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Five French Spirits To Try

There's more than just Champagne and cognac...

At a certain stage in everyone's drinking career they will have tried some of the more famed French products - Champagne for a start. Cognac is another, the most well-known brandy in the world of which many an American rapper has had something to say about. But France is an old country with many drinking traditions, and it would be a shame to miss out on any of these fantastic expressions of liquor. 

1. Floc de Gascogne

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Ok, so not a spirit. We're off to a great start. However, a few years ago The Spectator published a poem about things it was essential to know and others which were not so crucial. Floc de Gascogne fell into the later - which is something to this day I can't agree with. Because it's delicious. Floc de Gasconge is made by combining two parts of lightly fermented grape juice with one part armagnac (grape brandy made in the same region) to produce a sweet fortified wine. It is outstandingly good and since 1990 has enjoyed protection as an area of appellation. Enjoy it chilled with simple fresh food and you can't go wrong. 

2. Calvados 

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Calvados is cider brandy and is only made in Normandy - distilled from cider made with apples or pears. It's a bracing and complex spirit which is delightful in cocktails as well as served neat. Young calvados, especially those from Domfrontais, can be enjoyed as an aperitif (on ice or with soda water). They also match beautifully with Normandy cheeses such as a creamy Camembert. Older calvados, from Pays d’Auge, will be served with Pont-l’Evêque cheese or an apple pudding, or as an after-dinner dram.

3. Armagnac 

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Often described as cognac's rougher, more lively cousin, armagnac is a brandy made from grapes in Gascony. The beauty of this region is it's relatively untouched from big brands so most producers grow their own vines, distil their own eau-de-vie and age it themselves. You'll find in cognac a lot of the smaller growers sell on their product to the big houses which blend everything together, missing the delicate nuances you'll find in armagnac. This brandy works superbly well in any cocktail which calls for cognac but sipped neat it provides a real rustic fire and plenty of fruity spice. Devine. 

4. Pineau des Charentes

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Pineau des Charentes was first made 400 years ago, the result of a happy accident when fermenting grape juice was poured into a barrel containing Cognac eau-de-vie by mistake. The white (and most popular) version is usually made with Ugni Blanc, Colombard or Folle Blanche grapes, and is characterised by notes of figs, prunes, vanilla and walnuts. Red and rosé Pineau uses the familiar Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, and offers aromas and flavours of forest fruits, cherries, liquorice and almonds. If you're not ready to stock up the cupboards, head to St John restaurant in Farringdon or Spitalfields and try it as a scrumtious after-dinner treat. We promise you'll be hooked. 

5. French Whiskey

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It's not just the Japanese and Australians jumping on the whiskey trend anymore, and it comes as little surprise that the French would want to make their own stuff, afterall France is whisky central: no country on the planet drinks more Scotch. But the whisky producers are, for the most part, doing something very different to the distillers of Speyside – something, somehow, defiantly ‘French’. If there’s a spiritual core, it is perhaps unsurprisingly the Celtic enclave of Brittany, where the Warenghem distillery produces a range of Breton whiskies under the Armorik label. Here, too, you’ll find Glann Ar Mor’s more traditionalist approach, which nonetheless produces peated and unpeated whiskies with a distinctive local accent. Most excitingly for us however is Vulson Rye which is made right near the Swiss border, close to Grenoble, it's gentle, spicy and truly unique.