A taste of France in six drinks

Every part of France boasts its own alcoholic speciality, from the pastis of Provence to Burgundy’s crème de cassis and Normandy's apple brandy, calvados. Here’s our pick of the country’s top tipples.

Friday, August 21, 2020,
By Carolyn Boyd
Originally from Normandy, the apple brandy calvados makes a heady digestif.

Originally from Normandy, the apple brandy calvados makes a heady digestif.

Photograph by Getty

While the French have winemaking down to a fine art, they’re also pretty handy when it comes to the creation of liqueurs, spirits, aperitifs and digestifs. What’s more, every region has its tipple of choice, and each of those will tell you something about the land from which it sprang — its history, its produce — as well as about the families who’ve been making it for countless generations. Here’s our pick of those distinctly French tipples.

Burgundy: Kir

Blackcurrants have long grown alongside Burgundy’s vines, which is why blackcurrant liqueur mixed with dry white or sparkling wine is well established as the region’s aperitif du choix. Commonly known as a kir, the drink is named after the formidable Félix Kir, a former Resistance fighter and the post-war mayor of Dijon, who popularised the drink by introducing it to fellow politicians and visiting dignitaries. And while a true kir blends crème de cassis with aligoté wine, there are plenty of variations using different fruit liqueurs such as peach or blackberry. In addition, several other regions of France have their own version — Brittany’s kir Breton uses crème de cassis and cider; Normandy’s kir Normand has calvados in the mix.
Where to start: The distillery-museum La Cassissium, in Nuits-Saint-Georges, a town in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, tells you everything you need to know about blackcurrants and includes a distillery tour and tasting bar.

Normandy: Calvados

Normandy’s distilleries are a joy to explore, as are its apple orchards — ablaze with white blossom in spring; a riot of gold in autumn. The apple brandy calvados makes a heady digestif, but if you’re going full Norman, kick off a meal with a pommeau aperitif (calvados mixed with unfermented apple juice), enjoy pork or chicken cooked in cider, and indulge in the Normandy tradition of knocking back a shot of calvados between each course to aid digestion.
Where to start: Try a tasting Château Du Breuil, whose ancient cellar roof was built by naval carpenters.

Charente/Charente-Maritime: Pineau des Charentes

Set amid sunflower fields, the vineyards of Poitou-Charentes are famous for their cognac grapes, and this extremely moreish aperitif is the must-try drink when you visit this westerly region. Pineau de Charentes is a brandy that’s almost a cognac — said to have been invented by mistake back in 1589, when a distillery worker accidentally added unfermented grape juice to a barrel of brandy. While the high-end distilleries in Cognac offer the wow factor, it’s worth searching out the smaller distilleries that take as much pride in producing the syrupy-sweet pineau.
Where to start: The rustic, family-run Logis de Folle Blanche distillery at Chaniers has a huge copper still and delicious blends of pineau to try. 

Dordogne Valley: Walnut wine

Walnut groves have been a presence on the banks of the winding Dordogne river for over a millennium, yet few visitors know about the heady aperitif vin de noix. It’s made by macerating young walnuts in alcohol, then blending with red wine. Many families or restaurants will make their own version, often keeping their own twists to the recipe — such as added orange zest, cloves or vanilla — a closely guarded secret. It can be quite hard to find it bottled, so be sure to order it when it’s offered on menus in the Dordogne Valley.
Where to start: Distillerie la Salamandre, in the town of Sarlat-la-Canéd. It calls its blend Le Gatinoix; for a digestif version try Distillerie Louis Roque’s delectable La Vieille Noix. 

Provence: Pastis

The popularity of the aniseed-based drink pastis grew after absinthe was banned in the early 20th century, and the French’s appetite for the refreshing spirit has never abated. It’s served cold, diluted up with water, which turns it cloudy. The brands Ricard and 51 are ubiquitous, and the more artisanal brand Henri Bardouin is also easy to find, but the burgeoning pastis scene here is seeing distillers experiment with other herbs and blends to create gentler, more rounded versions of the drink.   
Where to start: At the Maison Ferroni distillery, in Aubagne, near Marseille, Guillaume Ferroni creates liqueur-like versions of pastis by reducing the aniseed levels to a bare minium and adding other herbs. He also runs a secret pop-up cocktail night.

Gascony: Armagnac

Hailing from the vineyards of Gascony — the homeland of the fictional D’Artagnan (from the novel The Three Musketeers) — Armagnac brandy is claimed to be the oldest spirit in Europe. Often confused with Cognac, which is distilled twice and only made with ugni blanc grapes, Armagnac is distilled once and can be made with up to 10 different types of grape. It’s mostly made by small, family-run distilleries, and very little is exported, so the best way to discover it is in Gascony itself, where you can learn how the individual blends differ, offering flavours that can be as diverse as caramel and orange.   
Where to start: Maison Castarède, the oldest Armagnac trade house, having been run by six generations of the Castarède family. The brand is beloved by many of the world’s top chefs. 

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