Spirits and Eaux de Vie
We are old enough to recall the days when we would find old Perrier bottles full of home-made 'hooch' secreted among the inner cartons of a newly-shipped pallet of wine. It wasn't just a case of winemakers rewarding us for our business but as wanting to get one over on the customs officials to whom they had a long-standing aversion.
Happily, all the spirits featured here have been shipped officially and bear the import labels to prove it, although we do miss the rebel ésprit of yesteryear when any self-respecting artisan would relish the opportunity to stick it to 'the man'.
The Bunan family are proud owners of an antique, wood-fired pot still which they use to make their characterful marcs from spent grape skins. The 'Blanche de Marc' sees no wood and is crystal clear and is designed to be enjoyed chilled as an aromatic pre-prandial 'sharpener'. Its 'Vieux Marc Égrappé' stablemate is aged in oak barrels giving it a tawny hue and was famously described by Jean-Claude Izzo as being "...dry but extremely fruity, smelling of scrubland" in the final instalment of his 'Marseilles Trilogy' Soléa.
The Déche family, based near Éauze, are also producers of decadent distillates. Their brilliant Bas Armagnac is made from Baco in a wood-fired still and then aged in 400 litre oak piéces to gain colour and complexity. As a general rule the older the Armagnac the richer and more evolved it is, so for fruit and fire invest in a younger bottling but for mellow harmony an older version is best.
Maison Monteru dates back to the late 18th Century, in Pons in the heart of cognac country, and specialises in making batch bottling of single grape variety brandies. Their 'Folle Blanche' is raised in French and American barrels for 3 years prior to bottling imparting diverse spice, grilled nut and baked brioche characteristics.
Our popular 'Poire William' is produced by Masion Joannes Colombier in Vilette-de-Vienne on the outskirts of Lyon. Made from Williams pears, which give wonderful orchard fruit aromas and favours, it is traditionally served chilled as a palate-cleansing digestif. Those wanting to impress dinner guests might like the 70 centilitre version that includes a whole pear inside the bottle.
Our friend Marc Beyer is renowned for producing superb still wines at his headquarters in Eguisheim but also makes some magnificent Eaux de Vies, which enjoy an international following. His 'Mirabelle' bottling is redolent of ripe yellow plums and makes a fine footnote to any gastronomic gathering.
Brighton Gin boasts orange peel as one of its key botanicals so is usually served with a slice of orange rather than the more mainstream lemon. With uplifting scents of juniper and milk thistle it makes for a great 'G and T' or négroni.
Julian Temperley makes distinctive Cider Brandy from traditional varieties of apple grown on the Somerset Levels. The Five Year-old version is rich and fruity with warming spicy undertones and is the perfect pick-me-up after a long, rainy walk with dogs in tow.
New to this list are the specialist, 'small batch' whiskey and whiskies produced by Gilles Dumangin in his Champagne cellars at Chigny-les-Roses on the Montagne de Reims. Opening the range is a 'Single Malt' Welsh whisky, distilled in Penderyn at the foot of the Brecon Beacons. It has a deep red colour, hints of coconut and baking spice and a smooth fruity finish. A Dutch 'rye whisky', distilled in Zuidham and then finished in Ratafia casks in France, has a pale robe and notes of dried fruit and nuts on its complex multi-layered palate. Rounding off the selection is an American 'Bourbon' with a high (28.5%) rye content. Pale and smooth with a great length and mouth feel it makes a decadent digestif or 'sun downer'.