Flying the flag for generations, Citadelle Gin has long been one of the best gin exports from France.
The story of Citadelle Gin as we know it today began in 1980’s, but the brand is steeped in history that dates much further back. The original recipe for Citadelle Gin was developed by a distillery in Dunkirk in 1771 (at the time an important port for the spice trade). In 1775, Louis XVI authorised two Frenchmen, Carpeau and Stival, to open a distillery making genièvre at the Citadelle of Dunkirk, which soon became a royal distillery with an exclusive 20-year charter. The two founders had 12 traditional copper pot stills made for the distillery, allegedly the first of its type in France.
Skip forward a few hundred years and Citadelle Gin is now produced in Cognac, the birthplace of another fine spirit and home to a few other French gins. In the Late 1980’s Alexandre Gabriel decided it was time to distil a gin and began doing research, pillaging through old records and files in Flanders and then developing a modern plan to distil gin at the Pierre Ferrand Cognac distillery. After coming across the story of Citadelle Gin, Alexandre decided that a gin bottled under the Citadelle name and distilled in a similar way to that of the original, produced after more than a century’s absence, would be befitting of his vision of bringing excitement and diversity back to the gin category.
By 1989, the research was complete and Gabriel and his team were getting ready to produce the very first batch. Although the production techniques have improved over the centuries, Citadelle Gin is still made according to principles laid down in the original recipe. This includes some of the botanicals stated back in 1775 and presumably a few more as we doubt there would have been 19 back then. However, it wasn’t until 1995 that the gin was officially distilled. Since no one had ever received permission to make gin in cognac pot stills in France before and getting permission to do so required braving the French bureaucracy, gin had never been considered.
Explaining some of the difficulties, Alexandre Gabriel recounts “I was more trying desperately to convince the French government to allow me to produce gin at my cognac distillery. You know, by French AOC laws we can only distil cognac from November through March and after that our beautiful little pot stills were idle! Since I had done extensive research and learned that historically gin was produced in pot stills over a naked flame. Perfect! That is exactly how our cognac pot stills were designed! But no one in France had ever approached the government with this request. It took me five long years to finally receive the AOC approval to distil gin in cognac!”.
Citadelle Gin is triple-distilled from wheat and spring water. Before being steeped in neutral alcohol, the master distiller selects the botanicals that will complement the freshness of the juniper with tart, floral and exotic flavours. A work of fine balance, it allows the flavours and aromas to intermingle in a perfect harmony. Once the steeping is complete, the infusion is then distilled in small Charentais pot stills with an open flame. The slow distillation allows the distiller to precisely select the heart of the gin, whilst the relatively low swan’s neck favours the concentration of essential oils; all of which contributing to the gin’s aromatic quality.
It’s unusual to see a distillery opt for open flames as a way of heating the stills. The practice essentially died out as steam jackets became available giving distillers incredible precision over the heating time and overall temperatures. Also, flames and high proof alcohol have proven to be a unreliable combination resulting in numerous distilleries burning to the ground. Whilst the team at Pierre Ferrand will insist it makes a huge difference to the overall flavour and quality of the gin, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. Without doubt it will have an impact, but given the flame doesn’t actually touch the liquid and heats the pot from the outside their comparison between cooking in barbecues and pans is a mute point – it’s more like the difference between cooking on gas or on an electric hob… Regardless, the charm and historical recreation of how the process might have been carried out hundreds of years ago is captivating and adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to the gin.
Citadelle Gin to taste…
The final step is for it to be bottled at 44% ABV capturing each separate aroma. On the nose, juniper is prominent with orange loosely behind along with a refreshing green note from the cardamom in the mix. To taste, juniper and citrus are again apparent upfront with a dry, peppery finish. The overall impression is of a zesty gin that would work well in a host of different cocktails.
Pierre Ferrand have long been flying the flag for French gin, but with Saffron Gin, G’Vine Gin and others now on the market it would seem like there are a few contenders vying for the mantle of best gin in France. With a new bottle design that combines copper and their familiar blue glass it has helped refresh the brand, which had begun to look a little tired. Citadelle Gin has been underrated for many years and liquid aside, it deserves to be considered as one of the brands that tried to re-establish the diversity within the category long before the gin boom of recent years.
In an interview Alexandre Gabriel gave in 2012 he explains this a little further: “We started producing Citadelle in 1995 which really makes us the FIRST artisanal gin producer! We hear about so many lovely artisanal gin distilleries opening now, especially in the US, and I think we were the ones almost 20 years ago that started the movement. But now, when a new artisanal distillery opens they make news. But when I started in 1995, being more producer than marketer, I had to actually FIND a market for our gin! A lot of people thought I was nuts.”
Citadelle’s website also received a much needed update. It’s worth having a look as they include some captivating imagery and video content showing life behind the scenes. It must be taken with a hint of exaggeration and embellishment – as with all things French – that they sometimes like to forget that laying claim to being the “only” French gin and that their way is, bien-sur, always best doesn’t always make it true. That said, they also have the debonair charm and confidence to get away with, though if you aren’t convinced, just forget the parade and self pomp and enjoy the gin. A mightily tasty gin it definitely is.
Cognac Ferrand launched Citadelle Reserve, where the gin is aged for 6 months in oak barrels before being bottled. We will be reviewing this separately.
For more information about Citadelle Gin, visit their website: www.citadellegin.com
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