A sleepy town dotted with dilapidated distilleries and rundown chateaus, the fertile land of Cognac is home to many vineyards, most of which make their namesake – but not all.
We were kindly invited to stay at Château de Bonbonnet with the Citadelle team to explore all that the premium French gin brand had to offer.
So why gin and why Cognac?
To understand this we need to give you a bit of background on owner Alexandre Gabriel who originally took over Maison Ferrand (a small cognac distillery) when he was just 25. Imagine the Richard Branson of spirits if you will and you’ll have an idea of who we’re dealing with here. A self-described ‘French redneck’, this dapper gentleman decided he needed to learn English and that’s how he came to find himself in America, where he met his beautiful wife. With her support he took on the behemoth task of turning the distillery around and once he’d nailed that, decided gin was next on his list – after all, why have an empty distillery just sitting there in Cognac’s off-season. Indeed. He’s also responsible for Plantation rum – but that’s another story for another day. (Hopefully one I can write from Barbados).
So as you can imagine, at such a tender age cash flow wasn’t great, so this ‘farmer’ (again, a phrase he uses to describe himself) slowly renovated the family chateau that we had the pleasure of staying in, coming up against many barriers along the way. His wife still decorates the properties with local antiques she finds on her travels and you’d never believe this chateau was once on its last legs. It’s this can do attitude that makes the brand what it is today. The team is still small and fizzes with an experimental attitude that is nothing if not infectious. You’ll find them constantly tweaking recipes or trying to grow their own ingredients (including juniper!) just for the sheer hell of it. Perhaps their piece de resistance is the eight-foot tall egg shaped oak barrel which is used to refine the gin at the end of the arduous process. (Something many other gin brands have been quick to try and imitate).
Playing around has it’s advantageous – it’s how they come up with their specials or ‘extremes’ (such as Citadelle Wild Blossom which proved so popular they made it permanent) and perhaps how they’ve gone on to be THE MOST awarded gin in the world. Maybe it’s how they figured out Citadelle goes exceptionally well with oysters? We didn’t ask, we were too busy doing shots (recipe at the end!).
So to celebrate this excellent gin we found ourselves on a whistle stop tour of some of Alexandre’s favourite restaurants in and around Cognac. All you need to do is find yourself a romantic chateau to base yourselves in and follow our guide to the best bars and restaurants in town.
If you’re into cocktails you’ll no doubt have heard of drinks maestro Tony Conigliaro of Bar Termini/Untitled/69 Colebrooke Row fame. He’s thrown a right curve ball by opening up the super sexy and beautifully contemporary Luciole in the heart of Cognac with business partner Guillaume Le Dorner. It’s the perfect place for a pre-dinner cocktail, set as it is on the peaceful Charente river with views overlooking the Cognac Castle towers. Try to visit during the golden hour when everything takes on a beautiful warm glow. As you might expect, the bar is big into its Cognac with a feature wall displaying just about every bottle on the planet, but you’re hardly going to visit one of Tony’s bars without sampling a cocktail. Watching his team at work is part of the draw – what these guys can’t do with a cocktail shaker, simply ain’t work knowing. But we were here to drink gin (tough gig!) and there are two great cocktails that incorporate Citadelle. The Southside Fizz is a refreshing little zinger to get the night started incorporating lime juice, mint and sparkling water! Otherwise you can’t go wrong with the mother of martinis – Martini des Charentes – which is simply Citadelle and Pineau Charentais, a French aperitif local to the area. If you can’t quite hold out until dinner they do a cracking board with charcuterie, cheese and bread.
We’re told Tony will launch five rooms at Luciole later this year, each bookable for an overnight stay, with further plans to open a restaurant on the site in early 2018. Def one to watch.
Le Bistrot de Claude, Cognac
Next up you’ll want to soak up some of that traditionally French country atmosphere. Set in a medieval style building a short walk from Luciole stands Le Bistrot de Claude. It looks a little like it’s starting to fall down, which only adds to its charm. The menu is drawn up on a big chalkboard but focuses on fish – all of which leads you to start with a Citadelle G&T. We tucked into generous strips of tuna tartare followed by a delectable monkfish risotto but if you’re into fois gras this is a great place to indulge. It’s said to be so popular with local cognac producers that you can’t utter a word of business for fear of someone over hearing. It was certainly buzzy the night we were there.
This unassuming restaurant is the kind of place you’d walk straight past if you didn’t know better. Well now you do! Poulpette is a beautifully minimalist space serving a light inventive set menu for the absolute bargain price of 26 euros (it looks and tastes a whole lot more pricey). Dishes have a pan-Asian influence but when we visited they’d kindly experimented with the range of Citadelle gins, not only curing salmon in Citadelle Wild Blossom (a special old tom style infused with fragrant cherry blossom and aged in sweet cherry wood) but also putting together gin pairings with each plate. A delicate but perfectly seasoned dish of haddock and new season asparagus really bought out the best of Citadelle reserve (a golden wood-aged gin that’s dangerously silky smooth). Dessert was chocolate with pea sorbet and a sprinkling of granola – we told you it was inventive. Hands down our favourite restaurant that we visited during our stay, presentation was out of this world, reminding us of pretty meals we’d eaten in Copenhagen. We wanted to steal every bowl and plate they presented us with.
You’ll probably be flying out of Bordeaux so it would be sacrilegious to miss this spectacular bar and restaurant. The day we visited was screamingly hot so it took all of our self-control to drag ourselves away from the quayside seating and delve deeper into the bistro. Out back there’s an atmospheric speakeasy style bar with counter seating where they serve a simple menu (there’s only 2 options for starters, mains and desert each day) with all ingredients being sourced locally, fresh from the market. The team are young and the energy is upbeat, these guys are creating pretty exciting meals and at a bargain price. They’ve even been mentioned in the 2018 Michelin Guide!
Of course, if you can’t make the trip over to Cognac, it’s ridiculously easy to make the perfect Citadelle serve at home. Here’s how it’s done…
If life gives you lemons, make gin & tonic.
Garnished simply with a fresh lemon peel and voilà, you’re set. The size and shape of the peel – straight or twisted, large or small – doesn’t matter as long as it’s fresh. Mix Citadelle and a high quality tonic water and you have crafted the perfect drink. Beautiful in its simplicity, follow these steps to make your own Citadelle & Tonic. We prefer a 3:1 ratio of tonic to gin, but feel free to adapt to your liking:
-Chill a large balloon glass
-Fill the glass with large, clear ice cubes to the top
-Add 1 part CitadelleGin
-Take great care to choose a ripe, unblemished lemon
-Cut a peel -and dare to be creative in its cut!
-Add 3 parts tonic water
-Express the peel on top of the glass and around the rim and place it gently into your Citadelle & Tonic
Pairing Tip: Enjoy with fresh oysters, which are abundantly harvested in Charente near Château de Bonbonnet, the home of Citadelle.
Feeling adventurous? One of our favourite parts of the trip was visiting local oyster farm David Hervé. They supply juicy oysters to top restaurants across France and taught as all there was to know about the different varieties whilst we discovered how delicious they were with Citadelle. We just poured the gin straight into the oyster shell and downed the lot, but here’s a slightly more sophisticated recipe for you to try at home.
To your shakers!
– Pour 4.5 cl of Citadelle Gin
– Add 4.5 cl of Mancino Secco Vermouth
– Mix with ice cubes
– Shake briefly to dilute the ice cubes a bit, but maintain their coldness
– A lemon
The tasting ritual
Swallow your oyster. Save the shell and pour in the 50/50 Citadelle Martini, then lightly squeeze a lemon on your cocktail to add some acidic flavors. Drink as a shot. Cheers!
Alternatively, World Gin Day is fast approaching (Saturday 9th of June) and Citadelle, have teamed up with lush, leafy brasserie and bar, Blixen in Spitalfields, for a series of G&T and oyster masterclasses…