Comte de Grasse’s 44°N gin mixes age-old perfume extraction techniques, unconventional distilling methods and local, rare botanicals to create its liquid. Imbibe headed to the home of perfume to find out more
The French Riviera town of Grasse has long been home to France's illustrious perfume industry. This side of the millennium, however, you'll also find Comte de Grasse. The lab distillery, founded in 2017, sets out to create premium spirits using technology rooted in science and techniques that nod to the history of its home.
Arriving in the hillside town, just north of Cannes, its hard to miss the soaring red cylindrical chimney still attached to one of two parts of the 17th-century perfumery that Comte de Grasse, on the time of our visit in 2019, was preparing to overhaul. Via VR technology, myself and my fellow journalists saw the spaces transformed into a visitor centre, bottling tank space and storage areas that would see the upscaling of its first product, 44°N.
Keeping it local
The woman behind the gin is Marie-Anne Contamin. She has worked as a flavourist, flavour consultant and flavour development manager for the best-part of her career, and now holds the title of master scientist & innovator at Comte de Grasse.
The relationship between perfume and gin is nothing new, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a spirit so closely linked to the industry. The botanicals it uses can be found locally and are the same as those used by perfume houses such as Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard.
The original concept for 44°N came from the idea of 'light'. ‘I started with the sun,' explains Contamin, who then asked herself what botanicals would remind her of the terroir of Grasse. The answer? Citrus, floral and herbaceous.
Contamin takes us through a lab session for us to nose and taste the botanicals, in their raw, macerated and distilled forms. Familiar botanicals include rose (the star of the region and popular with companies such as Dior), coriander, bitter orange and honey, while less familiar ones such as cade (a variant of juniper), orris (musky and powdery, used in a lot of perfumes, and has a white chocolate note), and immortelle (another name for everlasting plants and containing essential oils such as sandalwood, myrrh and frankincense) are what give this gin its final complexity.
She also uses the local water. Hard and chalky, it comes from the Alpes Maritime and is the same that helps the botanicals grow. When it comes to locality, it's a pretty tidy loop.
Contamin also takes us through her distillation process – called Grasse HYPRX – ultrasonic maceration, vacuum distillation and CO2 supercritical extraction.
It's a method designed to use less energy and natural resources than tradition gin distillation techniques, as well as introduce techniques more commonly found in the fragrance industry. Ultrasonic maceration shortens maceration time to 45 minutes (and is the equivalent of four days of steeping), while the rotary vacuum distillation operates at a lower heat than usual so as not to damage the botanicals, while CO2 supercritical extraction is used to optimise the depth of flavour and fragrance.
The result? Strong citrus on the nose (especially orange) and herbaceous, no doubt from the samphire which is almost parsley-like. On the palate, it's more vegetal than expected, with strong and lingering rose and floral characteristics. It's agreed around the room that it makes for a delicious sipping gin, and with the addition of ice, more peppery flavours and sensations come through on the palate.
60 seconds with...Marie-Anne Contamin, master scientist & innovator
What gives 44°N its 'premium' label
I think there are two things. Firstly, it’s the ingredients. Grasse is known for its perfume industry and [because of the micro-climate] it grows flowers which have a special taste and smell, and would be different if they had been cultivated elsewhere in the world. The second thing is the know-how and the expertise we have here, both coming from the fragrance industry, and having a lot of cutting-edge technologies. The extracts, the botanicals, are special.
How do you stay sustainable?
We try as much as possible to use local ingredients and to give employment to people in the local area. We’re using the local water and not over-picking things – with the cade, for example, you can’t pick more than 20% of the berries. We want to be respectful of nature.
When did you know that the final botanicals were the right ones?
We sampled around 150 different ingredients... It’s exactly the same as [working] in the flavour and fragrance industries, you could go on forever but there are other parameters that need to be taken into account. Something as pragmatic as a launch day, for example: I think it’s important that you fix yourself a date and you motivate yourself to deliver. Nine months was OK for me, I experimented with everything I wanted to.
What a typical day like at work?
One day to another can be very different. We can be working in the lab testing for a new recipe, or doing something special for a trade event, or working with bartenders to create cocktail recipes. Going back to the lab is important so you can challenge both the parameters and the recipe.
Have you noticed people's preferences changing since you've worked with flavours?
People want more natural flavours, that’s for sure. They want more transparency.