France has a long-standing reputation for elegance and enchantment. Paris is both a beacon of fashion and an iconic architectural city that attracts millions of tourists and inspires countless movies, artwork, and songs.
In addition to the finest wines, France has contributed a long list of spirits and liqueurs with equal prestige as mainstays in global drinking culture.
French Spirits and Liqueurs
The following list describes the most famous French spirits to whet your palate and further your appreciation for fine French cuisine.
Chartreuse has a fascinating history, originating as an elixir concocted by Carthusian monks at the beginning of the 17th century.
Chartreuse now falls under multiple categories, with green, white, and yellow varieties.
It has a unique quality in that it improves as it ages in a bottle, so you don’t have to worry about its shelf life!
It has a complex flavor palate that is both sweet, spicy, and herbaceous. A little goes a long way with this intense-tasting liqueur. I think it pairs best with a botanical spirit like gin.
Of course, there are numerous types of brandy, and Armagnac distinguishes itself from the specific types of grapes native to the region.
Armagnac also uses a distinct distillation process that involves column stills, followed by oak-barrel aging.
Armagnac is also the oldest type of brandy and the first distilled wine in history, dating to the early 1300s.
It has a rich, full-bodied texture and flavor notes of chocolate, caramel, and dried fruit. It has a much stronger alcoholic taste and herbal undertones than more well-known brandies.
I prefer adding it to cocktails instead of drinking it straight.
Yet another type of French brandy, Calvados isn’t distilled from wine grapes but from pears and apples.
Calvados is thus more of a distilled cider than a distilled wine. It originated in Normandy at the turn of the 17th century.
Calvados can be double or single-distilled and aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels.
Calvados has a deep amber hue with a much more delicate palate than Armagnac, featuring flavors of apricot, apples, butterscotch, chocolate, and nuts.
It’s my favorite sipping brandy from France. I love to serve it as a dessert digestive to enjoy with a plate of cheese and sliced pears.
The most famous type of brandy, not just in France but in the entire world, Cognac also gets its name from the town in which it originated.
Similar to Armagnac and Champagne, Cognac can only be produced in its region of origin, following strictly regulated ingredients, distillation, and aging guidelines.
Cognac uses copper stills instead of the column stills used in Armagnac and must age for two years in specific native French oak barrels.
The result is superb brandy with flavor notes of honey, caramel, vanilla, fruit, and spices.
Cognac is a classic sipping spirit, but it has also inspired many iconic cocktails, like my personal favorite, the Sidecar.
Adolphe’s sugar expertise led him and his brother Eduorde to dabble in liqueurs, using candied and bitter orange peels to age in sugar beet alcohol.
The brothers finally perfected a recipe that remains a secret to this day. Cointreau has a rich orange flavor and a delicate mouthfeel that makes it among the most elegant types of triple sec.
I would use it in any top-shelf cocktail, from margaritas to sidecars to the iconic Cosmopolitan.
Another type of orange liqueur, Grand Marnier, encompasses a line of liqueurs created by founder Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle in 1880.
Grand Marnier consists of bitter orange and sugar blended with Cognac and distilled. So you essentially get two French spirits in one bottle with this delicious cordial.
Grand Marnier is the best orange liqueur for sipping neat as a digestive, but you can use it interchangeably with Cointreau or triple sec.
Grand Marnier is so tasty that it inspired the famous French dessert Crepes Suzette; its alcoholic content is the cause behind the flame that bursts from its delectable orange butter sauce as your server prepares it tableside.
Creator Alexandre Le Grande used the history of Chartreuse to come up with the name Benedictine, marketing it as an ancient elixir created by monks.
This might be one of the most successful outcomes of false advertisement I’ve seen!
While Benedictine’s herbal liqueur recipe is a secret, I can easily taste many of its ingredients including, juniper, lemon, tea, honey, and tons of baking spices.
It’s zesty, citrusy, and slightly sweet with a spicy finish. I like to add a few drops to an aged whiskey to enhance its flavor.
A relatively new French spirit, Pastis is an anise liquor that originated during the 1930s as a replacement spirit for the newly banned absinthe.
Pastis is a part of a broader family of spirits, to which the well-known ouzo and sambuca belong.
It uses licorice root in conjunction with anise and is still used instead of absinthe in many cocktails.
Pastis has an incredibly strong licorice and star anise flavor and a cream-colored hue that goes cloudy when mixed into beverages.
If you like licorice sticks, you’ll love a shot of pastis. I like using pastis as a cheaper alternative to absinthe in a Sazerac cocktail.
Named for creators, brothers, and distillers Paul and Raymond Lillet, Lillet is a unique distilled wine spirit known as a tonic wine.
As with tonic water, Lillet originally contained quinine, a bitter-sweet ingredient derived from the bark of a South American tree.
Unlike brandy, Lillet uses wine grapes from the famed wine region of Bordeaux. The recipe has changed since the 19th century, now including a rose, rouge, dry, and blanc variety.
The only variety that still uses quinine is Lillet Blanc, which reminds me of sweet vermouth.
I love the bitter finish. Lillet dry is a tasty addition to a vodka martini.
Mirabelle liqueur is a type of eau de vie made with Mirabelle plums native to the French region of Lorraine. Many people call them cherry plums for their small round size.
Mirabelle liqueur has a lower abv than a spirit, making it much sweeter and more gentle on the palate.
Crafted by mixing macerated plums with alcohol, this tasty liqueur is a golden hue that mirrors the color of Mirabelle plums.
Mirabelle liqueur has a fruity palate with a rich honey taste from nose to finish. It’s a refined sipping liqueur that is refreshing, summery, and delicately sweet over ice.
Pommeau is a blanket term for a spirit made by combining apple brandy with apple juice.
All types of Pommeau use French apple brandies. In fact, Calvados by another name is Pommeau de Normandie.
The three main regions in which Pommeau is produced are Normandy, Brittany, and Maine.
Pommeau gets aged for another two and a half years in oak barrels, doubling the age of a typical brandy.
It has a dark brownish-red hue and a more intense brandy palate with vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel flavor notes. The finish is exceptionally smooth.
I love sipping Pommeau as an aperitif to accompany a fresh baguette with Roquefort cheese.
Pineau des Charentes
Pineau des Charentes is a French wine liqueur, also known as fortified wine.
It’s a centuries-old distilling tradition that originated as a happy accident in the 16th century.
While it hasn’t gained worldwide popularity, Pineau des Charentes is a treasured liqueur in its native region of Charente in western France.
Pineau des Charentes comes in red and white varieties, aged for a minimum of a year and a half, with the finer varieties aged up to five years.
It has a sweet palate, similar to Sherry. Traditionally, you sip it chilled in a wine glass.
French Spirits and Liqueurs
- Grand Marnier
- Mirabelle Liqueur
- Pineau des Charentes
Which Spirit Will You Try?
If you’re visiting France or you just want to learn more about French cuisine, try these French spirits and tell us what you think! You can mix up an impressive French cocktail with these unique liqueurs.
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