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Anything goes as French liqueurs keep up with world trends

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Whether the ingredients are traditional, exotic or frankly bizarre, French liqueurs are reliable "ambassadors of quality", an industry leader says.

[AVRILLÉ, France] Whether the ingredients are traditional, exotic or frankly bizarre, French liqueurs are reliable "ambassadors of quality", an industry leader says.

Visitors to the Printemps des Liqueurs, the industry's annual trade fair, this month could sample tipples concocted from rose petals, tea or... how about litchis?

Jean-Dominique Caseau, president of the liqueur producers' union who oversaw the trade fair, says 53 per cent of France's production goes for export.

"Liqueurs are ambassadors of French quality the world over," he says.

French distiller Giffard's offerings are as boundless as the client's imagination as it adapts to shifting global trends along with its rivals in the lucrative industry.

France is home to some 50 often family-owned firms producing 89 million bottles a year for sales topping 500 million euros (S$767 million).

Whereas old school drinkers relaxed after dinner with the likes of a blue curacao, a shot of cherry brandy or perhaps a nip of green Chartreuse, Edith Giffard-Jouanneau, heading up a fourth generation at Giffard, says today's post-prandial tippler tends to be more adventurous.

Customers can order a host of liqueurs made from exotic ingredients such as rose petals or litchi, popular all across Asia, or elderflower, a favourite in bars from New York to Scandinavia.

The firm, headquartered in the western town of Avrille, also respects tradition as befits a company founded in 1885 - anyway, these days, "the older liqueurs are, the trendier they are," Ms Giffard-Jouanneau says.

Her great-grandfather Emile started the firm back in 1885 offering patrons a classic peppery creme de menthe.

Mr Caseau, whose Maison l'Heritier-Guyot in the eastern city of Dijon produces no fewer than 18 million bottles of creme de cassis a year, says France has been able to keep abreast of global drinking trends.

"The globalisation of drinking has led us to view liqueurs differently," says Mr Caseau, noting that in Japan, France's top market after the United States, cassis is imbibed with tea.

For Judith Cartron, fifth-generation owner of the Nuits Saint Georges producer in the Burgundy region, tea - from black to mate or rooibos herbal varieties - is an essential ingredient.

"The fad for cocktails and mixology is ramping up interest in our products," says Ms Cartron, who has been working with tea specialists to select the finest leaves to be macerated for just a few minutes in alcohol.

Ms Cartron, who exports to Dubai and as far as Australia, tries to bring out a new product every 12 to 18 months.

But traditional favourites remain as "barmen also use our proven eau-de-vie, and even absinthe ... as today people want to consume authentic quality products," says Emmanuel Hanquiez of the Manguin distillery near Avignon in south-eastern France.

Ms Giffard meanwhile extended their reach with the recent purchase of French distillery Bigallet, founded in 1872 and renowned for its popular aperitifs made from Alpine plants genepi and castiglione.

"When we took them over, Bigallet was going to halt production of its China-China, a bitter blend of macerated and distilled orange peel with a bouquet of spices and quinquina," an aromatic wine, Ms Giffard-Jouanneau says.

"Today, we produce it for the United States where barmen adore its bitter tang," she adds.

"Traditional recipes and family secret (recipes), plus the image of a made-in-France product - that's essential - are a winner." The firm is now toasting sales that have soared 40 per cent in the past five years, largely borne by unquenched US demand for cocktails.