Ancient distillery skills for new French whisky makers

France is the world’s second-largest whisky market, but has no whisky world leader of its own, unlike cognac. Ken Seaton looks at what its distilleries are doing to catch up

22 November 2017
By Ken Seaton

Whisky in France can be dated back to an exact year, 1983, when the Warenghem distillery in Brittany thought to turn from making liqueurs and traditional Breton chouchen mead to the water of life, or uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic.

The distillery itself, on the pink granite coast at Lannion, Côtes-d’Armor, was set up in 1900 and made élixir d’Armorique digestif using 35 plants. It quickly won a name for its plant-based liqueurs and the quality of its spirits.

Unlike traditional Scottish distilleries with their distinct ‘pagoda’ roofs over the kilns, Warenghem distillery could be described as a white box sitting off the road to Guingamp – but as with whisky itself, it is what is inside that counts.

Philippe Jugé

Whisky expert Philippe Jugé, organiser of France Quintessence spirits salon and former editor of Whisky Magazine in France, said: “Before 1983 the only ‘French’ whisky came from people buying Scotch and relabelling it after mixing in French alcohol but with Britain now firmly in the Common Market, Europe was organising its regulations and Warenghem planned its own whisky.

“In June, 1984, it distilled its first spirit for its own whisky, and the first real French whisky – a blend called WB, for whisky Breton – came out in 1987, three years later, as the law demands for it to be called whisky. It is still being produced today and Warenghem distills barley for nine months and wheat for three months to produce its blends.”

Now, as Warenghem marks the 30th birthday of its first whisky, it is joined in the market by a host of others in France, from cottage distillers to vineyards and even a champagne house.

Moutard, in Buxeuil, Aube, already makes its own marc de champagne and ratafia liqueur, so knows distilling. But is expanding to its first whisky, matured in ratafia barrels, that will be ready in three years. In the meantime, it is selling the new-make spirit, matured for six months, as Esprit de Malt eau de vie de malt.

None of this for David Roussier, managing director at War­eng­hem Distillerie, who has years of whisky-making experience and, just as importantly, years of stock sitting maturing in the warehouse.
He said: “When we started in whisky it was because our traditional business of making liqueurs was not doing so well.

“My father-in-law, Gilles Leïzour, had just taken over the distillery and he was looking for new products. He started with Chouchen [a type of mead, called hydromèl in French] and then thought that as a regional distillery it should be looking at a regional product. 

“And he felt a Breton regional product should be whisky. As Celts, like the Scots and Irish who are known for distilling it, it seemed a logical choice. 

“In his mind was that France was a big whisky market and if he was launching a new product then he should do it in a market in full swing. A chauvinistic side also led him to concentrate on Breton Whisky which was a big selling point.”

Distilleries work by heating a beer-like wash so the lighter spirits rise up the neck of the still and fall over the top of the neck while the heavier fractions cool and fall back down into the base. 

“We use 100% French barley and our stills are copper and long-necked like Scottish ones. The wash still has a pinched waist before the neck and the second, the spirit still, has a boil bowl. We draw the spirit after about 10 minutes for the coup de tête as we are looking for the first fractions from the distillation to give the maximum of esters and fruit.

“Armorik’s distillate is very rich, with plenty of fatty acids and plenty of fruit. The richness comes from the shape of the alambic still as they are not tall and we can increase the fruity side by starting to draw the spirit earlier.

“We worked with whisky consultant Jim Swan in 2010-2012 and he helped change many things to improve the quality so we are happy with what we have and, in fact, doubled production in the past two years.

“Now we are looking to build new chai barrel storage warehouses and we have about 4,500 barrels in store on racks. 

“We sell through supermarkets and wine caves and we try using barrels that have held different alcohols such as sherry, Pedro Ximénez, rum, French wines... using new Breton oak barrels only for our Dervenn single malt.” [Mr Roussier did not say it, but earlier this year the Dervenn was named ‘Best French whisky’ in the World Whisky Awards.]

“We have a whole range: Ar­mor­ik Double Maturation, Armorik Classic, Galleg, Dervenn and WB and we still also have the best-selling Melmor Chouchen, our liqueurs and even beer, Diwall.

“We are France’s oldest and, I think, largest distillery but I look at the age of whiskies in Scotland – with a 70-year-old Glenlivet on sale – and in our store the oldest barrels date from 2002... yet, the whisky changes each year and we hope one day to produce our own 20-year-old whisky. For now, we must stabilise but we may, perhaps, be able to sell it in our own distillery shop and visitor centre...”

France trails Scots in quality and volume 

WHISKY expert Philippe Jugé says France has all it needs to make a mark in the whisky world, but has a way to go.

“We are in an unprecedented position, we master all stages of whisky making: world leaders for cereals, world No1 for barley, very good in malting and of the world’s three top malting companies the leader and No3 are French, 20% of world beer is brewed with French malt.

“Distillation we already master as we have alambics all over and a dozen still manufacturers when there are none in Ireland and only one in the US.

“Whether it is an alambic à repasse [like the tall Scottish stills] or column [a continuous still often used for grain whisky] we are skilled in both, plus we still have a dozen barrel-makers, admittedly mostly for wine, with forests in Jura and Limousin supplying oak for barrels – plus cognac and wine have given real skills in working on maturation and blending.

“On top, we are the largest consumers of whisky – only the US drinks more – with 200million bottles a year.

“Warenghem produced its first single malt, Armorik, in 1998 and today the industry has grown to 51 active distilleries but only 30 have actually sold whisky [it must mature to legally be whisky].

Laser-guided levels
“We have historic distilleries like War­eng­hem and those in Brittany and Alsace with a history in whisky but also those that make eau de vie and marc; we have brasseries who see whisky as just ‘beer distilled’ and buy a still to make an ‘extra’, and we have those who started with a blank sheet to make whisky but make gin to have money until the spirit matures.

“Our love for whisky dates to the Second World War and the Americans and the British arriving with their single malts, Johnny Walker and Chivas. 

“Plus, of course, France loves cinema and all the stars drank whisky.

Whisky map of France

“It was when supermarkets started and people had an appetite for consumption. Only Scotch could supply the demand: cognac, calvados and armagnac did not have the volume, being more seasonal.

“Today we still trail Scotland: our largest distillery, Warenghem, produces under 200,000 litres of pure alcohol a year... but it is small beer compared to the Scottish distilleries. 

“It is a scale we cannot easily match, but we also have a way to go on quality.”

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