You might know France mostly as a wine producer, but the country is no stranger to distilled drinks. Think about Cognac and Armagnac, for instance, which are made from a “wine” base. Whiskey, however, has to be made from cereals. Since France has no problem in producing barley or in malting this cereal, producing whiskey is not as challenging as it can be for other countries.
Although French whiskey began being produced recently, the methods have been perfected quickly, with whiskey distillers being innovative every time they have the chance too. The perfect conditions were already created to increase the quality of French whiskey and for it to become as competitive as Scotch or Irish whiskey in the international whisky market.
In this article, we will review a little bit of French whiskey history, how does it compare to others and give you examples of brands you should definitely taste.
Table of Contents – Sip this Article!
- French whiskey – How did that happen?
- The Production and Character of French Whiskey
French Whiskey – How did that happen?
Contrary to what many people may think, Whiskey it’s not only produced in the Scotland, Ireland or North America. In fact, whiskey has been produced in distilleries based in many other countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and, of course, France.
Even though they have smaller productions and distilleries, the quality of whisky produced in central or northern European countries have been increasing over the years. The simple fact that these distillers are not linked to hundreds of years of tradition, giving the French whiskey brands the space for innovation.
How it started
As stated before, the history of French whiskey is quite recent, with this spirit being produced for the first time in 1987. The Warenghem distillery, located in Celtic part of the country, was the pioneer in the France’s whisky-producing scene and, in 1998, the distillery did it again, releasing the first French Single Malt Whiskey.
The production, given the physical proximity to the UK and the Scotch whisky popularity, began by being a reproduction of Scottish distillation and maturation methods. However, French distillers began looking at their own country’s resources and realized they had everything to be as innovative as they wanted to be.
That’s what Des Menhirs distillery did, by creating whiskey made with 100% buckwheat (also known as saracen wheat). The Eddu whisky was released in 2002 and this brand’s expressions have been highly rated by the international community. It represents a new Grain Whiskey style as it happens with rye, for instance.
The Warenghem distillery is the home of Armorik French Single Malt Whiskey, a brand that we’ve sent to our customers in previous Whisky Tasting Boxes.
The Perfect Storm to Create High Quality “Eau de Vie”
Although the history of French whiskey is quite recent, the country already reunited the perfect conditions to produce whiskey without having to import almost any resource from other countries.
To start with, France is one of the countries that has a large production of barley and they were already exporting to other countries so their distilleries could produce more quantity of whisky. In addition, the country was also one of the leaders in producing malting barley within the European Union.
Secondly, France is a country with a huge tradition in the production of spirits. Beverages like calvados, Armagnac or Cognac, are ambassadors of French distillation. The expertise in distillation methods was already there and running. It was only a matter of time until a distillery started to produce their own whiskey.
Not only the distilling knowledge was there, the cellar culture and maturation process were no strangers to the French. And, given that France is one of the largest high quality wine producers, France holds a large quantity and variety of barrels. And, if you know how whisky gets its flavours, you know that most of them come from the casks they age and finish their maturation in.
Whiskey distilleries have at their disposal a very large selection of possibilities to experience and be creative with: barrels of red, white, dry, sweet, fortified wines, special champagnes, and so on.
The Production and Character of French Whiskey
What started in the late 80’s, in the Warenghem distillery, soon spread throughout the country in a form of small businesses and micro-distilleries. By the time this article was written, there is over 40 operating distilleries producing French whiskey and occupying their space in the whisky market with quality whiskey.
And, what started as a reproduction of the scotch whisky methods of whisky crafting, French whisky distillers have taken the production to different paths.
Most of French whiskey still uses malted barley as its main cereal in the mash. However, as stated before, the Eddu whiskey brand is an example of how French distillers can be creative, as it is made completely with bucketwheat. This cereal gives the whiskey a floral and fruity background regarding its flavour notes.
Distillation takes many forms, depending on the distillery. There is one form, though, that has spoken louder: the use of Holstein stills, often used to produce brandy, cognac, armagnac and calvados. This type of distillation, gives the French whisky its fruity flavour and aroma notes.
The maturation of French whiskey is the most difficult to characterize. Since the distilleries have easy access to different types of casks, this whiskey can be matured and finished in the most creative combinations.