From Brittany to Burgundy to Alsace, the whisky tide is rising. Charente alone, the region of Southwestern France known for its Cognac, has at least seven registered distilleries including Bastille 1789, which has been exporting blended whisky and single malt to the United States since 2010. “But whenever we present our products at tasting events across the country,” says Daniel Cooney, the cofounder of Heavenly Spirits, the company representing Bastille 1789 in America, “we hear the same thing: ‘I didn’t even know the French made whisky…’”
France consumes more whisky per capita than any other country, yet only recently entered the high-stakes game of producing it themselves. Despite a rather late start – at least compared to the country’s 700-year history of distilling other spirits such as fruit brandies, or eau de vie – experts say France is now a leading contender to become the next great whisky producer after Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Japan.
“The French have all the ingredients needed to make outstanding whisky,” says Daniel Cooney, who recently visited several French operations. “These include home-grown barley, long sourced by Scotch makers, pure spring water, vast oak forests for supplying aging barrels, a rich distilling know-how, and most importantly, a great passion for enjoying a good drink on a regular basis – the apéritif.”
Changing habits and challenging economic times have played a significant part in shaping the current whisky revolution. The sudden and unexpected decline during the 1990s in the consumption of Cognac, Armagnac, and other fruit brandies in France, pushed many producers to diversify their business. In Charente, embracing whisky also paid off for distillers, who were barred by law from running their alembic stills for Cognac more than six months out of the year. Edouard Daucourt is one such example. On the advice of his Irish-born mother, he used his family’s four-generation expertise to launch Bastille 1789.
But the French whisky revolution goes beyond what happens in the mash tuns and aging warehouses. It symbolizes a revitalization of local agro-industry and culture, a circular economy from grain to glass. In the small town of Lannion in Brittany, whisky producer Armorik – also represented in the United States by Heavenly Spirits – has worked with a local company to transform an abandoned abattoir into a traditional tonnellerie, or cooperage. It is the only one in the region and specializes in making barrels from Breton oak.
To organize production and “make whisky from France the whisky par excellence,” the Fédération du Whisky de France was formed in 2016, with offices on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Two official geographic indications have also been created: one for Breton whiskies and another for Alsatian whiskies. Though not as strict as the highly controlled Champagne designation of origin, these will help to define and protect the unique style of French single malts as they continue to develop.
Daniel Cooney has great hopes for le whisky made in France. “If the French have as much success with grain spirits as they have had with grape ones,” he says, “the world is in for quite a treat in the not-too-distant future!”