What is cognac, armagnac and calvados ? 10 classic French holiday spirits explained.

We have all heard of the classic French Spirits that are both iconic and delicious.....but what actually are they?


When looking at spirits its best to understand firstly what is the base or fruit juice used in its production. Because France is so rich in quality wine and therefore grapes, we have some seriously class leading and world famous examples of distilled grape juice coming from France, these are called Brandies and the two most famous French ones are Cognac and Armagnac.

1. Cognac
Cognac's  can only be called cognac if they are French brandies from the AOC region of Cognac and follow fairly strict production methods. 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. They are often aged for a lot longer and are probably the most world famous quality digestive, also younger cognacs are used in some very great and classic cocktails such as the sidecar.

2. Armagnac
Armagnac is also a Brandy using essentially the same varieties of grapes as cognac, however Armagnac is distilled only once, as opposed to Cognac’s second distillation, resulting in a heavier and more flavourful spirit. Armagnac is a much smaller producing region than Cognac. A well aged armagnac is a seriously good after dinner sipper, and I have used Blanche Armagnac in a few delicious aperitif cocktails.

3. Grand Marnier
Is an example of a spirit made using a cognac base. Created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, Grand Marnier is a bitter orange liqueur and makes an excellent sipper or cocktail ingredient.

Eau de Vie is the name given to clear fruit based spirits that are double distilled, often using a grape juice base, or other fruit juice base, sometimes they are made from pomace, which is the skins and lees of the pressed grapes, the end result is called Marc. Most commonly available flavors in France are eau de vie de poire (pear)—known as Most commonly available flavors in France are eau de vie de poire (pear)—known as eau de vie de Poire Williams when made from the Williams pear—"Eau de vie de framboise" (raspberries), eau de vie de pomme (apple), eau de vie de mirabelle (yellow plum), and eau de vie de pêche (peach).

4. Cointreau
Cointreau is a famous French example of a fruit flavoured spirit. 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. 

5. Calvados
Hailing from the Normandy region of Northwest France, Calvados is an appellation-controlled brandy made from apples. The area has always been associated with apples and apple cider and then famous for Calvados once the French started distilling the cider. The fruit is harvested and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into eau de vie. After two years of aging in oak casks, it can be sold as calvados. The longer it is aged, the smoother the drink becomes. Usually, the maturation goes on for several years, with some of the best calvados being matured from 20 years in the barrel.

If not using fruit to flavour spirits, herbs and spices were commonly used to creat other varieties.


6. 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. 

7. Genepi

Often found in the mountain regions, this delicious liquor is infused with the flower of the wormwood plant. It is classified as a liquor because of the sugar that is added to the product.

8. 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.

9. 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. 

10. Pastis

This classically French Anise flavoured drink is often mixed with water and served as an aperitif. As well as helping your Petanque game it is deiciously refreshing with the most famous brand being Pernod Ricard.

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