Exclusive: Citadelle’s master blender talks creating France’s brilliant artisanal gin

by James Wilkinson

Distilled inside the walls of a grand French Château in the Cognac Region, Citadelle has been one of the world’s most delightful gins since its creation 25 years ago.

Citadelle is known for its brilliant blend of 19 botanicals – including coriander, cumin, nutmeg, licorice, blackcurrant, orange zest and more – which work in harmony within the gin’s stunning blue bottle.

The brand is the brainchild of Citadelle’s Master Blender Alexandre Gabriel and to find out more about this elevated artisanal gin, Wayfarer caught up with him recently.

Alexandre, tell us about the history of Citadelle and its exciting journey to date.

When I launched Citadelle Gin back in 1996, there were no other artisanal French gins. As a matter of fact, there were no other artisanal gins that I could find.

I grew up in the countryside of France in a region where food is a main talking point, where gastronomy and drinks are really important. I grew up on a farm where we ate what we grew, and where everybody had their own opinions about great food. That has left a big impression on me.

When I created Citadelle I really had this in mind. How could we make a gin that would be really flavourful, delicious. A great factor of emotion. Like a great dish or like a great perfume. Of course, gin is about the beauty of the juniper berries and that was a main focal point. I went on to find the best ones.

I soon realized that to have the best ones would be to grow our own. Growing up on a farm, it all made sense to me. So I worked with different botanists to find a way to grow our own juniper berries. Today, we have two fields of juniper berries surrounding the Château and we are growing towards our own independence in the supply of juniper berries.

It allows us to really control our quality. It also allows us to distill the juniper berries when they are much fresher, which gives such a beautiful taste to the gin.

We’re thinking of Citadelle like a great wine, like a great perfume, like a gastronomic product. The idea is to create balance and complexity.

Think of Citadelle as being the heir of this country that I grew up in, France. Making a gin that is a beautiful gastronomic experience.

To me, to make a perfect gin is really about adding these refreshing and rich elements to the gin that we create with our own juniper berries enhanced with some citrus and exotic spice notes. To me, that takes you in a different place when you sip a beautiful gin or a beautiful gin and tonic. That’s also what makes Citadelle special.

When I decided to make a gin, it felt something quite daunting because at the time there was no artisanal gin made and there was nobody to learn from to make a crafted gin. But what I wanted to know is to go back to the very essence of what gin must have been.

A great journalist Paul Paucult once said when tasting Citadelle, it “is what gin was meant to be”. That was what I had wanted to do all along and the fact that someone so skilful could see it was very humbling and satisfying.

Since Citadelle was launched, we have never stopped to be create new gins and explore the different possibilities of artisanal gin. From the revival of aged gin to the exploration of new botanicals and tastes like peppers and smoky juniper berries.

Today we are about to inaugurate our new experimental and ecological distillery at our Château de Bonbonnet in the Southwest of France, that will allow us to create even more small batch experimentations.

Why does the juniper berry flourish so well on your Southern French estate?

In our local region of Charente in Southwest France, we have a beautiful terroir, renowned for growing vines to make delicious cognac. This chalky limestone terroir is in fact great to grow other plants like juniper berries. There’s a long history of growing juniper trees in the region.

They have always grown in the wildest and most natural way in our terroir. In fact, back in the days, people would actually celebrate Christmas with a juniper tree here in this region instead of the traditional pine tree. I find it fascinating to perpetuate this and to be able to sublimate a botanical that is local to our region.

The gin market is expanding globally which is exciting to see – almost like the excitement when you launch the brand in 1996. How good is that for the gin segment?

Back in 1996, there were no artisanal gins in France. When I launched Citadelle it remained quite confidential for several years, that is until people from the industry started to taste my gin and reveal to the world that it existed.

The first press article we had was from the New York Times back in 1998. It was called “French gin storms the gate” and told the story of Citadelle. It gave us incredible exposure. No longer after that, Ferran Adria, the famous chef of El Bulli in Spain, awarded best restaurant in the world, said on TV that it was a gastronomic act to drink Citadelle with a good tonic.

He created the trend of a premium gin and tonic, sipped on ice in a balloon glass. To have such endorsements from renowned peers in the industry contributed significantly to the success of Citadelle Gin.

Today, craft gin is a huge trend and hundreds of new crafted gins get created every year. I would have never thought that one day the gin market would evolve to this. I just wanted to make a gin of excellent quality that would be very refreshing and would create lots of moments of emotions.

Alexandre, what’s the perfect way to enjoy Citadelle?

The perfect way to drink Citadelle Gin is in a Gin and Tonic with a lemon zest. Fill a glass with ice cubes, pour 50ml Citadelle Gin and 150ml tonic. Then express on top of it a lemon zest that will complement the citrus notes of Citadelle. You have yourself a very refreshing cocktail. In the southwest of France, we enjoy pairing our Citadelle Gin and tonic with fresh oysters from our region of Charente. The perfect French aperitif with the “ginto” as we say here!

The French have a very long love story with gin. I remember when I was 18, going out and we would be drinking gin and tonic. I’m only sorry for myself that we couldn’t find at the time better gins. But it is stuck in my mind. These are the gins that cost more the next morning when you wake up than when you buy them the day before ha ha ha!

But it is really in our culture. So I love a beautiful gin and tonic and when you do so the glass is important. It shouldn’t be in a tube but something that allows the aromatics to shine because gin is really about taste, the rich and refreshing feel on the palate and about the aromatics.

The way we like to drink it is to use a great quality tonic. With a great gin you can’t use a low-grade tonic. And I love my gin tonic with the skin of a lemon, slightly express on top to get the oils and thrown in the glass. This is to me a beautiful gin and tonic.

When it’s really cold and it’s winter and the fireplace is going, I also like to grate a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon in my gin tonic.

I don’t think the dirty martini has ever had the traction it does now. Why is Citadelle so good in a martini, dirty or otherwise?

The martini cocktail is actually one that we recommend for our Citadelle Réserve. We launched Citadelle Réserve back in 2008 with the desire to revive aged gins. Before the arrival of concrete and stainless-steel vats, gin travelled in barrels by boat and aged in contact with the wood during sea crossings.

Citadelle Réserve is aged for five months in acacia, mulberry, cherry, chestnut, and French oak barrels. At the end of this process, it is further matured in an egg-shaped oak barrel 2.45 meters high! The complexity created by the ageing is enhanced in a Dry Martini. I invite you to try it! The recipe (below) is really simple, it’s a 50/50 Martini.


Three of Alexandre Gabriel’s top tipples with Ciadelle.

Glass: Rocks
-50ml Citadelle Gin
-150ml Premium tonic water
-Lemon (to zest)
Method: Build over ice and express on top of it a lemon zest
Garnish: Lemon zest

Glass: Martini
-30ml Citadelle Réserve
-30ml Dry Vermouth
-Dash of Orange bitters
-Lemon (to twist)
Method: Stir all ingredients in mixing glass and strain into a chilled martini glass.
Garnish: Lemon twist

Glass: Jug
-60ml Citadelle Gin
-30ml lemon juice
-15ml liquid honey
-120ml premium sparkling water
-Lemon wheels
Method: In a jug, pour 2 parts Citadelle Gin, 1 part lemon juice, 1/2 part of liquid honey and stir well until honey is completely dissolved. Add lots of ice and fill the top with sparkling water.
Garnish: Lemon wheels