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French Loire wine region also produces fine orange liquor

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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.

Eiffel, of course, went on to design the Eiffel Tower for the Paris World Fair in 1889. But his elegant, albeit lesser known, design for Combier's distillery remains in use today.

“It stands as a beautiful piece of French architectural and engineering history,” Guille says.

The modern firm produces L'Original Combier Liqueur d'Orange (7712, $29.99) using only natural ingredients in the same labor-intensive, artisanal method charted by the founder.

Enjoy Combier Liqueur d'Orange as a delightful after-dinner digestif. Or try the tasty “Fine and Dandy” cocktail.

In a shaker with ice, mix 1 12 ounces of London Dry Gin, 1 ounce of Combier Liqueur d'Orange, 3 / 4 ounce of fresh lime juice, a dash of Angostura bitters and a dash of simple syrup. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media.

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