French Digestifs

Uncorking the mysteries

Image You know the scene: after finishing a great French meal, you’re feeling a little tipsy and definitely very full. You find yourself being offered more to drink. This time, the bottles your host opens bear mysterious labels: Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Eau de Vie, Crême, Genepy, Cointreau,. What is in those bottles?  Why are they only served after dinner?  Known as digestifs, these French after-dinner drinks are served after a meal because that is when your stomach is full enough to handle their high alcohol content (at least 35%)!
Digestifs are either liqueurs or spirits
Liqueur comes from the latin word liquifacere, which means “to dissolve.” Made from sweet alcohol into which are dissolved various flavorings such as fruit, herbs, spices, plants, flowers, seeds, roots, bark,, and sometimes… cream, liqueurs are not usually aged for long periods of time, but may rest during their production to allow the flavors to marry.
Spirits are made by distillation. A spirit is the alcohol distilled from a substance that has fermented; this could be wine, malt, or grain. Brandy, for example, is a spirit made from wine.

Cognac is a kind of brandy. Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn – fire wine. Heat distillation concentrates the wine’s alcohol.  To be called cognac, a brandy needs to meet specific criteria. It has to be produced in the region surrounding the town of Cognac, in southwestern France. Always made from Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc or Colombard grapes, it should be distilled twice, for 12 hours each time, in copper pot stills that are heated over open flames, and then aged at least 2 1/2 years in oak barrels. What evaporates from the oak barrels is described as “la part des anges,” the share claimed by the angels. Oak imparts cinnamon and vanilla flavors,  deepening the color of the Cognac, which is clear when it is drawn off the still. Cognac is rated on the bottle, in accordance with its origin and its age.

The older the cognac, the better it will be when served on its own, without ice or mixing.  Suggestion: Cognac Normandin Mercier Vieille Fine Champagne, 43.30E

Whereas cognacs are double-distilled to achieve elegance and balance, armagnacs are single distilled. Expect a heartier more flavorful brandy. Armagnac is brandy produced and distilled in Gascony, an area of France, which prides itself in using traditional techniques. The official production area is divided into three districts, Bas Armagnac – the largest, Tenarèze, and Haut Armagnac.  Although the term “bas” means “lower” in French, the best armagnacs are principally produced in Bas Armagnac. Suggestions: Bas Armagnac Darroze 10 ans, Bas Armagnac Boignères  or Folle Blanche 1993.  69.00E

Eaux-de-vie are intensely flavored, and simply the pure distilled essence of fruit without the skin, seeds, pulp, stem. As clear as spring water, their potency (40 to 50% alcohol) can take you by surprise. Most eaux de vie are created by distilling fermented fruit. Others are produced through a system of “macération,” meaning to soak, in which fermented fruit is steeped in neutral spirits for weeks at a time, to gradually and gently extract the fine characteristics of the fruit without submitting it to the rigors of heated distillation. France Alsace’s distillers have been crafting eaux de vie for centuries, elevating the skill to an art.. Suggestions: Roque Eau de Vie de Vieille Prune 43E Eau de Vie de Laurent Cazottes. Reine Claude Dorée Passerillée (45% alcohol) 63.50E

Calvados is apple brandy. To be called Calvados, it has to be made in Normandy.  This takes place in several stages: the apples are picked from September to December, before being ripened and dried in open wooden boxes until January. The Calvados distilleries then mash their apples and allow the juice to naturally ferment into cider over several months.  Distillation occurs either once or twice, depending on the region of Calvados. The Pays d’Auge appellation requires a two-stage distillation. After this process, the liquid is colorless and tastes harshly of alcohol. Mellowing of the flavors is obtained through ageing in white oak barrels from Limousin, many of which are former sherry or port casks. Vintage bottlings were once common.  The current trend is for general age designations like 10-year or 15-year, in which the youngest spirit included must be at least as old as the age listed. Normans drink a shot of it in the middle of a meal to assist digestion. Calvados Groult 8 ans (41% alcohol) 42.20E

Sweet crèmes are digestifs that are dense, highly concentrated, viscous, liqueur-like fruit brandies that are often used in mixed drinks or poured over sorbet or vanilla ice cream. For example: TRENEL Crème de Griotte (18% alcohol) 21.00E

The recipe for Génépy, a digestif from the Alps, illustrates the making of a liqueur. Macerate 40 stalks and flowers of the plant Génépi, in a liter of alcohol, with 40 sugar cubes, for 40 days. Bottle it, and drink it after dinner! A very good quality Génépy is made by the brand Grand Rubren.

The Cointreau family, confectioners and distillers in Angers, invented the eponymous liqueur in the mid 19th century. On a trip to the Caribbean, one of the Cointreaus happened upon native wild oranges. Instead of subjecting them to long hot voyage during which the oranges would dry up, he sent home dried peels. After receiving this rather strange if highly aromatic shipment from his son, Edouard Cointreau experimented with various concoctions until he came up with the secret formula still used today.