Distillery Focus

The Rise of French Whisky

Château du Breuil is at the epicentre of this new category
By Marie-Ève Venne
If there is one thing that French people know how to produce, it is spirits. Renowned for their Armagnac and Cognac, they are now moving into the whisky market, which should bring little surprise when you know that the French are some of the world’s leading consumers of Scotch whisky and a key litmus test for the success of any whisky brand.

Scotland remains the global reference point for most whisky drinkers, but new categories are appearing that are taking root, such as French whiskies, which are also part of the trend that is seeing drinkers look more favourably on local products. With more than 80 distilleries making whisky, the French are definitely imposing a style and are most probably on their way to taking a leading role in whisky production.
Chateau du Breuil

In order to understand the plausibility of such a scenario, it is useful to recall what whisky is and what its production requires, which may be enough to understand the assets that France has for the production of this spirit. First of all, the raw material: cereals, especially barley, are the core ingredient from which whiskies are produced. France is the leading producer of malting barley in the European Union and the leading exporter of malt in the world: of all European countries, France has the largest quantity of barley available for the production of malt whisky.

Next up, the oak casks. Some French whiskies are aged in new barrels, like American Bourbon; others, as is common practice for Scotch, are aged in used barrels – in other words, those that have already been used to age other wines or spirits. In either case, France has no shortage. Its coopering industry is well geared up to produce new-oak casks from locally grown oak, while those used in the vineyards of Burgundy, Bordeaux or in the production areas of Cognac and Armagnac are also up for grabs.

The last asset is the know-how linked to the production of wines and spirits. The French industry already has all of the skills required for whisky production: from the art of maturing in the cellar to that of blending, not to mention the subtleties of continuous or reflux distillation. There is certainly no lack of expertise.

At the heart of this growing market is a brand that has already made its mark in the world of spirits: Château du Breuil. Located in the village of Breuil en Auge, in Normandy, the company is renowned for the quality of its Calvados and its Rum Explorer range. At the beginning of this year, it officially added a new spirit to its catalogue: whisky. And this is not just any whisky – it is a range of single malts, born and raised in Normandy.

If this project can finally see the light of day, it is largely thanks to Frédéric Dussart, who bought the company in April 2020. Having forged a successful career in IT, he automatically saw the immense potential of Château du Breuil. “I had already invested a few years ago in wine,” he explained. “When I saw this company for sale, its development potential automatically interested me. I found a company that was running very well, not making a profit, with projects, but which had not been developed.”
The Breuil whisky portfolio

While the fact that he bought Château du Breuil has greatly helped its expansion, he can’t take credit for the idea of going into whisky production: “The idea came from our cellar master, Philippe Etignard, back in 2017. At first, it was more of an experiment, simply because he was personally interested in the process of making whisky. And then we thought we could use the stills we already had, since they were only used over a period of four months for the production of Calvados. That’s pretty much how it all started.”

For Didier Bedu, general manager for the brand for more than 25 years, this is the next logical step: “We believe in French whisky because we think it’s finally our turn! When you think about it, in France, we have all the knowledge of spirits, but we never fully committed to it. But with the Brexit and, of course, with Covid, things are changing. People want to purchase local products and they are curious to know what is done in their country.”

For its whiskies, Château du Breuil has opted for single malts made from 100 per cent Golden Promise barley, a high-quality variety that was developed in the 1950s and saw its golden era in Scotch whisky distilling from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. This barley undergoes a traditional malting and low-intensity kilning to preserve the taste of the cereal. While most whisky brands focus obsessively on the wood composing their barrels, Château du Breuil has chosen to distinguish itself by putting the barley first.

The French industry already has all of the skills required for whisky production

“We said to ourselves, if we are going to make whisky, we might as well stand out and keep the same level of excellence as with our Calvados,” said Frédéric. “We turned to a special kind of barley. Most of the whisky that is made in the world is produced with traditional barley. But our cellar master wanted to turn to an old kind that we don’t use anymore, and that’s how we chose the Golden Promise. It’s part of our strategy for the future: we want to become barley hunters.”

For its first three whiskies, bottled at 46% ABV, Château du Breuil has chosen three types of ageing. Le Breuil Single Malt Origine has been aged in new French oak casks and American oak ex-Bourbon barrels. For the distillery team, it is the pure expression of Golden Promise and their tasting notes describe a nose with aromas of peach, pear and hazelnut, a delicate woodiness, and fresh malt flavours. On the palate, there is a freshness and roundness, with notes of sweet almonds and flaxseed later enhanced by flavours of lime, vanilla and dried fruit.

The Le Breuil Single Malt Sherry Oloroso Finish has been finished in an ex-oloroso cask which brings to the whisky fruity and rich notes of walnut, plums, hazelnuts and liquorice in addition to the sweetness of malt and the lightness of vanilla wood. In the mouth appear flavours of sourdough, cocoa and fresh figs, then notes of cherries with kirsch, red fruits and candied oranges. Sweetness and indulgence merge to create a beautifully rounded whisky.

As for the Le Breuil Single Malt Finition Tourbée, it has been finished in peated Scotch whisky barrels to bring a veil of smoke which highlights the cereal, according to the distillery. Its tasting notes evoke a nose with a slightly smoky perfume, accompanied by notes of undergrowth, laurel and fresh cereals with toasted and roasted wood. The palate is dominated by peat, which encompasses aromas of pepper, grapefruit and cardamom. The finish has a delicate expression of praline, exotic fruit and vine peach.
Nosing in the warehouse

Only recently released, the Le Breuil whiskies are already being recognised worldwide, and the range won two gold and silver medals at the World Whiskies Awards 2021. Knowing that they have on hand a quality product that has already generated many positive reactions, Frédéric and his team are ready to storm the international market: “At the moment, there is a huge interest in French whisky and our ambition is that, in the near future, the interest will be similar to that of Japanese whisky. And I am sure that we will succeed.”

Asia is a market that inspires the Château du Breuil team. The company plans to invest heavily in marketing – especially in digital. It wants to modernise its online store to make it 3D, in order to amplify the e-commerce experience and reach the lucrative Chinese market.

The next step is to increase whisky production. Château du Breuil has already invested a lot of money to build another winery and invest in new barrels, and it also plans to build a new distillery. Frédéric wants the new buildings, which will be built to house the production equipment, to have the same brick look as the current buildings. The goal: to maintain an architectural uniformity around the castle, which dates from the 16th–17th century, and to enhance the estate’s industrial heritage.

To support the delivery of these projects, he has expanded the distillery team since the purchase, going from 27 staff to 36. There is no question of abandoning the Calvados side of the business, either.

“We are anchored on two important values, tradition and innovation,” said Frédéric. “It is the driving force behind all our actions. We want to use our knowledge in the field of spirits to produce excellent products, while constantly evolving. Our goal is to produce between 100,000 and 200,000 bottles per year starting in 2023.” As long as they can make French spirits shine, the Château du Breuil team has no plan of slowing down.