Whisky Made in France

Whisky Made in France

Distilleries with diversity

Places | 25 Apr 2014 | Issue 119 | By Martine Nouet

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France has taken the pole position in whisky sales for a good number of years and is still leading the way with 220 million bottles sold in 2012. A figure that cannot but encourage distillery plans. France counts up to 25 whisky distilleries now with a diversity of styles, size and coherence. Apart from the very few "whisky only" distilleries, most whisky productions come from existing distilleries which specialize in fruit eau-de-vie, brandy or apple brandy. Consequently, these distilleries use their existing stills, in the case of fruit eau-de-vie, a Holstein type of still, which has an incidence of the aromatic profile of the new make. They also rarely have the mashing and fermenting equipments and buy the wash from a nearby brewery.

The other specificity of (most) French whiskies comes from the maturation. A good number use French oak and more precisely, ex wine casks, some for finish but most for a complete maturation. Others have new casks specially made from local oak trees or from Limousin and Tronçonnais oak as the ones used for cognac. The casks are bought from cooperages located in Cognac region. Incidentally there is a distillery which has chosen to mature its new make in… chestnut wood! Whether the culprit is the maturation or the distillation (or both), the whisky from the Distillerie du Pays d'Othe (Chevailler) is the worst I have ever tasted. I sampled it a few years ago but I still remember it. Thankfully, French whiskies offer a pretty wide selection of good drams.

It is not a coincidence if it all started in Brittany. As Sir Bruce Lockhardt wrote, "The history of malt whisky lies shrouded in the mists of the Celtic dawn". There are now three major distilleries in Brittany. The first established one is Warenghem Distillery near Lannion in Côtes d'Armor. Founded in 1900, Warenghem produces different liquors and spirits including an apple brandy, and a beer. In 1987, the owner Gilles Leizour decided to venture into whisky and launched WB, a blend with a black and white label, not a hint to the scotch blend, but the true colours of Brittany and the abbreviation for "Whisky breton". The single malt Armorik soon followed. Thirty years later, the distillery offers an interesting range with unchillfiltered Armorik at 46% ABV, cask strength releases for export markets, special maturation and finish (sherry, Breton oak), all double distilled in pot stills. They recently won a gold medal at the Concours general of the Salon de l'Agriculture. In 2014, the production will extend from 70,000 litres of pure alcohol to 100,000 litres.

Half an hour drive further, Glann ar Mor distillery founded by Jean Donnay in 1997, encapsulates the spirit of "celtitude". Having created an independent bottling company, Celtic Whisky Compagnie, Jean Donnay and his wife Martine had a dream: produce a traditional single malt in direct-fired pot stills. Jean Donnay was born to distill, his impressive skills serving an unfailing passion. Glann ar Mor is certainly the closer single malt to Scottish ones. Malting is the only operation that does not take place on the site. A new make has even been distilled from locally grown barley in the field between the distillery and the seashore. The whisky matures under the influence of briny sea air, in the best conditions with spectacular views on Les Gréaux lighthouse. Glann ar Mor (sea shore in Breton) is the unpeated malt while Kornog (westerly winds) is the peated version (35 to 40 ppm). They both are bottled on site at 46% ABV, with the addition of cask strength limited editions. Jean Donnay has just been awarded the accolade of Distillery Manager of the year in the Rest of the World category by Whisky Magazine. The tireless entrepreneur has taken another challenge: build a distillery on Islay at Gartbreck, near Bowmore, on the model of Glann ar Mor. A rightful giving-back.

La Distillerie des Menhirs in Plomelin in Finistère (South Brittany) produced apple brandy (and still does) before going into whisky. A very original production as the Le Lay family got interested in buckwheat, a traditional cereal in Brittany. Eddu (buckwheat in Breton) started running from the charentais pot stills in 1998. A success story for a floral and spicy malt. Kaerilis in Belle-Ile down south will bottle its first whisky at the end of this year. The agreement for a European IG (Geographical Identity) "Whisky Breton" is currently in debate between the four distilleries and the INAO (Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité).

Alsace in the east of France is the second whisky producing region. The distilleries all distill fruit eau-de-vie. The main ones are F. Meyer distillery in Hothwarth, Bertrand distillery in Uberach, Gilbert Holl distillery in Ribeauvillé, Lehmann distillery in Obernai. Yves Lehmann distills his fruit and his whisky in pot stills (alambics charentais equipped with a bain-marie), two of 600 litre capacity and one of 1,100 litres. He gets the wash from a nearby brewery. He favors maturation in ex white wine casks, mostly from Bordeaux region. He also uses sauternes and côteaux du Layon casks. His single malt Elsass is 8 year old. The whisky production started in 2002.

Grallet-Dupic distillery in Lorraine, the region for Mirabelle plum eau-de-vie, began distilling whisky in 2002 too. Interesting to note that the family also specializes in growing cereals, so they use their own barley which is malted in Belgium. The single malt Rozelieures (from the name of the village where the distillery is located) is distilled in bigger pot stills (1,000 litres and 3,000 litres). They use three type of casks : cognac, sauternes and fino sherry (but smaller casks than butts) for two versions, a lightly peated one (6 ppm) and a medium peated one (20 ppm), they plan to release a 40 ppm in five years time.

A Corsican single malt was released in 2001. P & M has a very balsamic profile close to eucalyptus. I understood why when I visited the distillery. Myrtle is distilled in the same Holstein still for making a liquor. The flavour is so powerful that in spite of the still being cleaned, it must have affected the whisky vapors in the still.

One of the last (but not least interesting) distillery produces an organic spirit. Le Domaine des Hautes-Glaces in the Alps is a farm-distillery. The owners believe in "terroir", that's why they distill their own barley (and rye) field by field. They also malt and brew on site. They produce a double distilled spirit and a triple distilled one from rye but they don't call it a vodka. The first single malt will be out in 2015.

For more information on French whiskies, check the site of a passionate whisky lover (unfortunately in French only) www.francewhisky.fr
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