Color, craftsmanship and creativity: Behind the scenes at liqueur company Giffard
The company was founded in 1885 (founder Emile Giffard was a pharmacist who created the company’s flagship liqueur, Menthe-Pastille) and it still run by the founder’s descendants. It now produces a range of 60 liqueurs and 90 sirops from its facilities in north east France.
As the company continues to evolve, its is taking its cues from consumer trends such as the rise in cocktail culture and a desire for premium products.
Innovation watch: Responding to the popularity of tequila and mezcal
With the vast majority of products sold in the on trade, talking to bartenders is the key to how the company innovates and launches new products.
“We never want to do the same product as another,” explains Edith Giffard. “We have our own identity, our own spirit. Sometimes bartenders from different parts of the world come to us and say we want this, so we are very close to the bartenders. Other times we say: ‘We would like to do that’: and then see if there is a market for it.”
Even the pandemic didn’t stop innovation. Although production did stop for a period (replaced at the distillery with production of alcohol hand sanitiser), R&D was in full swing and – amazingly – was in fact one of the years with the most new product launches.
One of those was Piment d’Espelette: created by the maceration of the peppers from Basque Country with a touch of rum from Martinique: coming in at a higher 40% ABV than the rest of the company’s liqueurs (which usually are around the 20% mark). Other recent launches include tea sirop concentrates (black tea and green tea): joining a sirop portfolio which includes everything from agave to crème brulee and chocolate cookie.
Piment d’Espelette also forms part of the company’s premium range: which has been expanded over the last few years with other liqueurs such as Abricot Rouge du Roussillon, Cassis Noir de Bourgogne, and Banane du Bresil.
And it’s a constant learning process, informed and developed from feedback in each market (around 70% of the company’s sales are from abroad). In the US, for example, it is responding to the huge growth of tequila and mezcal.
“We have a very nice growing market in the USA, which is of course a huge market, people love cocktails, they drink a lot of cocktails in bars and restaurants," explains Bruno Giffard. "It brings us to new ways of drinking which we don’t find so much in Europe.
"For example, the best seller there is pamplemousse – crème de pamplemousse – American people love to blend this with tequila and mezcal and the taste of pamplemousse goes well with tequila and mezcal.”
In the Middle East, however, it’s the company’s sirop range that shines. In a region where alcohol consumption is very low, sirops give bartenders a range of colours and flavours to play with in non-alcoholic drinks.
London, meanwhile, is very much informed by the cocktail culture and a melting pot of traditions and cultures.
Now in its 25th year, the Giffard West Cup Cocktail Competition started simply as a local competition in Angers, in the West Coast of France (hence the name), with family spirit and conviviality making up its core philosophy.
The competition has grown since to include 18+ countries and around 800 bartenders;
The Giffard West Cup has the artistry of cocktail creation at its heart, asking people from all over the globe to create drinks, according to a specific theme, with the winner from each territory coming to the historical Giffard distillery, founded by the family in 1890, to compete against other national winners in a live mixing competition. The Grand Finalists will proceed to compete against each other, in the final round where one last cocktail must be created to decide the fate of the Giffard West Cup Champion 2022.
This year’s chosen theme is “Listen to the Flavours.” Candidates will be asked to create a cocktail inspired by music with Giffard liqueurs and must link to a song that inspires life behind-the-bar.
"Giffard believes that music permeates the universal work of bartenders, and this is in keeping with the Giffard family’s historic belief in the strong and dynamic link between mixology and art – a notion founded by Emile Giffard in 1885. This year, Giffard invites us to turn up the sounds, clink our glasses and Listen to the Flavours," says the company.
Giffard liqueurs must represent at least 50% of the total alcoholic volume of the cocktail.
From March to June, a series of competitions in participating countries will decide the national finalists, who will be invited to the Grand Final, which will take place from the 25th until 28th of September. The winning prize is a tour of three guest shifts at bars in the country of the winner’s choosing, selected from a list provided by Giffard.
Producing 9 million bottles a year
Giffard produces 9 million bottles a year, split roughly equally between liqueurs and sirops.
Liqueurs are produced from a 50-year-old site in Anville, near the company’s historic roots in Angers. The production process is a painstaking and complex one: fruit arrives at the distillery, where it is macerated carefully to preserve the fruits colours and flavors (light, temperature and oxygen are enemies here).
Sugar is then added, with the volume depending on the type of fruit, as is alcohol from sugar beet.
While liqueurs may be the original DNA of the company, it has also been producing sirops since 1905. It was not until 20 years ago, however, that the category really took off for the company outside its home French market. Spotting an opportunity in Germany – a large neighbouring market with enough similarities to France as well as a culture receptive to sirops – its sirops sales started to grow and continue to thrive thanks to today’s cocktail culture.
In contrast to spirits production, which uses the fruit, sirops use the fruit juice. This is mixed with filtered water from the Loire and sugar sourced from the north of France.
'We have to produce like a craftsman on an industrial scale'
What’s most striking about Giffard’s facilities is the colour everywhere. The company’s products – reaching around 150 lines in total - offer an impressive palette of all sorts of colours and shades: each packaged in glass bottles to show off the vibrant colours from the fruit.
But it’s also by design, as a reflection of base of each and every product (all products are made either from real fruits or juice). “We wanted to have the product in the centre,” explains Bruno Giffard. “But the product goes in vats, and it’s not always easy to see the product, and we wanted people to feel the products. So we have the colours on the walls, on the outsides, sometimes we have glass pipes, and we built a garden nearby to remind us that – without nature – we’d be nothing.”
This is especially evident at the newer sirops facility in Saint-Leger-des-Bois, which opened in 2017 with an 11m euro investment. The 7,000 square meter site is split between 3,000 meters square of production and 3,000 square meters of warehousing, alongside office space. The company also owns an additional 7,000 square meters next door: ready for further expansion in the future.
The facility has a number of initiatives to be a sustainable as possible. Large windows allow as much natural light in as possible – good for both reducing the need for electric lighting but also creating a more pleasant atmosphere to work in.
And while the building was created with sustainability in mind from the bottom up, the company continues to make improvements: solar panels which provide 15% of the site’s electricity needs have just become operational.
The facility was built to balance a trio of requirements: the company’s artisanal mindset, the desire to be as sustainable as possible, and the need meet the industrial scale of production required.
“When we produce, what we look to do is craft products,” says Bruno Giffard. “What is most important to us is to produce like a craftsman – small batches, controlling the fruits and production – but we have to do it on a larger, industrial scale.
“When we built the facility here, we had three main topics in mind. The first is keep the people at the center of the building – the workers of the company must feel good. The second is to have the product in the centre. To produce sirops we have juices, natural extracts – so we have the colours on the walls and outside to remind people we work on sirops, and we built a garden here to remind them without nature we are nothing. And the third is environment: we wanted a building that was sustainable.”
So what's the company's secret to success? For Bruno Giffard, it is the family spirit and the long-term vision that goes with it.
“We've existed for 135 years, we always dedicate our energy to quality, to people, to the fruits and plants that create our products. For us, it’s more important to see far – I’ve taken over with my sister from my father; my nephew and daughter will take over the company – so the success I think is very much linked to the fact we want to do something we love for people we love too, so we always put our heart into making the best products. We don’t look at short term, we look at being there in the long term.
"And when you look long term, you are more sustainable, focused on quality, and you develop relationships with our consumers, our suppliers, all the people around.”