le tasting room

Loire wine tours, tastings, day trips from Paris & short breaks organised by experienced English wine trade professionals.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Distillerie Combier

Combier was founded in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier, originally from near Macon in Burgundy where his father was a vinegrower. A confectioner, he settled in Saumur with his wife in 1825 and as a sideline, had a small copper still in the back of his shop from which he produced small quantities of liqueurs for his chocolates.

In 1848 he bought the site on rue Beaurepaire and built the distillery which remains the production centre today. The production room was designed by Gustave Eiffel and his influence can be seen in the design of the iron gallery. This room remains nearly unchanged to this day, containing 2 copper alembics dating from 1870 and others from 1899. Jean-Baptiste and his son James started working together in 1866 and at the age of 28 years, James took over control of the company until 1933. The then sales manager took control until the 1970's whereupon the Company was bought by Bollinger (of Champagne fame). The Company was taken back into family hands in 2001.

Probably best known for Triple Sec (the first and original orange based liqueur, created in 1934), production remains artisanal with only 5 employees working in production and a further 10 in the office,
marketing, sales and export.

Bitter orange peel is imported from Tahiti - it arrives dried in large sacs and has to be rehydrated for 24 hours before the strongly flavoured zest can be separated from the pith. This is done using a hand-operated machine, each piece of rind being carefully fed in (see picture).

Once the zest has been collected, it macerates in 98% alcohol for a further 24 hours after which it is put into the still along with water. The still is locked, the mixture brought to the boil, the steam rises up the swan neck pipe and the resulting alcohol is collected. The heads and tails (with the highest and lowest alcohol levels) are discarded and resold (normally to the chemical industry) and the heart is retained, put back into the still, mixed with water and distilled again. This happens a third time making a total of three distillations to reach the final product hence the name Triple Sec. The liqueur is then blended with a sugar syrup which sweetens it and lowers the alcohol level to 40%.
Combier also produces a number of other products, Royal Combier is a mixture of Triple Sec, with 2 Cognacs and around 15 different spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and saffron. Absinthe has also been produced for the past 4 years - blended with green anise. The plant is gathered from the mountains and is left to macerate for a very short time to ensure the final drink does not contain too much thujone, a natural chemical that supposedly drove people to madness and resulted in the product being banned in France between 1915 and 1990.

Fruit syrups and creams are also produced on the premises using natural extracts of fruit, flowers and nuts all sourced from the region. Rose petal syrup is made from roses gathered at Doué la Fontaine and the local aperitif Guignolet is made from bitter cherries called la Guigne.

Guignolet was originally created as a medicine in the 17th Century by La Reverende Mère Madeleine Gautron at the Benedictine Convent in Angers. Her great grand nephew passed on the recipe in 1890 and Combier has been producing it ever since. Because the fruit is used with the stones, it's rich and aromatic but has a refreshing bitterness on the palate. It can be drunk alone or added to a glass of crémant or petillant.

Total production amounts to around 900,000 bottles per year of which around 80% are exported around the world.

A visit to the Combier distillery can be organised as part of a loire wine tour organised by le tasting room. It's a small family concern right in the centre of Saumur and caters for very small groups with a tasting afterwards. Another benefit is that with producing so many fruit syrups, this visit is suitable for children who can enjoy their own tasting after the tour.

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