm. Degas, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec and others portrayed the often sleezy world of the of absinthe house, while writers like Zola made numerous references to the ‘green fairy’ in his novels. Just like it’s impossible to understand British 18th and 19th century history without at least understanding the impact of Gin – Liqueurs are entwined with the social fabric of French culture. 

Again, it's another “plus” for historians, but another difficult challenge to overcome for those looking at the new generation of drinkers and wanting to ship preconceptions.

Which brings us onto the fourth area - Aperitif culture.

It’s impossible to think of France and not include Aperitif culture and fortified wines. Take the French influence on Tonic Wine – which has formed so much of that category. From the simple need for quinine to be administered to the Foreign Legion that started Dubonnet, to legendary brands like Suze, Pernod, Picon and Ricard – Apero culture owes much to the south of France. 

What we know as vermouth today would not be the same without the French either. Brands like Noilly Prat and Dolin were formative and lest we forget the Duchy of Savoy stretched from Bourg-en-Bresse in the West, across the Alps to Turin, North to Geneva and South to Nice back in the day. The bulk of that story is typically told from an Italian perspective now, but those borders were different historically…

With all that said, as we’ve already implied, these glory years are in the past and in recent times French drinks brands have not been able to modernise their image, relying heavily on reputation rather than innovation. 

It now begs the question, if it’s not about changing the brand image as that is as immovable as it is authentic, is it more about a shift in accessibility and a change in target audience? Is the modernisation of Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados reliant on a change in the way its drank, rather than how it’s originally perceived? Can new Apero brands break through to modern drinking culture and engage those under the aged of 35?

For just a minute, let’s consider what the French drink. Would it surprise you to find out that the French are the leading whisky consumers of Europe, especially Scotch? Gin is becoming bigger, but Tonic not so much – so how far can it go without a simple serve? If not tonic or lemonade - then what?

It might feel like it’s happening at a glacial pace, but modernisation is happening. The challenge is bigger than other countries due to not wanting to dismiss centuries of heritage and so the approach is cautious, but France is slowly becoming an exciting space for a new generation of producers. They are making distilleries accessible, doing collaborations with pop-culture, and the change in palate through craft cocktails all point towards a shift in appreciation. 

The Sights - French producers to visit

If you want to tour some distilleries in France, here are few highlights that should not be missed.

The perfect introduction to Cognac, Maison Courvoisier makes for an educational and enjoyable discovery tour that follows the footsteps of Félix Courvoisier in Jarnac. Right in the beating heart of Courvoisier is where you can discover the way they do their distillation, blending and aging.

Keep in mind when you are dipping into the VS, VSOP and more importantly the XO, that Courvoisier is the only cognac house to ever win the coveted ‘Prestige de la France’ title. It just makes sipping on the intricate nuances of their cognac that little more special.

For those who don’t have anything specific they want to explore – and just want to see something interesting while sipping on superb booze, an all-round experience at Rémy Martin serves up some contemporary programs that are perfect for all.

Rémy Martin delve into the international influence in both food and drink pairings in their ‘Cognac Cultures’ and ‘Cocktail Creation’ programmes. In the former, you will discover the art of tasting their cognacs in different parts of the world, from South Africa to the U.S, passing through the Pacific Islands, Asia and England along the way. 

It’s a different take on how to serve Cognac in different contexts and a fun way to understand Cognac’s place in the world.

If you’re wanting a more premium experience and looking to surround yourself in Cognac’s history and rarity, the Hennessy Exception tour explores the Founder’s Cellar that leads up to an epicurean guided tasting of the emblematic Hennessy X.O and Hennessy Paradis. 

Posh stuff aside, if you just want to grasp the history and archival prominence of the region, a pass through their wrought iron gates will allow you to see the world’s largest library of eau-de-vie. One for the nerds and history fans.

If you’re one to get stuck into the process hands on in order to fully comprehend what goes on behind the scenes, the Martell Heritage tour is the one for you. 

It’s brand-new experience that allows you to create your very own blend in the Cellar Master’s Atelier. Here the influence of terroir and precision to create a harmonious blend will allow you to leave not only with exclusive knowledge but with a personalised montre filled with your blend. 

Take our word for it, blending is a bit like darts or curling, easy and fun to do but exceptionally hard to be very good at, let alone consistent. When you make your own, you’ll learn a lot about what it takes and come away with a new appreciation for the art and sensitivity involved. 

Did we mention some gourmet bites by L’Or de Jean Martell too? Do that too.

Nearby, famed fortified winemakers Lillet have been producing their tasty tipples since 1872. You can step inside the “Lillet universe” in Pondensac with a guided tour in the old wine cellar. You need to book ahead but the advance planning is worth the hassle.

We get it, cognac and underground cellar tours aren’t for everyone and although it’s important to acknowledge the legacy of French drinking culture, it doesn’t mean history can’t be exciting (and outside!).

If you are in the South of France – go and see Noilly Prat. They have lots to offer guests and tours start cheap too. You can push the door of a cellar, move on to their incredible “Enclos” (an enormous open air cellar), succumb to the scents of plants and spices from all over the world in the Herboristerie, then learn about the famous “dodinage” (mixing) technique. 

For those with a bit more time – it’s worth upgrade the tour to get access to private areas, taste the wines being aged in the enclosure and have someone talk through the brand museum which has so many captivating stories to be revealed.

Still not convinced and want something way more interactive? There are also theatrical tours at Noilly, which an immersive experience to the rhythm of three young actors from the Collectif Feux de Brouillard. 

Coming out of the pandemic a lot of sites are re-jigging their visitor spaces and offering up some new and interesting experiences. 

Chartreuse in particular have been adding extra care to the make-over of the ‘Caves de la Chartreuse’. Entering this new museographic space you can explore the origins of the Elixir and the liquor cellar where the atrium represents a pride of place to the Chartreuse massif, where the monk’s behind the liqueur have settled for nearly a millennium. 

Not too far away is another gem. It might be lesser known, but Byrrh is one of the best French Aperitifs. 

You can go and see their production site over in Thuir and revel in the absolutely huge, insanely big and seemingly endless amounts of oak vats you have ever seen. The scale and magnificence of this fine industrial heritage site is genuinely outstanding, but the cultural heritage contained in the 1903 posters, the story of the founding-family which is told by the appearance of holograms throughout the tour are also quite cool.

Obviously, you can taste along too but honestly – these vats are ginormous and it must be one of the biggest cellars in the world. 

Highlight Spirits - French brands to watch

Given France’s immense history of alcohol, naturally it’s quite hard to pin-point brands that should be on your radar, or styles to keep a watchful eye on. We have chosen some brands that inject some modernity and innovation to their craft. 

SASSY are proving to be the disruptive faces of traditional cider, with a mission to elevate Normandy and celebrate cidre in a new light. With it, they are taking a similar approach to Calvados.

The Château de Sassy in Normandy have been preserving the authenticity of cidre and calvados since 1852 – placing an important focus on their love of terroir in high-quality handcrafted eau-de-vies. Without moving away from that, their vision for the future is to ‘revolutionise the perception of artisanal cidre’. 

To do so, they are respectfully challenging the future of the category by being more liberal with the associations they pursue and pushing it towards cocktail culture and indeed, cocktail connoisseurs.

The way people are drinking has changed and for Calvados to be relevant, it’s important to have some brands that engage with the shift in desire. Not all, granted, but some that deliberately opt for lighter flavours, fruit forward, less oaked, and easier to consume with the likes of tonic and in cocktails. 

Sassy are doing this well and joining a few other brands (like Avallen) that are giving the spirit a new lease of life.

Brenne Whisky pride themselves on being an “approachably luxurious yet decadently delicious French Whisky”. It's a tongue twister to say but equally pleasurable to taste.

They are flying the flag internationally for French Single Malt, and not afraid to offer it up a serve that breaks the mould. Yes, they to focus on terroir like many traditional Cognac producers do, but they do it in a modern and inclusive way. They are the world’s first single malt aged exclusively in both new French Limousin Oak barrels and Cognac casks. Not only does that give a sense of French terroir it gives them an accessible, approachable le profile with in a fruit-forward, floral and creamy profile. 

Brenne is a fantastic example of showcasing contemporary French culture and its spirits heritage in equal amount. It is a formidable package that many would love if they get a chance to try some

Seven Tails, inspired by the French passion for alchemy, is an innovative blend of Cognac, Armagnac and French Brandy aged between 3-30 years before a finish in port wine casks. 

Like with many new French brands the passion to ‘redefine as tradition knows it is welcoming a new age of creativity. 

It’s great to see so many new characters emerge on the market with their eyes looking forward to pave their own path, whilst respecting the fact that tradition and heritage is there for a reason.

Spotlight on French Oak

With such an abundance of spirits to talk about, it’s easy to always look at the end product and at how the liquid part is made. Truth is, French spirits like Cognac and Armagnac are what they are both due to the grapes and the way they are distilled, as well as the way they are aged. 

In this case, very specific ageing periods in very specific types of French oak. We all know about the naming conventions based on age statements, but not enough is said about the timber itself.

Of the world’s more than 430 species of oak, only around a dozen grow in France in significant numbers. Within that, two species are mainly used for wine and spirits casks; Quercus pedunculata (sometimes known as robur) or Quercus sessiliflora ( AKA sessile). Contrastingly, in America the oak typically used is Quercus alba. 

We won’t go into detail about medullary rays, the grain, cellulose structure, the straightness of it nor the % moisture, but please understand that it’s all of vital importance to what differentiates French oak to American. There is a big difference in the type of flavours being extracted into the spirit and to how much charring a cask needs (the act of scorching the wood to allow for interaction between spirits and cask and more).

Quercus pedunculata accounts for about 20% of all trees in France and is harvested mostly in the Limousin forests (about 150 KM from Cognac). It’s a porous wood and is very popular with master blenders. Cognacs aged in q-Robur are more tannic than those aged in q-Sessile, which has a tighter grain. The results tend to gravitate towards being reddish in colour and impart soft oak and vanilla tones.

Meanwhile, Quercus sessiliflora accounts for about 15% of all trees in France. Quercus sessiliflora trees are taller than the pedunculata and have a less porous wood and therefore have less tannins. Sessile oak harvested mainly in the Tronçais Forest in central France and tends to give more amber than red and impart more coconut and subtle spice and flavours.

Some of the trees being used are much older than 120 years and the craft of coopering them into casks is a sight to behold. And sound – it’s loud! They can be absolutely massive operations too - Hennessy’s own barrel cooperage, the Tonnellerie de la Sarrazine, has a colossal collection of over 300,000 casks.

Some casks are first used for wine and then by the distilleries, but many are used exclusively for spirits. The choice of wood has defined the flavour, the terroir, the legacy even of French brandy. It’s even part of the laws that Cognac and Armegnac makers have to follow. 

If you are in the region and want to know more – have a look at places like Tonnellerie Sansaud or Tonnellerie Vicard just outside cognac. They are open for visitors and seeing the process first hand gives you a whole new perspective on both sustainable working forestry and the needs of the French spirits industry. 

Spirits Kiosk
Courvoisier VS Cognac
Courvoisier VS Cognac
Hennessy VS Cognac
Hennessy VS Cognac
Martell VSOP Cognac
Martell VSOP Cognac

30 June 2022