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Gallic spirits: 17 of the best French digestifs

At the end of a big, celebratory meal, the unwritten rule in France is that you help the food go down with a ‘digestif’ - here's a look at some of the best options (and yes, there are non-alcoholic digestifs).

Gallic spirits: 17 of the best French digestifs
Photo: Paul Einerhand / Unsplash

Here’s the lowdown on a French gastronomic tradition you’ll probably want to get involved with…

What is a digestif?

A digestif is generally a drink taken at the end of a meal. It’s usually alcoholic and is supposed to help digestion.

When do you drink one? 

Usually at the end of a meal. Not every meal, obviously, but usually at the end of a large family feast, such as the big Christmas one. As well as its self-proclaimed health benefits – we’ll get to those – it’s also a nice way to round off a meal before the washing up begins. 

Anyone living in Normandy may wish, at this point, to talk about the trou normand. It’s the custom of drinking a small glass of Calvados between courses to aid digestion.

 Okay, then, does a post-prandial digestif really help digestion?

We cannot tell a lie: science says an alcoholic drink at the end of a meal is more likely to slow down digestion, rather than help the food go down. 

But if you’re prepared to defy the scientists, then here are some of our favourites;

The best alcoholic digestifs

French digestifs generally divide into three categories – variations on brandy, drinks with herbs (many of which were originally marketed as medicines before advertising standards authorities were a thing) and sweet fruit liqueurs.

Most of these are local products, so you’re more likely to see them if you’re in the area where they are made.

Cognac: produced in the south-west France town of the same name (where you can go and tour several of the town distilleries) this is brandy, made by distilling locally-made wine – Cognac is within the Bordeaux area. It’s a geographically protected name, so Cognac can only be made in the town and surrounding area.

Armagnac: similar to Cognac, this brandy produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony.

Marc: this word means both the grape pulp left after making wine and the spirit that is distilled from it. Most wine-making countries have a variation of this – in France it’s marc, in Italy grappa and orujo in Spain. It’s not aged in barrels like Cognac or Amagnac so it doesn’t get the dark colour and it’s a little rougher as a spirit. Almost all the wine-producing areas of France make this, so you’ll find marc d’Champagne, marc de Bourgogne, marc de Beaujolas etc.  

Calvados: a cider-brandy from Normandy, usually made from apples, but sometimes pears. Normandy is one of France’s biggest cider-producing areas, but Calvados is the answer if you want something a little stronger.

Lambig: a Breton liquor produced by distilling cider – Brittany’s answer to Normandy’s Calvados, basically (although the two areas are fierce rivals so we would suggest not pointing out that these drinks are pretty much identical).

Poire William: or Eau de vie de poire William, to give it its Sunday name is a liqueur distilled from a natural fermentation of Williams pears.

Eau de vie de veille prune: literally ‘old plum brandy’ this is a popular drink at any time of day with certain older Frenchmen, but is usually served after dinner. It comes from the Périgord area of south west France.

Benedictine: a herbal liqueur that is reputedly flavoured with 27 flowers, berries, herbs, roots, and spices. It was created in the 19th century by a Normandy wine merchant – don’t believe the story that it was developed by monks at the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. That was shameless marketing…

Chartreuse: unlike Benedictine, this herbal liqueur – which comes in green and yellow versions – has been made by Carthusian monks since 1737. It’s popular in the mountainous eastern bits of France.

Absinthe: the notorious anise-flavoured with its additional plants and herbs comes from eastern France and Switzerland. It was outlawed in several countries in the 20th century, but don’t believe the line about it giving you hallucinations – that’s just propaganda from early anti-alcohol campaigners.

Génépi: also made in the Alps with a blend of herbs including wormwood. It’s slightly less strong though, so it never developed absinthe’s fearsome reputation.

Cointreau: the sweet orange-flavoured liqueur is a staple of the Cosmopolitan cocktail but is more traditionally served as a digéstif. It’s made in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou in western France.

Mirabelle: this is a plum liqueur, made with plums from the Mirabelle tree. At only 15 percent it’s less strong than many other digéstifs, but very sweet. It comes for the Lorraine area of eastern France.

Amandine: another sweet one, Amendine is made with almond essence and peach, cherry, vanilla and caramel extracts. It comes from Provence in the south of France.

Whisky: yes, there are French whiskies – in fact, there are around 40 whisky distilleries in France right now.

What about a non-alcoholic digestif?

Not everyone drinks, and not everyone who drinks wants to at the end of a big meal. For some non-alcoholic options you could try one of these;

Seedlip offers a range of non-alcoholic spirits distilled from plants, citrus fruits, and spices.

Gimber’s organic drink, made with ginger, lemon and spices, may be your thing.

Tisane: what we would call a herbal tea or fruit tea is known as a tisane in France. They’re popular at any time of day, but they’re often offered as an after-dinner option because certain herbs such as peppermint or ginger are known to aid digestion.

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For members


Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.