There’s about an 80 percent chance that you answered “Cognac.”
Now, name the most-consumed spirit in France. The answer is not nearly as obvious—and it’ll likely surprise you. Last year, French drinkers consumed 15.3 million 9-liter cases of whisky—that’s about 184 million bottles— making it the highest-volume spirit in the country, according to IWSR, an organization focused on data and analysis for the alcoholic beverage market.
Whisky (France adopted Scotland’s ‘e’-less spelling) accounts for around 40 percent of all spirits imbibed there. The majority of that is Scotch whisky, both blended and single malt; France has quite an affinity for Scotland’s most iconic beverage. And now French distillers are demonstrating that they’re every bit as adept as the Scots at making the good stuff.
Initially, France’s whisky output was coming from existing, sometimes centuries-old, distilleries that had been producing other spirits—brandy, liqueur, etc.—and wanted to broaden their repertoire. Distillerie Warenghem, founded on France’s Brittany peninsula in 1900, is a pioneer among those. It launched its first blended whisky about 30 years ago and its first single malt, Armorik, in 1998.
The legacy distilleries, like Warenghem, have since paved the way for a new wave of startups whose raison d’etre is making whisky.
“Almost every day now I hear of a new distillery being built in France or an old distillery being refurbished to make whisky,” says Christine Cooney, French-born founder of Lakeville, Massachusetts-based importer Heavenly Spirits, whose portfolio includes Armorik as well as the G. Rozelieures brand.
There currently are 37 whisky distilleries in France—29 that already have bottles on the market and eight that are about to release their brands, according to Philippe Jugé, director of the newly created Fédération du Whisky de France, the trade group that represents the French whisky industry. That’s a more than six-fold increase since 2000, when there were only six whisky distilleries in the country (with only two bottlings available). Additionally, there are 13 independent bottlers that package and market whisky distilled by others. All told, the French industry expects to sell about 800,000 bottles of its own products during 2016.
The burgeoning industry has attracted creative interest on this side of the pond, as well. Most notable among those is American entrepreneur Allison Patel.
“As a consumer, I wanted to experience a single malt whisky that evoked a sense of place or, as they call it in the wine industry, terroir—using not just a distiller’s artistic skills but also the ingredients, climate and atmosphere around a distillery to influence the whisky’s flavor,” says Patel. “When I couldn’t find one, I decided to see if I could do it myself. France made sense as it is known for various regions as related to taste—think about the provenance of French cheese and wines.”
Patel partnered with a distillery in Cognac, France, to develop Brenne Estate Cask single malt, which launched in 2012 and was named Best French Single Cask Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards in London earlier this year. Last year, Patel’s company launched its second expression, Brenne Ten. The surge in the number of players has brought with it differing opinions on the desired direction of the industry.
“With Armorik, their philosophy is, ‘we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to make whiskies the way the Scottish make them,’” Cooney explains. “[The Scottish] have a pretty good reputation; they’ve done it for a long time and they’re making excellent, excellent whiskies and single malts. So why try to reinvent the wheel?”
Then there are others, mainly some of the newer operators, who hope to diverge from the Scottish tradition. In an email, Jugé tells me there is “no point for French whisky producers to copycat Scotch whisky,” especially since Scotch is ubiquitous across France and relatively inexpensive to buy. The challenge for local producers lies in their ability to establish a French whisky identity. Time will tell if they’re able to do that.
Malt whisky: whisky distilled from malted barley
Blended malt whisky: whisky that combines malt whiskies from multiple distilleries
Single malt whisky: a bottling of contents that come from a single distillery
WHISKY GOES GLOBAL
The French aren’t the only ones who’ve embraced the Scottish single malt whisky tradition.
Japan: Japanese whisky is a very close descendant of Scotch whisky. The country’s iconic single malts include Nikka Yoichi and Suntory’s Yamazaki line.
Australia: Bill Lark gets the credit for the Tasmanian whisky renaissance. In 1992, he founded Lark Distilling, known for Lark Classic Cask single malt whisky.
South Africa: Three Ships Whisky launched its first single malt in 2003; this year it released a 10-year-old limited edition.
New Zealand: Kiwi distilling has had its peaks and valleys over the years, but Mathew and Rachael Thomson, founders of Thomson Whisky, are leading a single malt revival.