Spirit of the times

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A pancake flambéed with Grand Marnier, the crêpe Suzette created in the late 19th century, remains a classic of French cuisine, says food writer Hughes Belin, who gives us a taste of history as well as some ideas for Christmas cocktails

img504The French have long been champions at marketing some of the best spirits worldwide, especially those based on grapes. This is the best explanation for why nearly everyone has heard of Grand Marnier, and why it is displayed in bars the world over, be they private or commercial – although only devotees will know that the bottle is shaped like an alembic for distilling cognac. With more than 130 years of history behind it, Grand Marnier is a liqueur that pleases connoisseurs as well as the uninitiated.

The drink’s orange flavour comes from the zest of exotic oranges called citrus bigaradia (bitter orange oil), hand-picked in Haiti, and soaked in alcohol. The warm, oak flavour comes from double-distilled cognac. Sugar is added for smoothness, and the final product is a unique blend.

ENTHUSIASTS

Our forefathers probably had only one way to enjoy Grand Marnier: a small after-dinner glass with or without ice, with or without cigar. Cognac enthusiasts who still like the incomparable taste of orange, sugar and cognac after dinner can opt for a bottle of Cuvée du Centenaire made with between 12-25 year-old cognacs; or there’s Cuvée du Cent Cinquantenaire made with 25-60 year-old cognacs . Or for between €500 and €600 (depending on the country) opt for one of just 2,000 available bottles of Quintessence limited edition made with 100 year-old cognacs.

But for most, today’s drinking habits have changed: digestive liqueurs are becoming less popular because “one for the road” is no longer an option. However, aperitifs are still in demand, especially if they’re not too strong – and that is a great breakthrough for Grand Marnier. This liqueur is terrific in cocktails, from the famous Red Lion, created in 1933, to the B52 – popular in the eighties but requiring the skill of a barman to perfect.