French Country Travel Life Whiskey. Not the first phrase that comes to mind when “Whiskey” is mentioned. N’est ce pas?
Scotland.Naturally. Kentucky. Of course. But France? Yes, Virginia, truth IS stranger than fiction. France DOES produce Whiskey. And why not? Certainly no lack of distilling experience! DA BG can testify to that.
The Wall Street Journal’s John Forsythe pours us a stirring verre of French Whiskey info
IN THE SLEEKLY appointed tasting room, the distillery director lined up seven of his products on the counter. “Here you have the blended whiskeys,” he said, pointing to two white-labeled bottles on my left. With a ceremonious wave of his hand above the other five bottles, he announced, “And the single-malt French.”
Far from Scotland or Kentucky, French distilleries—such as Warenghem in Lannion, where distillery director David Roussier was conducting my tasting—are concocting batches of malt spirit. And why not? Sweden, Belgium and other European nations are making waves in the whiskey world, and the French have centuries of distilling experience.
“French whiskey distilleries exist from the Alps to Corsica. I chose four across northern France.”
French singer Serge Gainsbourg, who was said to need a full bottle of whiskey just to walk on stage, would be proud: According to International Wine and Spirit Research, France is one of the world’s top three consumers of Scotch whisky.
I tripped onto French whiskey in 2004, when I was in Fougères on vacation and spotted a bottle in a liquor store. Its position on a high shelf suggested that no one ever asked for it. I did. It was Armorik, an early effort of Brittany-based Distillerie Warenghem. I found it smooth on the tongue but not memorable enough to have me skip traditional scotches.
Eight years on, I thought it was time to check back in on French whiskey. Since the drink’s character changes in the barrel, what was an unmemorable whiskey in 2004 might make for a tasty one now.
There is no shortage of skepticism about French whiskey. Tim Johnston, the Scottish owner of Juveniles Wine Bar in Paris, who has tasted some of the French product, told me by email, “In case of wartime, it would be good for cleaning wounds.” Yet English whiskey writer Jim Murray scored a recent Armorik Whisky Breton at 91, while other reviews have described French whiskeys as “delightful” and “light and fresh.”
French distilleries exist from the Alps to Corsica, but I chose Warenghem and three others within an easy drive across northern France.
I began at Distillerie Bertrand, a low-key operation in the small town of Uberach, Alsace. Known for its Poire William pear eau-de-vie, Bertrand began distilling spirits in 1874. It started to produce whiskey in 2002. I knew only that the distillery’s whiskey was considered “well made” by whiskey cognoscenti.
As distillery director Jean Metzger handed me a sample, he said, “The most important thing is the barrels. I use those from Banyuls wine.” Aging in oak barrels that formerly held Sherry, bourbon or wine typically gives whiskey color and flavor.
It tasted astringent. Mr. Metzger said his product improves yearly, and a newer sample did have more appeal. He said his whiskey still needed a few more years to become great. I agreed.
Two hundred miles to the west, in a Champagne woods, I found Distillerie Guillon, where part-time employee Pierre Bonnevie gamely searched for a common language in which to conduct a tasting for six of us, including couples from Paris and Cognac. Mr. Bonnevie directed us through a dozen of Guillon’s offerings, from the sweet Vin du Pays to the strong Tourbé Fort.
The selection at Guillon certainly showed quality, but much of it was exceedingly dry, resembling cognac. Mr. Bonnevie admitted, “We can’t put ‘whiskey’ on the label. I don’t know why.”
The European Union controls various aspects of distillation and maturation of whiskey, including the stipulation that only grain, yeast and water are used. I suspected the use of fruit at Guillon. I enjoyed the Tourbé, a smoky incantation, enough to purchase some, but is it whiskey?
Eddu, from Distillerie des Menhirs in the far west, is made with buckwheat. A Corsican spirit called P&M includes chestnuts. By definition, they may not be whiskeys, but if you like how a distillation tastes, does it matter?
My next stop was Brittany, an area settled by Celts. Highway signs are in French and Breton, the old Celtic language. Jean Donnay, a Parisian with no Celtic roots, founded Celtic Whisky Compagnie in 1997 to import whiskey to France. “Then I thought it would be a good thing to have some double maturation whiskey in France,” he said, so he bought a seaside farm and built the distillery Glann ar Mor (Breton for “By the Sea”).
Mr. Donnay claims first use of Sauternes casks, which impart a slight sweetness. He credits the Breton climate, with its salty air, for his whiskey’s distinctive, fiery personality. “Whiskey matures faster here,” he said.
Mr. Donnay poured his latest bottling of Glann ar Mor at three years, three weeks. (It’s not considered whiskey in Europe until it has aged three years.) It was light gold, with no caramel coloring. The taste was lively and mature. Next came Kornog, a peaty expression I was eager to try after reading reviews. I found it peppery and pleasurable. Mr. Donnay’s whiskeys are up-and-comers.
If I expected to return from this trip with a single concept of French whiskey, I was disabused of that outlook at every stop. Mr. Roussier, the director at Warenghem, producer of that first bottle I took down from the shelf eight years ago, emphasized the differences: “Jean Donnay makes very good whiskey, but it’s not like Armorik. Even in Scotland, you can get a highly peated whiskey and whiskey without any peat at all. And Scotland also produces some really crappy whiskey,” said Mr. Roussier, whose father-in-law is longtime Warenghem manager Gilles Leizour.
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