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The 10 Best Drinks in France – Apart From Wine, Of Course!

Like their food, art, history, and language, the French are passionate about their drinks – of course, they have a long and successful tradition as far as wine is concerned, but look at any liquor cabinet and you’ll see mostly French imports.

If you have ever been to France, or have dined with French friends, you may have encountered some rather unusual drinks that they are remarkably passionate about – although I’m never one to turn down a drink, when it comes to Chartreuse and Benedictine, even I’ve been known to screw my face up a tad!

So here’s a (nowhere near exhaustive enough) list of some of the most popular, and unusual, drinks to come from our cross-channel cousins!

1. Absinthe

One of my all time favourite French drinks has to be absinthe – possibly because of its slightly rebellious undertones!

Originally made in Switzerland, France started producing the aniseed tasting liqueur in the 19th century, and the French took to it with gusto, with an estimated 35 million litres consumed by the French that year.

Fans of the drink included great writers and artists like Manet, Degas, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso, plus visitors Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.

With some perceived psychedelic properties it was believed to have links with criminality and was banned in 1915. This ban was never repealed but that oversight is overlooked these days, and the bottles can now be found on shelves with the rather innocuous sounding name of spirit with wormwood base!

Photo by Tyler

2. Pastis

This aniseed flavoured aperitif is found in every French home, particularly in the south. Served with water or ice, Pastis was first commercialized by Paul Ricard in 1932, and was a popular replacement for the banned absinth, as it had the same flavours without the taboo aspects.

Pastis follows the Mediterranean theme of aniseed flavoured drinks with the likes of ouzo and sambucca popular with their neighbours.

3. Benedictine

This herbal alcohol is an example of early marketing success, where popular legend had it that it was originally made by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey in Normandy in the 16th century, when in fact it was first produced in the 19th century by Alexandra Le Grand and a local pharmacist.

Le Grand spread the rumour to create some historical link to the area, and of course boost sales. With a secret concoction of 27 plants and spices this is served to help digestion after dinner, is also believed to have medicinal qualities, and is not for the faint hearted!

4. Chartreuse

Unlike the above, Chartreuse was actually made by monks since the 18th century – and still is to this day.

The green liqueur is made up of a recipe of 130 herbs, flowers, and various other ingredients which are only known by two monks according to the spiel, and although it was popular in the literary world as a tipple of choice for the Great Gatsby, and Hunter S .Thompson was a fan, the strong herby flavour is an acquired taste!

5. Grand Marnier

Grand Marnier is an orange flavoured cognac that is equally popular as a straight up drink, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, as it is in a recipe for dessert.

First produced in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, this 40% alcoholic beverage is a blend of cognac brandy, distilled essence of orange, and sugar, making it the perfect accompaniment for crepes, patisseries, and Christmas cake.

Photo by Simon A. Eugster

Photo by Simon A. Eugster

6. Kir

Kir is made up of white wine and predominantly crème de cassis, but there are variations including with peach liqueur (peche) or using champagne instead (kir royal).

There are various legends about how this drink came about, but the most popular appears to have been the result of the Mayor of Dijon, Felix Kir, making the most of a particularly bad batch of white wine by adding the black currant liqueur circa 1950s.

7. Calvados

Phew, this drink will put hairs on your chest – or burn them off if you light a match while drinking it!

An apple brandy made predominantly in the Normandy region, it is distilled from cider made from specially grown and selected apples from over 200 different varieties.

In France, Calvados is drunk as an aperitif, digestif, or with coffee, but us Brits prefer the latter – possibly not having the constitution of the ox could be blamed for that!

8. Chambord

Chambord Liqueur Royale de France is easily recognizable for its somewhat regally designed bottle, and having originated around 1685 when it was popular with Louis XIV, it’s quite apt.

Made with raspberries, blackberries, and vanilla steeped in cognac, it’s a fruity drink that is a particularly good base for cocktails, in particular “Sex on the Beach.”

9. Water

Ever since a local doctor, Louis Perrier, bought a naturally carbonated spring in southern France in 1898, and started bottling it, bottled water has been all the rage with the French – in fact, more bottled water is produced and drunk in France than any other country in the world.

10. Eaux de Vie

Translated as the waters of life, this term refers to pretty much all fiery, clear aperitifs which are popular as a pre-dinner drink, post-dinner drink, and any time in between dinner drink too!

As with everything the French do, the imbibing of beverages is done with style, with tradition, and usually with some great history attached, yet, unlike us Brits, they also do it in moderation!

It includes the cognacs, calvados, and armagnacs, but is any high alcohol beverage made of fruits, and all regions have their own variety.

Photo by Paul Joseph

Photo by Paul Joseph

If you’re heading to France the best place to sample any of these drinks is in a local tavern, but we recommend brushing up on your local language skills, as they don’t take too kindly to those that don’t at least make an effort!