Once a market dominated by North America, Scotland and Ireland, the whisky industry in the U.S. is expanding to recognize the quality of spirits made in other countries such as Japan, India and notably, France. Based on the quintessentially French concept of “terroir,” French whiskies made with local ingredients are slowly gaining ground in the U.S. market.
The French drink more whisky than any other country — an average of 2.15 liters a year compared to the 1.4 liters consumed by Americans. A majority of this is imported from Scotland, but the country’s own liquor industry has begun to fight for the large market at home, producing French whisky for French people. This is exactly what Jean-Marc and Charles Daucourt, an uncle and nephew duo born into a family of cognac distillers in Angoulême, had in mind 20 years ago when they created whisky using ingredients found near their family distillery. Completely French in conception, production and nationality, their product was named Bastille 1789.
“Most people recognize that we [the French] make some fantastic wines and champagnes so it makes perfect sense that we would come up with a French whisky,” said Charles Daucourt, who has taken charge of the brand’s marketing and management since they launched in the U.S. in 2010. “We have some of the best grains in the northeast of France. A lot of distilleries from Scotland and Ireland even come to France to pick their grains.”
By using local ingredients and techniques, French distillers make whisky that is representative of French terroir. Bastille 1789 is distilled in Charentais-style alembic stills, which are typically used to make cognac, a spirit made from grapes that originates from the town of Cognac in southwest France. They are shaped differently from classic pot stills used to make scotch or bourbon. Charles Daucourt uses his distillery’s old cognac barrels to age Bastille 1789. “I wanted to reproduce the senses and the feeling you get when you drink French red wine,” Charles Daucourt said of his most recent invention, a single-malt whisky. “We age it in three individual barrels — Sauterne, a rich white wine; red burgundy; and sherry wine — for 10 years separately and then blend it together at the end.”
Another French whisky brand from the Cognac region, Brenne, uses alembic stills as well. However, it is aged in a combination of used cognac barrels and new oak barrels from the Limousin region of France. Brenne’s founder and owner Allison Parc describes her whisky as “fruitful and floral” and “very different from its Scottish cousins.” Both Bastille and Brenne introduced aging formulas that are unprecedented in the whisky world. This is significant since 70 percent of a whisky’s taste comes from the casks it is aged in, explained Young Kim, the beverage director of the Flatiron Room, a whisky bar in New York.
“Bastille is quite easy to drink, it has an orange-banana flavor that comes from the wheat content in the grain and the wood,” Young Kim said, comparing Brenne’s single malt with Bastille’s 1789 blended whisky. “Brenne is Bastille on steroids, it has a much stronger taste — it’s unlike any of the other whiskies we have.” Of Bastille 1789’s blended whisky, the International Review of Spirits, edited by the website Tastings.com, gave it 94 points and a gold medal for its “silky, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and creamy peach gelato, pepper, and baking spices accented finish.”
A rapidly-growing market
Allison Parc is American. Unlike Jean-Marc and Charles Daucourt, who were inspired by their family’s cognac distillery, the New Yorker decided to go into the whisky business 15 years ago after realizing that no one was talking about whisky in terms of local ingredients and terroir. After striking up a friendship with a French cognac distiller, Allison Parc decided to experiment by working with him to make a whisky using his wheat fields and his distilling equipment. She has built Brenne from the ground up, going from distributing it on a Citibike in New York City 4 years ago to selling it in 35 states and all over France. It’s an impressive feat. In the American whisky market, competition is fierce due to the sheer number of brands available. The New York Flatiron Room offers 1,200 types of whisky.
The number of French whisky distillers is growing as well. Fifteen years ago, when Allison Parc started, there were only three or four other producers in the country. Today, there are over 40 whisky distilleries registered in France. Perhaps some of this can be credited to its growing presence abroad, especially in the United States. “If your product gets accepted in America, then it goes to London and Paris,” Charles Daucourt said, explaining why he chose to launch Bastille in the U.S. before France. “French whisky has gotten quite popular in France in the past 2 years since it was approved abroad.” Bastille 1789 was released in the U.S. in 2010, France in late 2014 and today is available in 18 countries including Japan, Israel, Taiwan and the Netherlands. French whiskies fall under the label of “world whiskies,” a category that has been growing quickly and stealing market share from more traditional whisky categories, according to Palm Bay International, which distributes 100,000 bottles of Bastille 1789 a year to over 30 states.
Allison Parc also started selling her French-made whisky in the U.S. because, she believed, Americans would be more open to it. Brenne eventually became available in France in 2015. “I didn’t know how well it would be received that an American comes to France, makes whisky and tries to sell it!” she remembered. But the reception proved positive. Following this success, Brenne will soon announce its launch beyond France and the United States.