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July/August 2010


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WINE & SPIRITS

That Je Ne Sais Quoi
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

A RECENT REVIVAL OF FRENCH SPIRITS ADDS A DOSE OF JOIE DE VIVRE TO THE MIXOLOGY SCENE

The French, once the dominant players in highbrow food and drink, have been having a tough time of it lately—eclipsed on the culinary side by their Spanish neighbors and in wine-making bravado by the New World.

Lately however, that's started to change on the mixology front. Gallic spirits—both new and classic—are bringing a sudden infusion of French joie de vivre into the world of mixed drinks.

St. Germain, the most popular new mixer of the last few years, may not actually be French through and through—it was started by a Philadelphia entrepreneur—but its raw materials, flavor profile and marketing campaign certainly are. You'll recognize the subtly sweet floral liqueur—made from elderly flowers harvested in the French Alps—by its ribbed-glass Belle Epoque bottle. Introduced three years ago, the elixir—as suited to mixing with tequila as with white wine—has already become a classic.

‘The Grand Smash is a sophisticated drink—a contemporary version of
an old American cocktail. People
used to sip Grand Marnier on ice
after dinner, but now they are
taking to it as a cocktail.’
— Michael Pitocco, bar manager at
Trumbull Kitchen

St. Germain's wildfire success has inspired a slew of French spirits producers to angle for space in American bars. Grand Marnier, a classic cordial, has been playing up its profile in mixed drinks. At this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the orange liqueur—founded some 150 years ago—kicked off its cocktail campaign with a blowout "La Vie Grand Marnier" gala. Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, great-great-granddaughter of the creator, showed off a signature Grand Smash, a libation featuring Grand Marnier, mint, fresh lemon and ice.

Even Noilly Prat, the standard-bearer among French vermouths, has begun urging bartenders to look beyond the classic Martini. Its white vermouth, infused with herbs and spices, adds a funky note to unusual drinks—I've had it with Chartreuse, apple juice, gin and cilantro.

The Cognac region, too, has begun a unified effort to reposition its warm sipping spirit. Last year, a consortium of local producers convened at a cocktail summit with mixologists flown in from the United States and the U.K. Together they created the Summit—the confab's official chilled cocktail—a contemporary mix of Sprite, fresh ginger, Cognac and cucumber.

But perhaps the biggest story in the French spirit revival is the recent return of absinthe, the famous louche liqueur that was the mischievous muse of poets and painters (and the supposed inspiration for Van Gogh's severed ear) in the late 19th century.

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