Whisky is France’s favourite spirit and it is the country which drinks the most in the world. A 2016 study by marketing group Bonial found that the French drank 2.15 litres per inhabitant a year compared to Uruguay in second place at 1.77 litres and the UK in seventh place at 1.25 litres.
It even beats Champagne in popularity, with 200 million bottles of whisky drunk every year, compared to 150 million bottles of bubbly.
Although France is a world leader in wine, brandy, calvados and beer, no-one had made whisky to sell until 1984
By 2000, there were seven distilleries and by 2020 there were around 90, and more are opening every year.
95% of them have joined the Fédération du Whisky de France which is promoting the new adventure in a sector up to now dominated by Scotland, Ireland, the US and Germany.
Its Director, Philippe Jugé, says whisky was not made until recently due to a number of historic, social and economic factors: “We are a huge grain producer but in the 16th century when there was a shortage it became illegal to use it for anything other than bread, and this principal has remained deep in our culture, perhaps because we had grapes and wine, so other ways of making spirits and alcoholic drinks."
'Whisky was introduced into France during the Second World War by British and American soldiers and became associated with the heroes of the Liberation'
"This image was strengthened by Hollywood, where all the leading men, be it cowboys, detectives or spies drank whisky and as the French love the cinema they also loved the glamourous portrayal of this drink.
“When supermarkets were introduced in the Sixties, the Calvados, brandy, Cognac and Armagnac producers said their drinks were too “noble” to grace the shelves, though probably this was because they did not produce enough to meet demand. There was plenty of imported whisky, so this made up most of the spirit aisle in the supermarkets.”
He says that even though it has only recently been made here, France has for centuries had all the ingredients and skills for making it:
“In Lorraine in the North-East of France we produce what is arguably the best barley in the world for whisky, used in one out of two bottles worldwide; our malt is used in one out of six bottles; it was a French scientist, Pasteur, who first discovered the process of fermentation in beer; we know all about distillation and manufacture stills; we have vast forests and the wood to produce some of the best barrels in the world and a vast knowledge of making spirits.”
He admits that having the basic requirements does not mean the French can automatically make good whisky:
'It will take a long time for the producers to accumulate a savoir faire and time for the consumer to accept that the French can make a good whisky'
"One of my jobs in the past was to promote Japanese whisky and at first no-one would take it seriously. It took ten years for the market to really develop here.
“The French share is already the same as the Japanese with each selling 1 million bottles, 0.5% each of total sales. But that is also because the French do not produce in large quantities. Every bottle that is made is sold.”
He says there are four types of new producer: “The first are those who already make Calvados or brandy and have decided to use those skills to make whisky. The second are brewers who have added a still to their brewery. The third have no background in producing alcohol and come with a new approach and the most recent group are wine makers who have decided to diversify. The huge variety in backgrounds means that French whiskies are all different and there is no one overall definition of a French whisky. At present they all tend to be artisanal and entrenched in their own local regions and terroir.”
New artisanal distillery - Home Distillers
One of the most recent new artisanal distilleries is Home Distillers at Solignacsur- Loire, Haute-Loire, which opened four years ago. It sold its first whisky in November 2020, after it had been aged for three years in sherry barrels.
Bérenger Mayoux’s interest in whisky began with his brother in the family garage where a hobby soon became a passion until he gave up his job working in a handbag manufacturers to run a distillery full time.
He moved premises to the town’s old railway station where he runs his business with partner Marion Liogier. They have been making and selling other spirits such as gin and rum while waiting for the first whisky to be ready, but it is this drink he is most interested in:
“I first fell in love with the process of making whisky, and then with the drink itself. I love the brewing stage, when we crush the malted barley we buy in and stir it into local water from the mountains of the Haute-Loire heated to 65°C. This transforms the starch in the grain into sugars. We then add yeast to transform the sugars into alcohol.
“At this stage, if we then added hops we would be able to make beer. Instead we distil it twice in our handmade beaten copper stills which were originally used to make cognac and then store it in barrels.”
Mr Mayoux says their first whisky is slightly peaty with spicy and fruity notes, and the characteristic he is aiming for is a whisky which is not especially high in alcohol but which has a concentration of grain flavours. He says the peatiness comes from the malting process.
Peat flavours are associated with whisky because peat was the available fuel used for roasting grain for the first Scottish and Irish whiskies. The Oloroso sherry barrel gives the spicy and fruity overtones and the grain flavour comes from the use of the traditional onion shaped stills. He plans to produce this whisky every year in small quantities. His first matured in one sherry butt produced 1,278 50cl bottles.
He has another whisky on the go which will be ready in 2022, aged in re-conditioned and roasted Bordeaux red wine barrels. Eventually he hopes to have a range of five different French whiskies and in 2029, he will be able to sell his first ten year old whisky.
He has also teamed up with a friend who is a farmer growing organic barley so he soon hopes to be able to produce a 100% local organic whisky.
He says he thinks the French public is now ready to drink home-produced whisky. “Our whiskies are artisanal and locally produced which is what consumers are increasingly looking for today. Though there are, of course, many small producers in Scotland these are not readily available in France so the whisky most people drink comes from the bigger distilleries with less variety.
“They can now find a growing range of whiskies in France and one of the greatest pleasures for a lover of this drink is to try different types. As we have more and more distilleries, the public is gaining more and more confidence in producers who understand that this is serious and not just a bunch of amateurs having a go.”
He sells his whisky through wine merchants and on his via homedistillers.fr.