Distillerie Combier - Saumur
Distillerie Combier has the distinction of being the oldest operating distillery in France.
It also has an origin story suspiciously similar to that of the Cointreau Distillery that we visited in Angers a few weeks ago.
Like Cointreau, the distillery was opened in 1848 by a confectioner who needed an orange flavored liqueur for his chocolate making.
Unlike Cointreau, the distillery built by jean-Baptiste Combier in old town Saumur has been in continuous operation for over 150 years.
Walking through the courtyard was like stepping back in time.
Inside, you can see that nothing much has changed other than addition of modern plastic barrels that hold the various ingredients used for infusing.
Our tour guide explained the process for making their signature Combier Triple Sec. Much like Cointreau, they infuse both bitter and sweet orange peels. Once hydrated, they send the peels through a rolling slicer that removes the white pith. The resulting triple distilled liqueur requires the addition of only a small amount of sugar to counter the bitterness of the orange essential oils. I don’t want to take sides, but the Combier product has a much more complex flavor.
We came through on a distilling day, so the copper stills were throwing off a lot of heat and alcohol vapors. The smell was amazing.
Fun fact: the ironwork inside the distillery was designed by Gustave Eiffel. The herbs hanging to dry are the wormwood that is used to flavor their very tasty absinthe liqueur. We learned that the current director of the distillery was instrumental in the fight to decriminalize absinthe in the European Union.
Back in tasting room and boutique, we were lucky enough to taste about 6 of their liqueurs as well as a properly made absinthe.
They sell all the kit necessary to make the infamous drink. I think an art nouveau water dropper would be a bit to large for my suitcase. We watched in anticipation as the water dripped over the sugar cube suspended on a special fork above the glass. After about 5 minutes, the glass was properly filled and the liqueur had turned opaque. Not exactly the “green fairy” of legend, but close enough!
Most of the absinthes were pretty pricey, between 50 and 125 Euros per bottle. We didn’t want to risk losing anything to the customs agents back home, so we passed on the boutique. Most of their range of infused liqueurs are available in the US through small distributors anyway.
If you’re into historic, family run businesses and artisanal spirits, the Distillery Combier is worth a visit and provides an interesting counterpoint to the high-polish Cointreau tour in Angers.
We also stopped at Bouvet Ladubay, a sparkling wine house established in 1851. We tasted some bubbles and couldn’t leave without a 3 pack! If you plan ahead, you can tour their extensive caves by bicycle. Next time!
We were in Saumur during one of the many “canicules” or heat waves that have been plaguing Europe this summer. After we left the pool at our hotel, we decided to have dinner in the coolest place we could find - La Table de Fouées. Located in an old wine cave cut into the limestone cliffs of Saumur, the temperature promised to be an even 55 degrees F.
What is a fouée? Well, it’s kind of a puffed flatbread that looks like a pita. The texture is a little more chewy and it is traditionally served with rillettes. This restaurant offered various platters of dips and spreads and unlimited flatbreads. It was not the most amazing meal I’ve ever had, but the cave was cool and it was a unique experience.
Here’s a panorama from the fairytale Saumur castle overlooking the Loire Valley. Magical!