Bottle #12: Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura

Bottle #12 is the Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura from Deniset-Klainguer distillery in Pontalier, France. Pontalier is more famous for the massive amounts of absinthe they made in the early 1900s, but they are also the home of this unusual liqueur made from the buds of local pine trees.

The only thing more interesting than the story behind this tiny bottle is the tiny bottle itself. It looks like a tiny tree stump. The cut ends of the “branches” are actual wood. There’s moss and lichen decoration on the dark brown textured “bark.” It’s absolutely fascinating and adorable.

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It’s also the cause of a controversy, and competing claims about whose liqueur de sapins is the real, original, true liqueur de sapins. It’s a super confusing story, but I’ve tried my best to make some sense of it.

In 1900 two men, Guy Armand and Florentin Cousin, went into business together and started a distillery in Pontarlier. Guy Armand had the land and distilling experience, but Florentin Cousin had the money, so the distillery was named after him but reversed – Cousin Florentin. They quickly got to work filling the growing demand for absinthe, but also made brandy and other liqueurs, including inventing this particular style of pine liqueur.

The Cousin Florentin distillery seems to have done pretty well for itself. They had some really cool looking business cards and letterhead, all of which feature the Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura – the exact same words as on my bottle. The business cards included a fantastic engraving of a bottle that looks pretty much identical to mine.

But here’s where it starts getting confusing. So far as I can tell, this style of pine liqueur became popular in the region, and other distillers started making their own. And then they fought over who should get the credit for it.

My bottle credits in big letters “Cousin Florentin, Inventeur” above the distillery details. The maker of the bottle, a distillery named Deniset-Klainguer, claims that they purchased the recipe from Cousin Florentin, and so they are making the product according to its original, true recipe. Given the order of the names, I assume they bought it from the distillery, not the person.

Florentin Cousin, the person, died in 1907, although the source I found for all of this says that the distillery that bore his name retained some affiliation with his widow through 1909. And I think that must be the point when they changed their name to Distillerie Guy.

I don’t know when Deniset-Klainguer started making Le Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura. But it had to have been sometime between 1900 and 1909, because in 1909 the newly rechristened Distillerie Guy trademarked a product called Le Vrai Sapins. Which means the TRUE sapins, for those of you who don’t speak French.

To me, this suggests that by this point there was already some intense rivalry going on. I am reminded of the whole “Ray’s Original Pizza”, “Famous Ray’s Pizza” and “World-Famous Original Ray’s Pizza” situation in NYC.

Distillerie Guy is still around today, having been passed down through Armand Guy’s family for four generations. And they have completely written out the whole Cousin Florentin period from their story. According to them, Armand Guy created the recipe in 1902, came up with the tree stump bottle styling which all those fakers copied, and the Guy family are the only people to possess the original recipe.

But here’s the thing I can’t figure out: While the Deniset-Klainguer recipe might be a copy, it’s a copy down to every last detail of the original Cousin Florentin product. The bottle shape and label match the original marketing materials, while Le Vrai Sapin is very different looking. Maybe there was some kind of split no one is talking about? Maybe the widow sold off the recipe to pay some bills, causing the end of their affiliation in 1909? No idea.

Both distilleries continued to operate throughout the twentieth century. When absinthe was banned around most of the world they doubled-down on producing liqueur de sapins, as well as various anise-flavored absinthe substitutes. I’ve found a picture of one other competitor product – Sapindor – also packaged in a faux-wooden bottle. Distillerie-Guy is today known for Pontarlier-Anis, the absinthe alternative it created in 1921, as well as real absinthe, now that it’s legal again. Meanwhile, Deniset-Klainguer struggled towards the end of the century, and the distillery was purchased by another local producer, Emile Pernot in 2005.

Emile Pernot took the original recipe and made some updates, increasing the alcohol content to 40% from the original 33.5%. They also made an even higher proof 55% version for use by the local confectioners and bakers, and in 2013, US importer Vendetta Spirits convinced them to bottle it for the American market. They’ve struggled to find a market for it, but while doing research about this tiny bottle I discovered that a liquor store near me had a few dusty 1L bottles of the 55% ABV version on a bottom shelf. Of course I grabbed one for myself, and I cannot wait to taste it next to its tiny predecessor!

It is not, sadly, in a faux tree stump bottle. Neither is Distillerie Guy’s rechristened Le Vert Sapin. I can’t blame them. Based on what I found online, those bottles had to be handmade out of paper maché, wood, and all the other little bits, and took about 30 minutes apiece to produce!

The big question for me with each of these bottles is “when?” There are not a lot of clues on my tiny bottle of Grande Liqueur de Sapins. It doesn’t list the volume at all, so I can’t use whether it’s milliliters or ounces as a clue. In attempting to put a date on it I ended up digging into UK food labeling laws, of all things! The label states in really big letters that “This food colour conforms to the statutory requirements of the United Kingdom” and that specific language is required in the 1957 version of the food laws, but is gone in the 1967 version. So somewhere in there, I guess, although with a need to leave open the possibility that they were using up old label stock or just not staying up-to-date on the UK rules over in the mountains of the Jura region in France. And just like the tiny bottle of Italian Swiss Colony wine, puts it a few years before when we think my grandmother started collecting, so that’s interesting.

Watch me taste this bottle with Evan Draper.

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Bottle #12: Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura

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Bottle #12 is the Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura from Deniset-Klainguer distillery in Pontalier, France. Pontalier is more famous for the massive amounts of absinthe they made in the early 1900s, but they are also the home of this unusual liqueur made from the buds of local pine trees.

The only thing more interesting than the story behind this tiny bottle is the tiny bottle itself. It looks like a tiny tree stump. The cut ends of the “branches” are actual wood. There’s moss and lichen decoration on the dark brown textured “bark.” It’s absolutely fascinating and adorable.

It’s also the cause of a controversy, and competing claims about whose liqueur de sapins is the real, original, true liqueur de sapins. It’s a super confusing story, but I’ve tried my best to make some sense of it.

In 1900 two men, Guy Armand and Florentin Cousin, went into business together and started a distillery in Pontarlier. Guy Armand had the land and distilling experience, but Florentin Cousin had the money, so the distillery was named after him but reversed – Cousin Florentin. They quickly got to work filling the growing demand for absinthe, but also made brandy and other liqueurs, including inventing this particular style of pine liqueur.

The Cousin Florentin distillery seems to have done pretty well for itself. They had some really cool looking business cards and letterhead, all of which feature the Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura – the exact same words as on my bottle. The business cards included a fantastic engraving of a bottle that looks pretty much identical to mine.

But here’s where it starts getting confusing. So far as I can tell, this style of pine liqueur became popular in the region, and other distillers started making their own. And then they fought over who should get the credit for it.

My bottle credits in big letters “Cousin Florentin, Inventeur” above the distillery details. The maker of the bottle, a distillery named Deniset-Klainguer, claims that they purchased the recipe from Cousin Florentin, and so they are making the product according to its original, true recipe. Given the order of the names, I assume they bought it from the distillery, not the person.

Florentin Cousin, the person, died in 1907, although the source I found for all of this says that the distillery that bore his name retained some affiliation with his widow through 1909. And I think that must be the point when they changed their name to Distillerie Guy.

I don’t know when Deniset-Klainguer started making Le Grande Liqueur de Sapins des Monts Jura. But it had to have been sometime between 1900 and 1909, because in 1909 the newly rechristened Distillerie Guy trademarked a product called Le Vrai Sapins. Which means the TRUE sapins, for those of you who don’t speak French.

To me, this suggests that by this point there was already some intense rivalry going on. I am reminded of the whole “Ray’s Original Pizza”, “Famous Ray’s Pizza” and “World-Famous Original Ray’s Pizza” situation in NYC.

Distillerie Guy is still around today, having been passed down through Armand Guy’s family for four generations. And they have completely written out the whole Cousin Florentin period from their story. According to them, Armand Guy created the recipe in 1902, came up with the tree stump bottle styling which all those fakers copied, and the Guy family are the only people to possess the original recipe.

But here’s the thing I can’t figure out: While the Deniset-Klainguer recipe might be a copy, it’s a copy down to every last detail of the original Cousin Florentin product. The bottle shape and label match the original marketing materials, while Le Vrai Sapin is very different looking. Maybe there was some kind of split no one is talking about? Maybe the widow sold off the recipe to pay some bills, causing the end of their affiliation in 1909? No idea.

Both distilleries continued to operate throughout the twentieth century. When absinthe was banned around most of the world they doubled-down on producing liqueur de sapins, as well as various anise-flavored absinthe substitutes. I’ve found a picture of one other competitor product – Sapindor – also packaged in a faux-wooden bottle. Distillerie-Guy is today known for Pontarlier-Anis, the absinthe alternative it created in 1921, as well as real absinthe, now that it’s legal again. Meanwhile, Deniset-Klainguer struggled towards the end of the century, and the distillery was purchased by another local producer, Emile Pernot in 2005.

Emile Pernot took the original recipe and made some updates, increasing the alcohol content to 40% from the original 33.5%. They also made an even higher proof 55% version for use by the local confectioners and bakers, and in 2013, US importer Vendetta Spirits convinced them to bottle it for the American market. They’ve struggled to find a market for it, but while doing research about this tiny bottle I discovered that a liquor store near me had a few dusty 1L bottles of the 55% ABV version on a bottom shelf. Of course I grabbed one for myself, and I cannot wait to taste it next to its tiny predecessor!

It is not, sadly, in a faux tree stump bottle. Neither is Distillerie Guy’s rechristened Le Vert Sapin. I can’t blame them. Based on what I found online, those bottles had to be handmade out of paper maché, wood, and all the other little bits, and took about 30 minutes apiece to produce!

The big question for me with each of these bottles is “when?” There are not a lot of clues on my tiny bottle of Grande Liqueur de Sapins. It doesn’t list the volume at all, so I can’t use whether it’s milliliters or ounces as a clue. In attempting to put a date on it I ended up digging into UK food labeling laws, of all things! The label states in really big letters that “This food colour conforms to the statutory requirements of the United Kingdom” and that specific language is required in the 1957 version of the food laws, but is gone in the 1967 version. So somewhere in there, I guess, although with a need to leave open the possibility that they were using up old label stock or just not staying up-to-date on the UK rules over in the mountains of the Jura region in France. And just like the tiny bottle of Italian Swiss Colony wine, puts it a few years before when we think my grandmother started collecting, so that’s interesting.

Watch me taste this bottle with Evan Draper.

2 Comments

  1. Yes, very interesting history, thank you. I purchased a bottle of the “Cousin Florentine” variety many years ago with the matching tree branch cork to be used once opened and it is still sitting in my collection. Can you please tell me the value of this little gem and if it also contains some form of absinthe ?

    Reply
    • Glad you found the history interesting! I don’t have any idea of the value. I’ve tasted the modern version, and it’s not absinthe. More of an herbal liqueur, similar to a genepy. No significant anise/licorice flavor.

      Reply

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