French Country Travel Life Hotch comes in many flavors. There is the made-by-monks (actually these days, “created by monks” would be more accurate) Benedictine. A dizzying array (and isn’t that the best kind?) of Brandys. Cointreau – the pride of Angers. And that other contender for orange liquer excellence, Grand Mariner.
But who first thought of combing orange and chocolate in a head twisting tongue pleasing brew? Why – Jean-Baptiste Combier of course. Don’t remember him from “French Brewmasters 101?” No problem. My learned pal Dave DeSimone (now is that a french name or what!) will fill you in:
“The city of Saumur lies in the heart of the Loire Valley’s famed wine-producing appellations.
Cabernet Franc accounts for the delicious, dry red wines of Saumur-Champigny, Chinon and Bourgeuil. Chenin Blanc grapes give rise to Coteaux du Layon’s luscious sweet white wines and Savennières’ mouthwatering dry whites. The region also produces Crémant de Loire, some France’s most delicious sparkling wines.
But another product found far more widely in bars around the globe has its origins directly in Saumur. Triple Sec, the orange-scented liqueur used in popular cocktails, such as the Margarita and the Side Car, first appeared in Saumur in 1834 thanks to Jean-Baptiste Combier.
Combier, a Burgundy native, came to Saumur for its acclaimed mild climate. He married and set up a confectionary shop in the center of town. To enhance the chocolates, Combier experimented with adding orange essence, a tantalizing and exotic flavor at the time.
“Oranges were rarely seen in France at the time and were hard to obtain,” says Romain Guille, brand manager for Cadre Noir, the current New York-based importer of Combier Liqueur d’Orange. “Oranges were grown in foreign countries and given only as Christmas gifts.”
Instead of using the expensive oranges themselves, Combier hatched the idea of importing dried orange peels from France’s colony of Haiti. He then macerated the peels in natural beet-sugar alcohol before using his single-pot still in his shop’s back room to distill the orange essence as a candy ingredient.
After much trial and error, Combier perfected a recipe involving not one or two distillations, but three. To reduce the fiery spirit from 90 percent alcohol by volume to 40 percent, Combier added water. Additional simple syrup brought mild sweetness to balance the orange peels’ natural bitterness.
“Combier infused his chocolates with the orange liqueur,” Guille says. “But the liqueur became so popular that he bottled it separately for sale.”
He continued refining the process and developing savoir-faire to produce the highest quality liqueur.
The name “triple sec” arose because of Combier’s painstaking triple distillation of the orange zest and alcohol, a process still used at Combier today. The process discards the coarse first and last parts of the distillate known as the “head” and “tail.” It retains only the purest center part known as the “heart.” The heart, in turn, goes through a second similar distillation followed by a third.
“Using only the heart of the heart of the heart creates the purest orange essence,” Guille says.
By 1848, Combier closed the chocolate shop and focused wholly on producing the liqueur d’orange. Production had to increase to meet demand, so, in 1850 Combier hired the then relatively obscure engineer, Gustave-Eiffel. He designed a larger room near the original confectionary shop to hold copper alembic stills.”
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