What direction is French whisky moving in? An interview with Matthieu Acar
There is currently great enthusiasm around French whisky and it is growing exponentially: which are the most interesting types? Is a French national whisky identity possible?
We talked about this and a great deal more with Matthieu Acar, Retail Manager for La Maison du Whisky, one of the greatest exponents of French whisky and author of a book Une brève mais intense histoire du whisky français published in September by Flammarion, which covers the 40-year history of the best French-whisky-producing savoir faire.
Photo of LMDW
There are now over 100 distilleries making whisky (although not exclusively). Do you think this number will continue to rise or will we soon see consolidation, with only the better producers moving forward?
That’s a good question! Producer numbers are now around 120 and will probably continue to grow. Particularly because, whilst the number of French distilleries may seem high, product volumes are still very low. Today, French whisky sold in France accounts for just 0.6% of global whisky consumption.
In the future, Cognac and Armagnac producers may hold the key to expanding the market, as their stills are available much of the year. The distillation season for these two spirits ends on 31 March, which means that the stills are unused for 6 months and are available for whisky making.
On this basis, some breweries are specializing in supplying wash for these historic producers and it would thus not be surprising if we see many new brands/distilleries emerge in the Armagnac and Cognac regions.
On another level, micro-breweries are also a potential source of growth in numbers. Given their ability to produce quality wash, some breweries are looking for distillers and stills to start making whisky and extend their product range.
Following on from the 30 August 1960 ruling which brought the hereditary privilege of the bouilleur - those who handed over the fermented products to be worked by travelling distillers - to an end, these latter seemed destined to disappear, but thanks to these small breweries some of them have found an interesting outlet here and stills are once again to be seen travelling along French country roads! It is a very different model from that used in other whisky nations, but it is certainly an attractive one.
Lastly, other highly innovative projects will probably continue to emerge but with the competition now out there their numbers will necessarily diminish.
In conclusion, I think that the number of distilleries will top 150 before plateauing towards the end of the decade.
The fact that distilleries often also produce Cognac or fruit spirits seems to be a French peculiarity. Do you think it is a good thing, experimenting with different kinds of whisky know-how, or does it risk muddying the waters?
There are also more unusual stills such as those used at the Castan distillery, a historic travelling still made up of multiple compartments and two rectification columns which serve to inject vapor directly into the wash!
Furthermore, the experience of France's historic producers is not solely in distilling but also encompasses great expertise in ageing as well. In this key whisky producing sphere, French producers can count on French forests and barrel makers, as well as the Cognac and Armagnac cellar masters’ hundreds of years of experience. Naturally, many French producers use new wine barrels to promote their wine-making regions. This does not exclude the use of traditional Bourbon and Sherry barrels which - while used to a lesser extent in France than in Scotland - remain the majority in French whisky.
As far as the risk of confusion is concerned, this is very low. On one hand because the Cognac and Armagnac inter-professional bodies are highly vigilant on such matters and, on the other, because as the French are some of the world's greatest consumers of whisky, they know it well and don’t mix it up with others.
Holstein stills, TOS
Which do you see as the best French whiskies?
It's very difficult to answer this question, as they vary widely. As regards territory, grains and raw materials, Domaine des Hautes Glaces is clearly an important player. Founded in 2009 in the Alps, this estate is a farm-distillery which grows barley and rye in various plots to compare their effect on whisky flavor. It is also one of very few whiskies in the world to ferment with native yeasts coming directly from its own fields.
As far as fermentation matters are concerned, the TOS and Wambrechie distilleries are fundamental. With their long beer making experience, they can offer wash whose aromatic intensity is exceptional.
Distilling-wise, the Castan farm distillery and its pot still work very well indeed. There's also the Vercors distillery, which uses vacuum stills and successfully exploits the potential of low temperature distilling.
As far as ageing is concerned, the work done by the Mabillot estate, together with eminent barrel maker Taransaud, shows that three years are enough to make extremely high-quality whiskies. In another, more atypical style, Ninkasi’s wine barrel experiments have turned out fascinating.
Lastly, the Warenghem distillery with its Armorik single malts is probably currently one of France's best. Without making a fanfare of it, this distillery has made all its production organic, launched a very good 50 ppm peaty whisky and, more recently, introduced a barrel maker in order to keep this know-how in Bretagne.
The French are Europe's number one whisky consumers. Do you think that the national production boom will shift consumer quality in the direction of single malts? In general, do you see a trend in France in the direction of single malts and higher quality than the traditional blended Scotch whiskies?
For various years now in France blends aged for fewer than 12 years struggle to emerge, while American whiskies and single malts continue to be appealing and are now at a premium. It is essentially a trend which is totally independent of French whisky's success, but which encompasses our products. On one hand, as French distilleries are small, they cannot put the economies of scale used in Scotland into practice, but producers also see whisky as a reflection of their terroir and their cuisine. In general terms I think this trend is moving in a historical direction. Drinking less but better and, if possible, more responsibly.
A difficult question: In your opinion, is a French national whisky identity possible? Based, for example, on raw materials and terroir, on know-how with wood, on culinary tastes?
The French whisky federation is working on developing a GI (Geographical Indication) for French whisky which incorporates the Alsace and Bretagne GIs which were set up in 2015.
The idea is to guarantee consumers whiskies with the French flag which have been distilled, aged and bottled in France. It would include the size of French distilleries, to maintain the craft dimension of French whisky.
It is an important step but will not in itself create a national identity. As with cuisine, it is likely that the direction taken will be diverse regional identities. At the end of the day, galette bretonne has very little to do with Alsatian choucroute!
What we should see emerge is multiple identities based on the various production phases. Distilling in small stills for Alsace, new wood and blending for Charente, etc.
Ultimately, craftsmanship and diversity remain the principal characteristics of French whisky.
Domaine des Hautes Glaces
What is LMDW’s place in this scenario? Will you put together a catalogue of lots of national distilleries, perhaps from different regions, or will it remain a limited phenomenon for now?
La Maison du Whisky quickly identified the potential of French producers. We have been working with Distillerie des Menhirs since the launch of Eddu in 2002 and since 2011 with the Warenghem distillery, French whisky pioneer. More recently we have extended our portfolio, adding brands from a variety of regions offering high-quality whisky. Ninkasi in Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, Castan in Occitanie, TOS in Hauts de France, Bâche Gabrielsen in Charente… our goal is to offer a limited but complete range diversifying whisky regions and especially styles. From Warenghem, which has enlarged emulating the Scottish model, and Distillerie des Menhirs which is offering the world's first 100% buckwheat whisky, we might say that the range is especially wide and varied!
We can add the VERSION FRANCAISE brand to this, which enables us to offer a wide range of origins via exceptional single casks and small batches.