French Spirit

French Whiskey Barrels Onto the World Stage

Kentucky and Scotland may be whiskey countries, but the French also produce premium blended whiskeys and single malts. And output is increasing every year.
© Courtesy of Armorik

Here’s one for you: Which country consumes the most whiskey? The answer may surprise you. While many might think the British hold the top spot, the French are actually the winners. At 2.15 liters per inhabitant, they surpass the Uruguayans (1.77 liters), the Americans (1.41), and the Australians (1.3). The poor Brits drink just 1.25 liters, much like the Irish at 1.24.

Not so long ago, scotch was the first drink that came to mind when thinking about whiskey. And for good reason. With around 100 active malt distilleries and 1.5 billion bottles made per year, Scotland is responsible for two thirds of the world’s overall whiskey production. As expected, Ireland and the United States are the two other leading whiskey producers. But they are no longer alone. Thanks to the Japanese, a taboo was lifted in the early 20th century, proving that excellent whiskeys can be made outside the English-speaking world.

France entered the fray a little late, and the first French-made blend – from Brittany, to be precise – was not released until the 1980s. The Warenghem distillery in Lannion in the Côtés d’Armor département broke ground once again in 1998 by launching the very first French single malt, named Armorik. Producers have since jumped on the bandwagon across the country. Today there are some 50 distilleries in France, the majority of which are found in the Southwest, Brittany, the Alps, Alsace, and Lorraine. They have been joined by several bottling plants such as Bellevoye in the Charente département, which bottles single malts from a variety of regions.

While overall French production remains modest, with some one million bottles in 2018 (up from 215,000 in 2010) and around 75% single malts, the figures are growing fast. However, this boom is to be expected. France has everything needed to produce premium whiskeys. For a start, it boasts domestically-grown raw materials — barley and malt — and is a world leader in their production for breweries. It also has exceptional skillsets and infrastructure. The new generation of whiskey distillers has not appeared from nowhere. Many of them already distill other alcohols, such as Rozelieures, in the Meurthe-en-Moselle département, whose mirabelle plum brandy has been the flagship product for 150 years. There are also brewers who use their own beer as a raw material. And regardless of background, they can all count on the finest aging and blending expertise from specialists in the wine and cognac trade. Last but not least, French forests provide key materials for cask makers – the most prized of which is oak – in almost limitless quantities.

For now, the biggest players in the spirits market have preferred to remain on the sidelines, with the exception of Cointreau, which acquired the Domaine des Hautes Glaces in the Isère département in 2016. This is why French producers still work on a small scale; the national leader, Warenghem, produces 200,000 liters of whiskey per year, while the average Scottish distillery puts out seven million. The same cannot be said for vodka, a sector in which France has become a heavyweight thanks to brands such as Grey Goose, owned by the Bacardi group.

In the same way as wine, French whiskey is likely to become a terroir product, a sipping tipple. As we know, this product’s character comes into its own during the aging process in used wine or spirit casks. The most prestigious Scottish whiskeys are traditionally aged in barrels originally used for bourbon and sherry. In France, distillers are drawing on the infinite aromatic diversity of wines and local spirits. They acquire casks of sauternes, banyuls, monbazillac, cognac, and marc from Alsace. In Franche-Comté, the Rouget de Lisle whiskey is aged in barrels of vin jaune and macvin-du-jura, which lends it an incomparable flavor.

So what defines French whiskey? If a specialist were asked this question, they may well reply that, in comparison to scotch, American bourbon and Irish whiskey, what sets French whiskey apart – given its rich aromatic range – is that it has no style. But also that it is tirelessly innovative. In 2002, the Distillerie des Menhirs in the Finistère département launched the first French whiskey made using buckwheat.

This has not prevented a market from forming. A European regulation has already been published specifying the necessary conditions required to use the name “whiskey” within the E.U. It must be made using grain alcohol aged for at least three years in a wooden container and bottled at least 80% proof. In 2015, four European protected geographical indications were introduced, placing whiskeys from Brittany and Alsace on the same level as those from Scotland and Ireland. Proof enough that French whiskeys are well and truly in the big leagues!

Article published in the November 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.