France’s cognac region: Where to stay, what to do and more
The town of Cognac is curiously overlooked by many tourists. Too bad, because it’s France at its most timeless. Pastoral and dotted with stone farmhouses, cognac country is renowned for snails, butter and fleur de sel (natural sea salt).
Of course, I wasn’t thinking much about those charms before I arrived. To be honest, I was there for the hooch. I planned to visit at least four of the top cognac distilleries — Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Martell — plus hit a few other celebrated spirits makers in the neighborhood, including Upper Normandy’s Benedictine and the Loire Valley’s Cointreau. Or, as I’d pitched it to my wife: I’d be taking a sort of Gallic version of a Scottish whisky distillery tour, or maybe a Napa Valley winery crawl.
I decide to start with what’s farthest afield and work my way back to Paris. That means a two-hour drive northwest from Paris-Orly Airport to Fecamp, a seaside town in Upper Normandy that’s home to Benedictine, the famed herbal liqueur.
Downing drinks on an empty stomach, if only in thimble-size servings, seems like a dumb way to begin such a long tippling tour. I need lunch, and I find it several blocks from the harbor at Les Terre-Neuvas, a chic, airy restaurant overlooking the Atlantic.
Roasted sea bream with olives followed by a delicate Normandy apple tart with a dollop of ice cream made from pommeau — unfermented apple cider and full-octane apple brandy — and I’m ready for the walk uphill, through town, to the Palais Benedictine.
This giant Gothic gingerbread house is where the herbal liqueur Benedictine has been produced since the 19th century. The top-secret recipe, purportedly known to only three people at any time, remains unchanged, as apparently does the gear used to make it — especially the big metal alembic stills, which look straight out of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
A room dedicated to showcasing hundreds of forged bottles of Benedictine — dubbed the Salle des Contrefacons, or Hall of Counterfeits — seems more about bragging than warning off imitators.
Jet lag descends just as I reach the tasting room, where you can sample not only the flagship liqueur but also potions not available in the United States, such as Benedictine Single Cask, which is drawn from one cask rather than blended from many, as are other Benedictine products. Sold only at the Palais, it tastes pleasantly of honey and smoke. Another American in the tasting room wonders aloud if it would go well on ice cream.