In the next post in our series about French liqueurs we go herby, very herby actually: Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe. Taking plants and spices as their base, herb-based French liqueurs include some of the world’s most complex recipes and best known tipples. From the sickly-sweet and oh-so-vintage Crème de Menthe to multi-coloured and very potent Chartreuse, herbs bring a whole world of flavours to French liqueurs.

Benedictine - French liqueurs - Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe

Most good and most great: Bénédictine

The first in our list of herb-based French liqueurs needs no introduction. Bénédictine in its classic amber bottle marked with DOM and that red wax seal, forms an essential part of any self-respecting liqueur collection.

The herbal concoction doesn’t quite date back to the monks it’s named after, but Bénédictine certainly has history. Created by the religious order as a medicinal remedy at their monastery in Fécamp in Normandy in the 1500s, the recipe for the liqueur as we know it today was unearthed in 1863 by local wine merchant Alexandre le Grand. His creation of the famous Deo Optimo Maximo (DOM – ‘To God most good and most great’) is the one that fills our glasses today.

Secret recipe French liqueurs

Like the monks before him, le Grand kept the recipe for Bénédictine a secret. The mystery continues today and it’s such a closely guarded secret that no one other than the guardian knows the full list of ingredients or their measurements. Known components – all botanical – include juniper, coriander, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and thyme as well as the three main ingredients: angelica, lemon balm and hyssop. Not one of the total 27 stands out in the final taste that’s best described as honey-like with a dash of spices and herbs.

The distillation process involves four different preparations, making this one of the most complex French liqueurs. From initial distillation to final bottling, Bénédictine takes up to two years to make and is 40 per cent proof.

How to drink Bénédictine

Traditionalists like their Bénédictine neat or served over one large ice cube. The liqueur also forms the base of many cocktails and is enjoying something of a revival in modern bars. Popular concoctions include the classic B&B (Bénédictine and brandy) and The Benediction where it’s mixed with orange bitters and topped with Champagne. You’ll also taste it in a Singapore Sling and Vieux Carré.

chartreuse - French liqueurs - Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe

From green to yellow: Chartreuse

Chartreuse is next on our list of famous herb-based French liqueurs. Like Bénédictine, this liqueur was created by monks in a monastery in the French Alps for medicinal purposes. The liqueur goes back several centuries and its original recipe from 1650 refers to it as ‘The Elixir of Long Life’. Again like Bénédictine, the exact formula and list of ingredients remain top secret. Only two monks reputedly know how to make genuine Chartreuse liqueur.

It is known to contain at least 130 herbs and plants that are mixed together, distilled and then aged in oak casks for five years. The green version of Chartreuse is the stronger (55% proof). It has an intense, aromatic flavour with a strong floral scent and notes of cloves, cinnamon and citrus. Yellow Chartreuse comes in milder with ‘just’ 40% alcohol content. It has a strong citrus overtone with hints of honey, anis and liquorice.

Like armagnac and cognac, Chartreuse has a premium label. Known as VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), this version has been aged for much longer and is highly prized among liqueur connoisseurs.

How to drink Chartreuse

Green Chartreuse – in its simplest form, this is a French liqueur to add to tonic or soda water with lots of ice. You can also use it as a base for a cocktail such as the Chartreuse Martini where it accompanies gin and dry vermouth.

Yellow Chartreuse – also makes a good cocktail ingredient and mixes particularly well with whisky. It also adds an interesting twist to coffee.

VEP Chartreuse – like all exceptional French liqueurs, this is one to drink neat, perhaps with a dash of ice.

Creme de menthe - French liqueurs - Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe

After-dinner mint: Crème de Menthe

Crème de Menthe’s intense green colour and strong minty flavour both count as classics among the world’s most famous liqueurs. Whose grandparents didn’t have a bottle in their drinks cabinet? An essential part of the 1950s cocktail party scene and many children’s first introduction to alcohol, Crème de Menthe is making something of a comeback in modern bars.

Mint has long been known for its digestive properties so it’s no real surprise to find it in one of the world’s best-known liqueurs. The original mint liqueur was made with peppermint by Emile Giffard, a dispensing chemist in Angers in the Loire Valley. In his quest to create a soothing after-dinner digestif, Giffard concocted the Menthe Pastille. The digestive properties of the liqueur were so successful that Giffard converted his pharmacy into a distillery, still in existence today.

While Menthe Pastille is transparent, Crème de Menthe couldn’t be greener. But both share an intense minty taste and very similar ingredients. Compared to other herb-based French liqueurs, the list of ingredients is refreshingly short: just water, sugar, alcohol and extract of peppermint come together in this one. The green colouring (from the peppermint leaves or artificial) is an optional extra. And there’s absolutely no cream involved.

Unlike Bénédictine and Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe takes just a month between distillation and bottling, and because of that, has a much lower alcohol content. With 24%, it ranks as one of the least potent French liqueurs.

How to drink Crème de Menthe

The 1950s party mode calls for a small, tube-like glass. For an extra vintage feel, go for green-tinted glass. A refreshing summer version serves the mint liqueur over crushed ice. Two classic American cocktails both include Crème de Menthe. The Grasshopper mixes it with Crème de Cacao and cream. The Stinger adds it to cognac for the perfect New Yorker ‘one for the road’.

Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe over to you

Dinner on board one of our luxury hotel barge cruises give you the chance to experience the best of French liqueurs, including Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe, both as aperitifs and digestives. Book your trip now

Our step by step guide to French liqueurs:

The delightful port at Buzet-sur-Baise has recently enhanced its excellent bike facilities, as part of the Canal des Deux Mers à Velo initiative**. As well as the groovy blue bike racks, located next to the Capitainerie and washrooms, the cycle area now features a set of those often-necessary tools (hanging in their own vertical ‘workshop’) and a pump-up point.
** The ‘two seas’ cycle route connects the Mediterranean and Atlantic for nearly 800km right across southern France, following the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne.

 

Southern France cycle route
Southern France cycle route (c) France Velo Tourisme
With Padraic Neville, a member of the Canal Society of New York State, on the footbridge over the Meuse loop beside the Rambaud Museum. This was a ‘prologue’ around the town and the Meuse loop, before heading off down the Meuse on Wednesday 17 May

Taking up this new challenge, the ‘towpath’ mode is chosen for practical and personal reasons; I couldn’t devote the time needed to cruise the whole network, even if I were fortunate enough to own a boat! But as the author of Inland Waterways of France, I have a duty to readers and users, to immerse myself in the reality of the system at reasonable intervals.

This personal project coincides with what has become an accepted form of waterway tourism, qualified by the unfortunate neologism tourisme fluvestre, a contraction of fluvial (which confusingly means ‘waterway’ rather than ‘river’) and terrestre (‘on land’). There was even an entire conference devoted to the subject in Paris in April 2017. VNF convened tourism agencies and local authorities to discuss the issues of itinerant tourism on the canal and river banks.
While I’m a keen supporter and user of cycling infrastructure, I wonder whether the emphasis on the cycling mode is not exaggerated, especially where councils see this as the ‘easy option’, a popular alternative to navigation. This new paradigm is not just French; the same trend is to be observed in Germany and Belgium, throughout the waterways of the Walloon Region.

Risks of downgraded service to navigators are looming on the horizon. Look at the critical situation of the river Lot. The ‘mainstream’ activity and focus of investments throughout the valley is now the activity on the river banks, while navigation is relegated to the status of poor relation. Politicians will vigorously deny this, and claim that navigability of the river Lot is still on the agenda. In practice, projects that remain on the agenda but are deemed to be non-urgent are systematically delayed until after the next election!

Map of the French waterways. Click to enlarge the map. In red are the sections I propose to cover running rather than cycling, for a more intimate ‘hands off the handlebar’ experience.

Navigation structures and the channel or canal ‘prism’ are expensive to build, to operate and to maintain. With a sluggish economy, the temptation is all too great to abandon the expensive works required for navigability, and to opt for the ‘land-based’ tourism option.

In conclusion, while perhaps appearing to jump on the ‘canal cycling’ bandwagon, I am determined not to betray the core readership of boat owners and other users of the waterways for navigation. This means continuing to support – even from the relative comfort of the towpath – the noble function of navigation, the reason the waterways were built in the first place.

After the first eight days of cycling, from the far North-East to Reims and Paris, and a brief foray in Central France, the project takes on a new urgency regarding the state of the waterways. When I drafted this introduction in Charleville-Mézières, before setting out, I was unaware of the fact that the towpath is itself under a permanent threat of downgrading. The success stories, and the reason why so many French couples and families are ‘cycling the canals’, are the result of local authority investment to create cycle itineraries using the towpaths. This involves ‘superimposed management’ (superposition de gestion), where VNF (or the equivalent authority) retains ownership of the track, while the partner rolls out the tarmac or the crushed gravel path and maintains it for its new function. This is fine, and my companion on the first leg, Padraic Neville, and I certainly enjoyed swishing down the Ardennes cycle path along the Meuse.

Elsewhere, Padraic and I noted that the towpaths are in a very sorry state, verging on the impassable, except through flights of locks where VNF’s own staff have no choice but to drive along the path, usually metalled for this purpose.

On day two, the towpath on the Canal des Ardennes was found to have been practically destroyed by cattle and farm tractors, to such an extent that VNF have had to build a new embankment to retain the canal in one section near Saint-Aignan. No towpath at all in that section, while the works are completed.

Already at the outset, this is clearly going to be a story of contrasts. I hope readers will be inspired to discover French waterways, will enjoy some of the inside stories discovered on the way, and accept a little bit of the ‘rough’ along with the ‘smoother’ experiences. I’m sure many boaters will agree that in retrospect, the ‘rough’ is also part of a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable experience… discovering France by water.

See the day-by-day account on www.edwardsmay.eu

Taking a look at the best France bloggers counts as one of the most entertaining ways to get real insight into the country. Our blog readers obviously think so too because our top 10 blogs about France 2016 published last year  is one of our most popular posts. So popular in fact that we’ve decided to revisit the listing for 2017.

Best France bloggers 2017

In this year’s round-up, you’ll find some old favourites along with some new kids on the blogosphere. In fact, we had to extend the list to 12 French blogs because we couldn’t whittle our favourites down to 10!

As usual, we cover destination-specific blogs, travel sites, foodie ideas and language-learning corners as well as blogs offering expat information. Whatever your interest in France we think our 2017 best blogs about France will give you some great inspiration as well as an irresistible urge to visit. Amusez-vous!

 

À votre santé France bloggers! 

French wine obviously has to put in an appearance on a list of the best France bloggers and our chosen entry ranks among the best. We featured Wine Terroirs, run by freelance photographer and wine aficionado Bertrand Celce, last year. 12 months later, his blog comes just as packed full to the brim of interesting facts and tips about French wine.

Bertrand is also listed as one of the top seven best wine bloggers for Food & Wine magazine so we’re obviously all on the same page with this one! We love his wine reviews in the Wine News section plus the long list of anecdotes. Bertrand recently discovered that until 1956, wine was served at French school lunches – diluted with water for primary and neat for secondary. Cheers!

 

(Definitely not) Lost in Cheeseland

Travel writer Lindsey’s Lost in Cheeseland blog centres on Paris with occasional sojourns to other parts of France. There’s a good sprinkling of travel posts – great tips for must-dos with kids in Paris and a good rise to the challenge of 24 hours in the city – plus the Franco File Fridays series featuring interviews with expats who share a love of France.

But it’s food where Lindsey, who hails (appropriately) from Philadelphia, excels. Every foodie post comes accompanied by mouth-watering photos (no wonder she has nearly 70k followers on Instagram) and we wanted to go on her Paris Pastry Crawl right away. There are great tips for the best coffee in Paris and a listing of Lindsey’s favourite restaurants, including some without those often unfriendly-on-your-wallet Paris prices.

 

From Languedoc to Paris via 200+ cheeses 

Chez Loulou began life in 2006 when American Loulou (aka Jennifer) moved to Languedoc-Roussillon before ending up in Paris via Calvados in Normandy. In Paris, this blog has taken on a mostly reflective stance – we loved the photos. But previous entries go practical with a long look at becoming a French citizen and some useful posts on the cost of living in France (although these could do with a bit of an update).

But where Loulou comes into her own is cheese tasting. She originally set out to try every single French fromage, no mean feat in probably the world’s biggest cheese producing country. She’s now well down the list on number 223. Each cheese tasting blog entry comes with a lip-smacking photo and some good tips for pairing the cheese with a glass of wine or deux.

 

France Comme Ci

Marcus Smith’s blog was one of our top 10 blogs about France last year and it’s so useful we just had to include it again. France This Way is obviously growing up because it includes advice on how to learn to drive in France for teens and a great fun post called ‘Why are the French so skinny?’.

As well as lots of advice on life in France, we also love the guides to the regions. They’re all there – Burgundy, Provence, Loire Valley, Cote d’Azur – and come with all the essential information you need to plan a proper visit. If you haven’t planned and need some inspiration, the ‘Holiday Ideas’ section offers a long list of places to get your travel bug going. And if you fancy practising your French before you visit, just click on the Version Française.

 

Keeping up with Provence 

American Julie Mautner’s The Provence Post featured on our list of best France bloggers last year and she’s back for 2017 simply because her ‘what’s on in Provence’ information is second to none. When you’re planning a holiday it’s super useful to know what’s on while you’re there and The Provence Post does just that. Starting at the Major Events and Festivals in Provence in 2017 listing, you can check what’s on, where and when.

Julie goes the extra mile with additional information plus dedicated blog posts for these events too. How’s that for planning ahead? And if you aren’t lucky enough to be going on holiday in Provence, take a tour round the blog. Each post comes jam packed with photos that transport you away from your PC or tablet into the sights, sounds and most of all, scents of Provence.

 

Literally everything en France

It isn’t often a blog covers quite as much and as well as this one, but The Good Life France takes the whole country well into its stride. Whether you’re looking for the best parks in Paris, serving a dinner French-style, chateau hopping in the Loire or simply interested in new attractions anywhere in France, this is your go-to blog. All the main tourist regions feature on the website with lots of ideas for holiday activities.

You also find out about French culture, gastronomy and the language. If you want to keep bang up-to-date with what’s new in France, you can subscribe to the weekly newsletter or get the latest The Good Life France magazine, published quarterly in pdf format and downloadable free. Now, surely that’s the good life?

 

Invisible Bordeaux

Or probably not so invisible now since Tim Pike’s blog featured on our listing last year! Tim, a photographer and yellow bike rider from England, provides a unique take on the city of Bordeaux and its attractions – all those things not on the postcards. He provides great alternative information on one of the most visited cities in France.

Via Invisible Bordeaux he doesn’t just take you off the beaten track but includes the essential things to see too so you can combine the Wallace fountains with the Miroir d’Eau, say. Tim has ventured beyond Bordeaux since last year and now covers Invisible Gironde where he also lists interesting must-see spots. The blog comes with useful interactive maps and self-guided walks, available as downloadable pdfs.

 

Bonjour Paris and hello history 

As one of the first blogs passionately sharing travel and tourism know-how on France, Bonjour Paris hits the list this year for its commitment and detail to Paris and a penchant for a backstory or two. Sue Aran’s monthly post delves into the history of French icons like the Marquis de Lafayette and Madame de Pompadour. Daily posts on a Parisian theme work for locals and tourists alike.

From Paris apartments for sale, to restaurants you can book for brunch rather than queue down the street waiting for a table, you’ll want this blog bookmarked for your next trip to France’s first city. The currency of the content is perhaps the most exciting – there aren’t just Paris restaurant recommendations listed here, there are restaurants to visit this month before your friends all ask “have you eaten at … yet? You really must…” The information is as fresh as fresh can be, just like the croissants Sue might have had for breakfast this morning.

 

Slow travel en France

Sue Aran’s own slow travel blog French Country Adventures is well worth a read too, preferably over a crisp glass of sauvignon. From her deep joy at living in southwestern France and sharing it with readers and visitors alike, to her philosophical ponderings, you’re left with a warmth for France and an eagerness to see it at a gentle pace.

The slow travel philosophy is in parallel to the slow food movement that encourages one to stop, savour, absorb and hold on to that moment and what it has to offer. If ever you needed reassuring that travel creates life experiences, read the blog on French Country Adventures. Tales from the French countryside will have you grounded and back in touch with perspective in no time. Now all you have to do is act on it…

 

One word at a time 

As one of the words from March would have it, rebelote! Here we go again, because this is another blog about France from our 2016 listing. But this is such a gem for learning French beyond the run-of-the-mill language classes we couldn’t possibly not include it. Blog owner Kristi posts a new word or expression daily, teaches you how to pronounce it via the handy audio download (her husband Jean Marc provides the perfect French) and then puts the word of the day into context in a short article.

From French Word A Day You can also download audios on mastering French vocabulary and while you’re there, catch up with Kristi’s two children who, although they spoke French after she did, have the advantage of being bilingual.

 

Shhh, don’t tell anyone else 

Written for tourists and residents, Secrets of Paris reveals much, much more about the City of Light than your average tourist guide. This is a blog that takes you right off the beaten trail and to places known only to Parisians, who incidentally don’t take their visitors to the Eiffel Tower. But if you do want to marvel at La Tour Eiffel on your trip, American and long-time expat Heather has some great tips on how to save money on tickets and get in first.

Since Secrets in Paris appeared in our listing of France bloggers last year, she has been joined by Scott Dominic Carpenter who takes a fun look at things to do in Paris and a tongue-in-cheek view of French current affairs. We chuckled all the way through his take on the May 2017 presidential candidate line-up. And LOLs apart, another great feature of this France blogger is the monthly calendar packed with things to do and see in Paris.

 

You too can cook French food 

French food tastes nothing short of delicious so it’s great to find a blog showing you how to cook it. And to do it “the easy way”. The words “this is a cinch” that appear when opening the roast guinea hen with fresh sage recipe were certainly music to our ears. Everyday French Chef owner Meg Bortin definitely made it sound doable even for amateur chefs.

Meg aims to make French cuisine cookable for everyone – we loved the useful list of kitchen equipment (all reassuringly familiar) and the even longer list of recipes complete the menu suggestions. If you’re going the whole hog (and there’s probably a recipe for one on the site), take a look at the Gala Dinner menus and seriously impress your guests. Bon appétit!

 

And that’s a wrap of France bloggers for 2017 – we hope you enjoy reading their regular posts about life and their passions in France.

 

 

The third of our posts in the French Waterways essential guide to French liqueurs series looks at perhaps the most famous tipples of all: brandy. Known for its warming and digestive properties, this amber tincture conjures up images of an after-dinner drink by the fire, although it’s also a common ingredient in cocktails and vital for a perfect flambé.

Cognac brandy with iceCognac – the king of French brandies

cognac brandy distillation

 

Cognac has been a household name for centuries and ranks as the world’s finest brandy. Its defining characteristic is found in its double-distillation, a process that gives the liqueur its distinctive taste and the edge over other types of brandy.

This unique French liqueur originates from the Cognac region to the north of Bordeaux. The liqueur’s distillation method was discovered by the Dutch in the 16th century when they were looking for a way of preserving wine for export. They discovered that by distilling wine into eau de vie and then repeating the process, the end result was a fine, rich liqueur.

The region centres around the two towns of Cognac and Jarnac, although the actual growing area stretches as far as La Rochelle in the north, the Atlantic islands of Ré and Oléron in the west, and the town of Angoulème in the east. The Charente river flows through the region, which is also crossed by the Canal de Garonne.

Almost 6,000 vineyards grow grapes for Cognac production in six sub-regions, known as crus:

  • Grande Champagne
  • Petite Champagne
  • Borderies
  • Fins Bois
  • Bons Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires

The term champagne in this context has everything to do with the limestone soil and nothing to do with the fizz produced in the Champagne region in northeast France.

Characteristics of cognac

To carry the brand cognac, the liqueur may only be produced in the designated crus. Although all cognac is produced mainly from just one grape – the Ugni Blanc – the brandy is renowned for its myriad of different flavours. These range from floral to fruit cake.

Characteristics of cognac from Grande Champagne include lightness and a floral bouquet. This cru produces the finest cognac that also takes the longest to mature. Cognac from the Petite Champagne is broadly similar, although not as subtle. Grapes grown in the Borderies also make fine cognac with a smooth, violet-scented taste.

Vineyards in the three Bois crus are planted on sandy soil near pine forests and in the case of the Bois Ordinaires, on the coast. Cognac from these regions matures relatively quickly and has a smooth, rounded taste. This comes with a touch of the sea if it’s produced in the Bois Ordinaires cru.

The double-distillation process involved in making cognac produces considerable evaporation. The equivalent of millions of bottles evaporates annually in the warehouses and is known as the ‘angels’ share’. This celestial feast also feeds a fungus that grows all over the warehouse walls and gives them their characteristic blackened look.

Types of cognac and how to drink it

All cognac must contain at least 40 per cent alcohol. The brandy comes in three categories:

VS – an acronym of ‘very special’. Cognacs in this category must be at least two years old. VS cognacs taste best with mixers (e.g. ginger ale or tonic water) and in cocktails.

VSOP – short for ‘very special old pale’. This type of cognac has been aged for a minimum of four years. VSOP Cognac combines well with mixers or you can drink it neat.

XO – meaning ‘extra old’. This top category for cognac may only include brandy aged for six or more years (ten years as from 2018). As the finest cognacs of all, XOs should be savoured on their own.

Where to try cognac

Numerous wineries produce cognac from world famous enterprises such as Remy Martin and Hennessy to smaller family concerns such as De Luze and Guy Pinard & Fils. You can visit some of the distilleries and taste their version of the world famous brandy en route to your boating vacation. Many have a special cellar known as paradis (paradise), home to the winery’s best vintage cognac – consider it a privilege if your visit includes a glimpse of this hallowed place.

Experience the world’s finest brandy for yourself while you gently cruise down the French rivers. Our luxury hotel barge holidays include onboard cognac tastings – because the distilleries are mostly too far from the water to make for an enjoyable excursion. Then there is the newly opened (late 2018) Hôtel Chais Monnet. Described by Sean Thomas of The Times as “one of the most exciting hotel openings in Europe this year” its super luxury 100 bedrooms have been created from a rather previously ruined cognac warehouse.

If you fancy exploring the Cognac region on your own, book one of our boating holidays.

Armagnac – the crown prince of French brandy

Armagnac brandy glass and box

The other quintessential brandy among French liqueurs is, of course, armagnac. Produced in the Gascony region, south of Bordeaux, this French brandy has an older history than cognac.

Armagnac dates back to the 14th century when wineries in the area first began to distill the local grapes into eau de vie.

The region is smaller than Cognac – some 15,000 hectares produce grapes to make armagnac. The size, coupled with slower development in the area, meant that brandy produced in Armagnac was less known than its bigger sister cognac. Today, both brandies enjoy a reputation for excellence and some connoisseurs believe that the best armagnacs sit on a par with the best cognacs.

Characteristics of armagnac

Armagnac is made from several grapes including the Ugni blanc (the principal ingredient in cognac), Baco 22A, Colombard and Folle blanche. Like cognac, the grapes grow on mainly sandy soils, but those in Armagnac produce richer and earthier flavours.

Three crus produce armagnac brandies. Those from Bas Armagnac boast the most delicate flavours and have a strong fruity note. The Ténarèze cru produces stronger brandy that also takes longer to reach maturity. And the third much smaller cru is the Haut Armagnac.

Although armagnac is distilled only once, the process takes considerably longer than in Cognac. This results in a stronger brandy with often a darker colour.

Types of armagnac and how to drink it

Armagnac comes in four categories, depending on how long it has been matured. All must contain at least 40 per cent alcohol.

VS – ‘very special’ armagnacs in this categories have spent at least two years in the barrel. These are best drunk with mixers such as tonic water or ginger ale, or as a cocktail base.

VSOP – the ‘very special old pale’ versions need a minimum of four years to mature before they are released. VSOP armagnacs combine well with mixer drinks, although you can also drink them neat.

XO – ‘extra old’ armagnac has a minimum age of six years. This brandy should only be enjoyed neat.

Hors d’Age – this extra mature brandy is bottled only after at least a decade in the barrel. The only way to truly appreciate the many textures of an Hors d’Age Armagnac is to enjoy it neat.

Where to try armagnac

You can try the very best French brandy liqueurs while you’re on a luxury hotel barge holiday. How better to savour one of the world’s best post-prandials than on the deck of a barge as you glide down one of the finest rivers in France?

 

Calvados brandy distillery

Calvados – truly fruity brandy

Not quite in the same class as cognac and armagnac but still considered a brandy in its own right is calvados. This is a unique spirit made mostly from apples plus a touch of pear. The acidity provided by the fruit creates a very different brandy experience.

Unlike the other French brandies calvados has a relatively short history. History books reference its use as an antiseptic during the Napoleonic wars, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that calvados production started in earnest. This makes finding vintage calvados difficult and wine connoisseurs generally consider any bottles dated before the 1960s as vintage.

Characteristics of calvados

Made in parts of Normandy and Brittany in northern France, calvados is produced from 200 types of cider apples and pears. The fruit is fermented and then distilled twice like cognac. Three crus produce the brandy:

  • Calvados Pays d’Auge – this brandy is the richest and smoothest of the three
  • Calvados – with a fresh taste and perhaps the fruitiest
  • Calvados Domfrontais – this brandy features a more floral note and may include up to 30 per cent pears

Types of calvados and how to drink it  

Calvados comes in four categories and contains around 40 per cent alcohol:

Trois Étoiles – three-star calvados. Also known as trois pommes (three apples), it is at least two years old. Drink as an aperitif with soda water on ice.

VO – ‘very special’ calvados has a minimum age of three years. Like the younger trois étoiles, this is best as a pre-prandial on ice.

VSOP – ‘very special old pale’ apple and pear brandies must mature for at least four years before bottling. These are best drunk neat and go well with the dessert or cheese course at dinner.

Hors d’Age – the finest calvados brandies are at least six years old. Drink these as you would an aged cognac or armagnac – neat and as an after-dinner digestive.

Dining on board one of our luxury hotel barge cruises give you the chance to experience the best of French liqueurs, both as aperitifs and digestives. Book your trip now.

Our step by step guide to French liqueurs: