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A Guide To French Liqueurs

By Martina Hemm

French liqueurs have made their mark on history and our palates. A good French liqueur is not just an aperitif but a good conversation starter as well. From homemade to age old distilleries, from politically to morally provocative, public opinion on French liqueurs has always been in motion, while their essence remains the same.



Perhaps the most controversial liquor, Absinthe was created as a medicinal product and used as a cure for malaria, before it grew wildly popular amongst the French boheme in the 19th century. Made with wormwood and green anise, from which it gets its signature green color, absinthe was nicknamed “the green fairy” for the supposed hallucinogenic effects it had on consumers. The consecutive general ban placed on absinthe 1915 caused a slew of anise-flavored liqueurs to follow in its wake to satisfy the high demand. In recent years lore and myth caused absinthe to become a hot commodity in the United States, restaurateurs smuggling in bottles for private use and special guests, until the ban was finally lifted a few years ago. Today absinthe is experiencing the same popularity as over one hundred years ago, having become the new “it drink” of hipsters and dare devils of the bar scene.


Originally part of the booming absinthe production, Pernod Fils, reopened their doors in 1920, producing a more sober version sans absinthe. Unlike the original, Pernod is made with Asian star anise and not European green anise seeds. The addition of several aromatic herbs and plants lends Pernod its distinctive taste.


The traditional aperitif of the south of France, where it is also called Pastaga, locals drink Pastis clear or with cold water to cool down in the hot summer months. Made with liquorices root and star anise, Pastis is clear like Ouzo, until it is mixed with water, at which point it becomes clouded and milk.

A clear, sweet liqueur, anisette is made from a maceration of green anise and 15 other seeds and herbs that is blended with neutral spirit and simple syrup. Compared to most anise-flavored liqueurs, anisette also has a lower percentage of alcohol (25% vs. 40%).



Cognac´s friendly rival, Armagnac is made in the historic region of Gascony halfway between Bordeaux and the Pays Basque and is the oldest brandy style in France (over 100 years older than Cognac). Like Cognac it uses the Ugni Blanc and Colombard grapes along with others like Bacco and Folle Blanche. After distillation, Armagnac is traditionally aged in a 400 liter pièce armagnacaise. Armagnac styles include 3 Étoiles (3 stars), which are minimum 2 years old; Réserve or VSOP (at least 5 years old); Napoléon, XO or Vieille Réserve (at least 6 years old); and Hors d’âge (at least 10 years old).


Named after the town of Cognac, the production of this famous French brandy has not changed over the past 300 years. Distilled twice in pot stills and aged a minimum of two years French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais, Cognac must be made from 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although the most popular variety in today’s production is the Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint-Emilion. The production of Cognac is controlled by the Cognac AOC.

Cognac travel notes and other interesting facts – by Genevieve Mc Carthy from her visit to the region.

Top Cognac producers include:



In the French region of Basse-Normandie they create the emblematic apple brandy Calvados. The apples used in the production are specifically grown and selected, and can be a medley of 200 varieties, ranging from sweet, over tart, to inedible. These apples are usually hand picked and pressed and fermented into a cider, which is then distilled. The remaining eau de vie must be aged for at least two years in oak casks before it can be called Calvados. As Calvados ages, it becomes smoother.

Top Producers of Calvados:

  • Jean Danfou La Captive Calvados


Grand Mariner

A blend of cognacs and the distilled essence of bitter orange, Grand Marnier is not just a wonderful citrus-flavored aperitif, but also an incredibly versatile ingredient in French desserts and pastries. The classic Crêpe Suzette, filled with a warm sauce of caramelized sugar and orange juice, is flambéed in Grand Marnier before being served on tables across France.

Still family owned and run company, Cointreau Distillery was set up by the brothers Cointreau in 1880. Their original success was with the cherry liqueur, guignolet, which was later vastly surpassed by the popularity of their house-own brand of triple sec liqueur – a blend of sweet and bitter orange peels and pure alcohol, named Cointreau.


Crème de Cassis

A crucial component in on of France’s long standing aperitifs Kir, a mix of crème de cassis and white wine, this dark hued tartly sweet liqueur hails comes out of the Dijon area and is made from blackcurrants steeped in alcohol and sugar. For a special night whip up a Kir Royal, with crème de cassis and champagne, or douse a creamy vanilla ice cream with this deeply luscious liqueur.


Produced in the same region as Cointreau, Guignolet is a French liqueur made from wild cherries, the main variety being guigne from which it derives its name. The dark red liqueur is sweet and has a mild aroma similar to whisky.

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A Guide To French Liqueurs


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