They are known the world over for producing some of the best wines in the world: now the French have set their sights on nipping into the international whisky market.
“Not many of our clients are surprised that French whisky exists,” says Matthieu Acar, a whisky salesman and French whisky specialist at La Maison du Whisky in Paris.
“But a lot of them are surprised at how many French whiskies there are.”
When it comes to quantity and quality, the Scots – purveyors for centuries of “uisge-beatha” (or water of life in Gaelic) – will take some beating.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), more than 1.28 billion bottles of scotch are shipped from Scotland every year.
Laid end to end, those bottles would stretch about 350,000km – 90 per cent of the distance to the Moon.
In comparison, France’s whisky production would barely break through the atmosphere.
But with 42 distilleries creating at least one whisky, according to the French Whisky Federation (FWF), the French seem determined to grab a share of what has become a lucrative market.
The Scotch whisky industry adds £5.5 billion ($7.1 billion) to the UK economy in 2018, according to SWA estimates.
Although the French are far behind, Nicolas Le Brun – official programmer for the annual Whisky Live salon in Paris – believes the future is bright.
“French whisky is still at a relatively young age in its history. It appeared at the beginning of the 80s, so this is really the beginning,” Le Brun said.
“But that said, with our expertise [in distilling], our culture of consumption, and again the culture of producing drinks like Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados, there’s a good chance that in the years to come French whisky will find its niche.”
Mixing the grain
There may be an abundance of Scotch on the international market, but the French have some aces up their sleeves.
The French are Europe’s top cereal producers and the number one consumers of whisky in Europe. And in an era where consumer choice is increasingly determined by gluten-free and organic options, young producers are taking heed.
“For us, it’s all about taking the raw materials – cereals which we grow organically on our land – and transforming them into completely organic whiskies,” says Frederic Revol, co-founder of the Domaine des Hautes Glaces distillery high in the French Alps.
“Everything is organic, everything grows within 15km of the distillery, so we use barley, the classic Scotch whisky grain, as raw material but we also use different grains like rye or spelt.”
Alexandre Sirech, co-founder of the Bellevoye brand, says his passion for whisky came from a decisive experience of working in a Speyside distillery.
“I realised that good Scotch whisky is made of cereals and that the king of cereals in Europe is France,” he said .
“So it was while working in Scotland and learning how to make whisky that I said to myself: ‘One day it would be nice if we could make French whisky with good French grain, and our malted barley in particular.’”
His experience paid off: in 2018 Bellevoye’s “Black Label” beat rivals from Scotland and Japan in a blind tasting of “peated whisky” at the Brussels Whisky Festival.
Armorik, which pioneered French whisky production by creating a blend in 1987, is now a leader in the domestic whisky market. Making whisky “traditionally, with a Breton touch”, Armorik matures its whiskies in French wine casks.
Another 12 distilleries are expected to open in France this year, according to the FWF.
And Armorik CEO David Roussier believes the French – when it comes to taste and quality – can give the Scots a run for their money.
“I think we’re totally competing [on the international market]. In blind tasting it’s difficult to say who would be the best, a Scotch, American, Irish or French,” he said.
“The French bring something else, a very different way of working, a very different way of ageing.
“Obviously the history of French wine making means we also have a lot of barrels to age our whiskies in.”
That helps to bring out different aromas, he added.