In the first of our posts making up the French Waterways essential guide to French liqueurs, we go beyond le vin to another level of alcohol. Stronger, richer and better for digestion but just as quintessentially French.
Liqueurs might make up a fraction of French alcoholic beverage production, but they form an essential backdrop to European history, culture and lifestyle. Cognac, Pernod and Cointreau are, after all, household names. And whose grandparents didn’t enjoy a tipple of crème de menthe after Sunday lunch?
A bottled history of French liqueurs
Liqueurs in France are thought to date back to the Middle Ages when monks distilled herbs and alcohol for medicinal purposes. Bénédictine is a case in point – the brandy-based concoction was reputedly first made in 1510 to fortify the Benedictine monks at the Fecamp monastery in Normandy.
Over two centuries later, liqueurs began their legendary association with after-dinner conversation when French writer François Guislier du Verges referred to them as “conversation drinks”. Du Verges praised the stomach-calming properties of the strong drinks and today, many French liqueurs are classed as ‘digestive’.
The heyday of liqueurs arrived between the middle and the end of the 19th century when absinthe took the literary and artistic world by the storm. Numerous painters – think Degas, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec… – portrayed the often sordid world of the anise-based liqueur. In literature, Zola made numerous references to the ‘green fairy’ in his novels.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, liqueurs became almost anecdotal. Spirits such as whiskey, rum and vodka took their place both in homes and at bar tables. However, the recent revival of the cocktail culture has changed the fortune of liqueurs, now a fundamental ingredient in both classic and innovative cocktail recipes.
Liqueurs are often named for where they originated, and production is still centred in a particular region. You can take a cruise around French liqueur history and taste their digestive and fortifying power for yourself.
When a liqueur is a liqueur
For a liqueur to be classed as such (and not as wine or a spirit), it must contain at least 15% alcohol. In fact, most French liqueurs are stronger, hovering around the 40% mark, although the most ‘fortifying’ can reach 60% proof.
Another essential component of a liqueur is its sugar content. A liqueur isn’t a liqueur unless it contains at least 20% sugar. In the case of liqueurs known as crème (de menthe, de cassis, etc.), sugar must make up at least 40% of the drink’s ingredients.
Basic ingredients in French liqueurs
Along with sugar and alcohol, French liqueurs often come with a long list of ingredients. In some cases, they may run to over 70 – the closely-guarded secret recipe for Bénédictine is reputedly this long and the one for Chartreuse nearly twice as long again.
Broadly speaking, French liqueurs can be divided into four main groups according to their ingredients.
Perhaps the most infamous of the four groups, most of these liqueurs originate from southern France. Well-known brands include Anisette, Pastis and the classic Pernod. Absinthe, known as the green fairy or green goddess because of the puff of green mist that rises from the glass when the water is poured over a sugar cube into the liqueur, also has an anise base.
Discover and taste anise liqueurs for yourself as you cruise the southern French waterways. https://www.french-waterways.com/hotel-barge-cruises/barges-midi-languedoc/
Probably the king of French liqueurs as well as the quintessential digestive, make up the second group in this guide to French liqueurs. Made from distilling wine and maturing it in casks, Armagnac and Cognac are the best-known French brandies. Another national favourite, perhaps less known outside France, is Calvados apple brandy, sometimes made with pears.
No guide to French liqueurs would be complete without a section dedicated to herb-based liqueurs. This group encompasses well-known classics such as Bénédictine and vintage Crème de Menthe as well as other more unusual concoctions. Chartreuse in its yellow and green versions is also herb-based with around 130 different plants used to make it.
Fruit-flavoured French liqueurs
These rank among the most popular French liqueurs. In this group, oranges take centre stage, but other fruits, particularly soft fruits such as raspberries and cherries, also play a starring role. Cointreau and Grand Marnier are universally known and their signature brown bottles form part of the world’s best drinks packaging.
In the berry department, the raspberry liqueur Chambord from the Loire Valley and Crème de Cassis made with blackcurrants are possibly the most famous. However, other lesser known fruity liqueurs such as the elderflower St Germain from the French Alps Briottet’s wild strawberry Crème a la Frais des bois produced in Dijon are well worth adding to your must-try list.
And the rest…
Last but not least in our listing of French liqueurs, this group includes those made with coffee or quinine. Vermouth in its dry version is epitomised in the Noilly Prat brand. And there are some more unusual liqueurs made with ginger and honey, such as Domaine de Canton.
French liqueurs are served on all our hotel barge cruises – try them for yourself in the exquisite surroundings of our barges as you cruise the stunning French waterways.