France remains an exciting and intriguing territory for whisky. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports
All fashions are fickle by their very nature. Some endure longer than others, but eventually ‘the next big thing’ will come along to sweep away what once reigned supreme.This is the way of the world, whether it be hairstyles, hemlines or the type of alcohol in vogue.In France, the country’s indigenous brandy – Cognac from the vineyards of the Charente, north of Bordeaux, was swept aside in a post-war flood of whisky. Sales of Scotch have leapt by almost 150 per cent in the last years and in 2000 were worth over £200 million.To the French, ‘Le Whisky’ always had a certain muscular charm – it was sophisticated and chic. Above all it had ‘luxury import’ status unlike Cognac, whose image has long become tired and dusty in its homeland.Like blended whisky in Britain whose sales have fallen by over a third since the early 80s, Cognac came to be seen as an old man’s drink. Meanwhile imported Scotch had definite sex-appeal having been glamorised by Hollywood stars on and off the big screen.Patrick Thomas, a 54 year-old Frenchman and former managing director of William Grant & Sons remembers it well.“Scotch whisky was trendy when I was young. Any actor in any movie would drink Scotch. Today with all the competition, it’s much more challenging.” He likens the explosion of choice among spirits to the way the automobile industry has developed since the mid 20th century.“When my father bought my mother a Renault, there was just one model, the 4CV. Today you have a choice of 135 different models from the basic to the top of the range that costs four times as much and is like a Rolls Royce.”Multiply this by the bewildering array of different bottles of Scotch available in France, and for each brand, this is one of the most competitive markets in the world. Some are famous international names such as Ballantine’s, Johnnie Walker and Cutty Sark, others are strictly local such as the top-selling ‘Label 5’ owned by the French company La Martiniquaise and now bottled in Scotland after years of being bottled in France.Of course for many blends, price dominates everything and here French whisky drinkers are no different from those on the other side of the channel. When it comes to filling up the supermarket trolley we have both become a nation of promotional junkies, attracted to whatever is on offer that week.And yet when you consider the whole spirits category in France, there remains this strange and endearing loyalty to whisky.I say strange because you only have to look elsewhere to see how the drink has been squeezed by other ‘younger’ drinks, particularly white spirits.In the United States during the 90s, the boom in vodka sales helped cause imports of Scotch whisky to slump by a third.Georges Nectoux, another Frenchman and former whisky chief, this time at Chivas Brothers, once told me that in his country “Scotch has been in fashion for 30 years. There is no Smirnoff Ice, no beer, you have nothing else really.”That may be overstating things, but it is still remarkable how the world’s biggest market for whisky continues to thrive.You can almost hear the impatience of those big rum and vodka brands waiting on the sidelines. ‘Come on Scotch, you’ve been hogging the limelight for long enough, it’s time to move on’.So it has to be more than just fashion. Could it be that the French actually appreciate the malty taste of whisky?Strange though it may seem, that probably is not true of the country next-door which from the mid-80s onwards has been considered by those in the trade as one of the hottest places to be. The rise of Spain proved to be perfect timing for J&B and Cutty Sark whose US sales had haemorrhaged in the decade before. Describing the boom days, Mike Salmon, now international director at Cutty Sark puts it well:“I remember driving into Madrid at 4 in the morning and the terraces in front of the bars were heaving with people.“It was mid-week and no-one was showing the slightest sign of going home, and on every table was a bottle of Scotch.”But also on every table there would have been several bottles of Coke, for that is how most Spaniards prefer whisky - mixed long, over ice as a sort of tartan ‘Cuba Libre’.It is no accident that the best-selling brand in Spain is J&B whose light, clean flavours do not compete or dominate with the taste of Coke.It may be a shame to see all that complexity, carefully nurtured over three years, drowned under a torrent of caramel and sugar, but it sure sells a lot of whisky.The downside of playing a supporting role, is that you are more vulnerable to replacement, and that may be starting to happen in Spain. Ironically it is dark rum, the official spirit of Cuba Libre that is looking most dangerous at present.The French drink whisky with Coke as well, but to nothing like the same extent. They also drink it with water, soda, ice and in any way they feel.This is very healthy for it frees France from the stuffy constraints that persist in parts of Britain about the dos and don’ts of whisky drinking.Rupert Patrick, sales director at Peter Russell, the proud new owners of Glengoyne, has a lovely story about a Scotsman visiting the Highlands with a party of French friends.One of them ordered a Lagavulin and Coke which provoked the barman into delivering a sermon on the right way to drink the Islay malt.Having listened patiently, the Frenchman replied that yes, he understood all about the peat, but that he would still be able to taste it through the Coke and besides that was how he wanted it.The barman point blank refused to serve him unless he changed his mind to Bells. So much for Highland hospitality.The French are far more into single malts than their Spanish cousins and much more au fait with the range of flavours and regional styles.While in Spain they have only really embraced Cardhu, in France there are a growing number of malt clubs and specialist shops to celebrate the diversity of malt whisky.Being French, the conversation tends to steer towards the ’sensualité’ of taste rather than the technical details of distillation.How different are their neighbours to the east, who can be a little obsessive at times, especially when visiting a distillery.Of course these things are hugely important, but so is the wider picture which is something the French seem to have an innate feel for.“France is a wine country so they appreciate good wine, good champagne and good alcohol” says Steven Graham, patron of the Auld Alliance bar in Paris.And thanks to being proud wine producers, there is an understanding of ‘terroir’ – a peculiarly French word to describe all the local factors from soil to the slope and altitude of a vinyard that help shape the style of wine produced into something unique.For those weaned on the concept of chateau-bottled wines the idea of malt whisky from a single distillery is only natural. The culture of regional food and wine also makes the idea of regionality as in Speyside or Islay easy to grasp, and has meant the French are more relaxed in talking about taste.Much of Scotch whisky’s lasting appeal in France is down to the sheer hard work of all those involved.This ranges from the people in the whisky industry who have refused to accept deep down that the market is fully mature and can thus only decline, to the small independent specialists. One of the most dedicated and long-established is La Maison du Whisky, tucked down a side-street in the centre of Paris.Now in its second generation under Thierry Benitah, the range of malts sold through the shop and via a website has grown exponentially.Thierry and his staff run tastings and mail out a regular catalogue to their 20,000 or so customers.With a turnover approaching £5 million La Maison du Whisky has done well. But, he insists, “it’s not about money it’s about passion.”The same could be said about the French whisky market in general.
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