Surrounded by countless Ugni Blanc vines, five hectares of junipers face the Château de Bonbonnet. Here, the king grape variety of cognac does not coincidentally rub shoulders with the shrub whose berries form the basis of the gin. Because, if the white building, typical of Charente ceremonial houses of the 19th century, is the home of Ferrand cognacs, it also houses Citadelle, a pioneering brand of artisanal gin in France and around the world. The success is such that it made it possible to inaugurate in October 2021, on this estate of Ars (Charente), a distillery specifically dedicated to the favorite spirit of tonic.
Bourguignon exiled to the terroirs of Grande Champagne, where he took over the cognac house Ferrand in 1989, before launching Citadelle in 1996, then Plantation rums, in 1999, Alexandre Gabriel designed his distillery “like a chef draws his kitchen” . With a three-star ambition.
To the right of the castle, a former storage building has thus been transformed into a paradise for stills. In a vast and bright room in Avy stones, nine of them majestically twist their brass instruments. Boilers (or curcubites) set in a brick cube, capitals extended by gooseneck pipes, coils descending into the cylinder of the condensers… Originally intended for the distillation of cognac, some of these giant smooth retorts and chubby girls shine, others bear the marks of the hammering of master boilermakers.
All were chosen from among the thirty stills collected by Alexandre Gabriel over the past fifteen years. “It took a year and a half to restore them,” says the chief alchemist. The purpose of this installation? “Increasing Citadelle’s production capacities”, explains Alexandre Gabriel, welcoming the continued growth of his brand (30% sales in 2021). “The distillery will also allow us to push our experiments even further”, he remarks, showing, among the ancestors, the high technology of a rotary evaporator, allowing vacuum distillation to preserve aromatic elements that are too sensitive to heat (those of melon, for example).
Driven by the revival of mixology
However, the bet was far from won when, in 1996, Alexandre Gabriel embarked on the production of this spirit with a so British accent. “I was passionate about developing this ‘drinkable perfume’, but, in terms of business, it almost sank us,” he remarks, remembering the skepticism of his distributors. To distil his gin, he took advantage of the specifications of the AOC cognac, which only authorizes its distillation for five months from the end of the harvest. “So the stills could produce something else the rest of the year. »
Driven by the revival of mixology, Citadelle ended up breaking through, helped by the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, who, in 1998, demonstrated on Spanish television a gourmet gin and tonic with the Charentaise bottle.
An activist himself for “a gastronomy of spirits”, the man who also owns rum distilleries in Barbados and Jamaica says he remains faithful to the basic trilogy of his first recipe: “juniper, citrus fruits and sea breeze”. The only mandatory element of the very free gin specifications, the first is “a jewel to be magnified”, refreshed by the latter and carried away by the exotic breath of spices and other plant extracts allowing infinite possibilities of expression.
Alongside its benchmark gin, Citadelle “publishes” so-called “extreme” or “eccentric” limited series, such as a peppery Sergent Pepper with sansho berries, a Season of the Witch with smoked juniper, a Wild Blossom aged in barrels cherry, a slightly sweet Old Tom and even a Vive le gherkin, with a touch of vinegar (ideal for the dirty Martini).
Following on from the still room, the maceration vat room is the other key location in the distillery. Alexandre Gabriel has also patented a particular technique: “the progressive infusion with a decreasing degree”. Basically, a process of gradually adding the different families of plants to the “spirit chest” intended to be immersed in a vat of neutral grain alcohol, the rate of which will increase in four days from 40 degrees to 35 degrees. “A way to respect each spice while giving an impression of ‘melted'”, assures the alchemist.
The Citadelle team is continuing the planting of junipers “to become self-sufficient within five to seven years” and, at the same time, is finalizing the construction of an orangery adjacent to the distillery intended for the production of the citrus fruits essential for its gins. With the inauguration of a bar, the place, soon to be open to the public, should become an essential stopover in Charente spirit-tourism.