Spiritourism: Closer Encounters with French Spirits


" Connoisseurs have many options for learning about wines. Now it’s time for stronger drinks to step into the limelight. "

With thousands of vineyards, domaines and cellars across France, there is no shortage of opportunities for tasting wines and learning about their production. But the country also makes magnificent liquors – drunk neat or on the rocks, mixed with water or in cocktails.

Spiritourism fills the niche for those who wish to immerse themselves in the world of distilled beverages. Join us on a whirlwind tour of some of the country’s top spirits.

The spirits of northern France

The cooler northern climes produce delicious apples, some of which are turned into crisp ciders. When distilled and aged, this beloved beverage becomes calvados, named after its département along the English Channel. When in Normandy, make time to visit calvados distilleries and estates. They’re open all year round, although a prime time for spiritourism is autumn: apple-picking season.

Made from grain alcohol and juniper berries, genievre is produced mainly in Pas-de-Calais. Labourers used to fortify themselves with gin-spiked coffee, but today genièvre is enjoyed as an apéritif or digestif. If you find yourself in this area, head to Houlle or Wambrechies for a tour of the few remaining gin distilleries in France.

The spirits of central France

The middle of the country is renowned for its exceptional wines. Thus, it’s little surprise that some of the finest spirits also come from this area. Practically synonymous with art de vivre, cognac is a double distillation of white wine. The four great houses – Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin – are found in or near the commune of Cognac in Charente, and welcome visitors for tours and tastings.

The Loire Valley is the birthplace of triple sec, a liqueur made from three kinds of orange peels and is supposedly distilled three times. Cointreau and Combier are among the top producers of this spirit. When in Angers or Saumur, book a tour to see how these venerable orange liqueurs are made. Note: Grand Marnier is actually a blend of cognac and orange liqueur, and the private distillery is in – where else? – Cognac.

The spirits of southern France

Winemaking results in plenty of grape skins and pips, and from these remains comes pomace brandy. The Italians call it grappa, while in French it’s marc, produced from Alsace and Burgundy to Provence and Languedoc. This heady, earthy spirit is seldom exported, making a tour of a marc distillery quite a mark of distinction for foreign visitors.

Armagnac shares many similarities with cognac, but it is distilled only once before being aged in oak barrels. The southwest – Gers, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne – is where to discover France’s oldest spirit. And it’s so easy to do, as more than a hundred Armagnac producers have banded together to offer not only visits and tastings, but also expositions, workshops and sip-and-stay packages.

(*) Average meal price calculated on the basis of starter and main course or main course and dessert, excluding drinks, menu and promotional offers. The average price is an estimate only, calculated according to the prices provided by the restaurant. Depending on the country, the average price may or may not include all taxes.