France has a rich history of spirit making, especially in the grape-based context of Cognac and Armagnac. While gin can’t claim to date back quite so far, its predecessor, genièvre, was first produced at the Citadelle of Dunkirk in 1775 by order of King Louis XVI. The drink may have long since fallen from fashion, but a new generation of modern French gin brands are helping revive its image. In fact, they’ve been doing so for the last quarter of a century.
At the forefront, Citadelle launched in 1996 (named in tribute to the historic royal distillery) – ten years ahead of the inception of Sipsmith, a London brand acclaimed for kickstarting the UK’s mammoth gin revolution. Yet it is only in the last couple of years that French gin has been enjoying similar attention to its international counterparts.
‘There has definitely been an explosion on the gin front’ confirms François Granier, Wine & Spirits Trade Advisor at Business France, a government agency responsible for promoting French exports and facilitating international investment in France. While the global gin craze has played its part, there’s interest from the inside, too. Like elsewhere, lockdown saw the French getting more creative with their home cocktail-making, resulting in gin sales rising by 24 percent compared to sales in 2019. Returning to life back out there, Le Parisien reported that a gin and tonic was the à la mode drink for young party goers in the summer of 2021. The newspaper also claimed that the drink had lost its ‘British accent’, with chic cocktail bars eschewing the usual ingredients in favour of local artisanal gins.
A lot of these French craft gin upstarts have come from within the world of spirits. For brands such as Calvados maker Christian Drouin and Citadelle (a sister to Cognac house Maison Ferrand, which only recently launched its dedicated gin distillery), gin provides a use for copper stills outside of the five-month Cognac distillation season. But there’s more to it than that. Gin offers experienced distillers a new opportunity to get creative and push boundaries through the use of local botanicals.
The appeal of gin isn’t limited to distillers, though. French regulations dictate that grape skins discarded from the winemaking process (known as pomace or marc) must be sent to distilleries for reuse (traditionally in brandy), so it makes both environmental and economic sense for winemakers to make their own grape spirit instead. Such has been the success of Mirabeau’s Dry Gin that international supermarket group Aldi released a similar concept, La Fleuriste French Pink Gin, in the summer of 2021. Château Léoube has also made a move into the spirit market, with gin offering the winery a stable and non-seasonal product that is neither limited by the size of the estate nor as vulnerable to weather and climate change as its grape harvests with wine in mind.
With France now boasting between 180 and 200 gin brands – the majority of which are small in production and very high in quality – there’s never been a better time to put French gin to the test.
Five French gins to try
A truly transportative spirit, Gin d’Azur is created using botanicals – including thyme, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, mountain savory, star anise and Menton lemon peel – sourced from small Provençal producers. Each ingredient is individually distilled before being blended with a touch of Camargue salt, creating a herbaceous spirit with an incredibly citrusy nose: ideal for a Martini.
£34.95, Master of Malt
Created to capture the experience of walking back from the sandy beaches of Île d’Oléron, Melifera’s star botanical is the beautiful immortelle (or curry plant), a yellow flower that grows in the Atlantic island’s dunes and also graces the top of the stunning bottle. With a commitment to sustainability and preserving biodiversity, the distillery grows its own vines of immortelle, supports the Black Bee Conservatory in Oléron and works with local authorities to preserve the island’s sand dunes.
£39.95, Master of Malt
Audemus Anne-Sophie Pic Gin
Produced in collaboration with Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic, sommelier Paz Levinson and Audemus founder Miko Abouaf, this gin pays tribute to the chef’s cuisine. Inspired by two of Anne-Sophie’s flagship flavours – citrus and pepper – the gin features Meyer lemons, cubeb pepper, passion berry and Japanese smoked tea, creating a complex gin with flavours similar to those of Lapsang Souchong and that work beautifully in a Negroni.
49 euros, Audemus Spirits
Citadelle Jardin d’Ete
Inspired by the scents of the gardens at Château de Bonbonnet – the site of a new distillery, which will allow founder Alexandre Gabriel to produce all year long – Citadelle’s newest release sees lemons infused in their entirety alongside yuzu and orange zest, local Charentais melons, iris, violet, cardamom, cumin and Sichuan pepper. A slightly sweet, citrus-forward yet nuanced gin, it is best served with a good tonic, plenty of ice and a twist of lemon.
£35.25, The Whisky Exchange
Mediterranean Gin by Léoube
As a sustainable winemaker and olive oil producer it was logical for Chateau Léoube to use its leftover olives and grape alcohol to create its first spirit. Distilled with traditional Provençal botanicals, including rosemary, fennel, bitter almonds and sweet orange – all of which can be found growing on Léoube’s stunning coastal estate – this gin celebrates terroir. A savoury spirit with bold anise and subtle pepper and rosemary notes, it has a weighty mouthfeel which works wonderfully in a Dry Martini.
£50, Daylesford Organic