8 Essential French Spirits That Every Cocktail Fan Must Know

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Jeffrey Morgenthaler  is Food Republic's Contributing Cocktail Editor and author of the occasional column, Easy Drinking. Jeffrey is an industry veteran, having worked at many styles of bars for the past two decades. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of  The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique . Here, he commemorates France Week with a primer on French spirits.

Known the world over for their prowess in winemaking, the French have been masters at making spirits and liqueurs for centuries. Some of classic mixology's greatest cocktails wouldn't even exist without the plethora of French spirits and liqueurs that were available to bartenders in the 19th century. Here, I present a short crash-course in a few of those French spirits:

1. Cognac

It's the great grandaddy of French spirits. Only French brandies from the AOC region of Cognac and following fairly strict production methods may call themselves Cognac. Predominately made from the Ugni Blanc grape, Cognac must be made in copper pot stills and aged in French oak for a minimum of two years. Since Cognac is an agricultural product like tequila, I always urge consumers to seek out the smaller producers, which have control over the growing, harvesting and production.

2. Armagnac

Cognac's older, dirtier cousin, made from essentially the same varieties of grapes, Armagnac is distilled only once, as opposed to Cognac's second distillation, resulting in a heavier and more flavorful spirit. Armagnac is a much smaller producing region than Cognac, so smaller producers are easier to find than in Cognac, where the market is dominated by big brands.

3. Grand Marnier

Created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, Grand Marnier is a bitter orange liqueur made from a Cognac base. You can probably thank the Cadillac Margarita for the majority of its production demands these days, but I personally like to sip on it straight. Or, in my greatest guilty pleasure drink of all time, the B-52.

4. Cointreau

Also a bitter orange liqueur, Cointreau differs from Grand Marnier because it is made from a neutral spirit base rather than a Cognac base. The result is a lighter, cleaner spirit that works especially well in cocktails. It is the orange liqueur I reach for when making a Sidecar, Cosmopolitan, Pegu Club or Margarita.

5. Chartreuse

Categorized as an herbal liqueur, chartreuse has been made by Carthusian monks since 1605. Containing 130 different herbs, spices, roots and barks, it comes in two varieties: green Chartreuse is 55 percent alcohol by volume and is spicier and drier than its cousin, yellow Chartreuse, a 40 percent ABV sipper that is softer and sweeter than the green. Try a Last Word or Chartreuse Swizzle cocktail with the green variety.

6. Benedictine

Like Chartreuse, Benedictine is also an herbal liqueur, though any monastic connections it claims are likely fabricated by the brand's creator, Alexandre Le Grand. But don't let the fact that this herbal liqueur isn't being made in an abbey deter you from its rich, peppery, honey-sweet flavor profile. Benedictine is often consumed neat, in conjunction with brandy in a B&B (Benedictine and brandy) or in one of the greatest classic Benedictine drinks, the Singapore Sling.

7. Calvados

Hailing from the Normandy region of Northwest France, Calvados is an appellation-controlled apple brandy. The area has always been associated with apples and apple cider, but got a serious shot in the arm from the phylloxera bug of the late 1800s. Calvados can be wonderful in applejack based cocktails, though I find it best served as a between-course appetite awakener known as a trou Normand. Seek out small, estate grown producers Camut and Manoir de Montreuil.

8. Absinthe

The so-called Green Fairy might be the most quintessential of all French-made spirits, even if it is originally a Swiss creation. Frankly, it's difficult to discuss the history of French drinking culture without mentioning absinthe. What began life as a simple maceration of anise, fennel, wormwood and other herbs in alcohol took on an almost mythological status, complete with an artistic movement, international backlash, rediscovery, and finally acceptance again in 2007. I reach for the Pernod Absinthe, one of the oldest producers of the stuff and a classic flavor profile, when I make either of my two favorite absinthe drinks, an Absinthe Frappe or a Sazarac cocktail.

Read more columns from Jeffrey Morgenthaler on Food Republic:

  • The Old Fashioned: Easy To Make Well At Home, Easy To Screw Up At Home
  • 3 Longstanding Myths That Are Confusing Many In The Cocktail Industry
  • Memorize These 5 Essential Rules For Making Great Cocktails At Home