When most people think of France, they imagine the twinkling lights of Paris, the lux beach towns of the Riviera, or perhaps verdant, hillside vineyards. Personally, I call to mind gently rolling fields of grain. France is, after all, the largest agricultural producer in Europe with more than half of its land used for one crop or another. Many whisky fans may be surprised to know that France produces almost all the barley used for European malt whisky production and that they have been distilling spirits longer than any other European country. The French are also the largest consumers of whisky per capita in the world (mostly Scotch-style blends). That impressive history and insatiable thirst for brown water has naturally led them to produce their own whisky. A lot of it, actually. “French Whiskies are on the rise, both in quality and quantity,” says Dan Cooney, co-owner of French spirits importer Heavenly Spirits. “Armorik was the only French whisky being produced just 25 years ago, but today there are almost 100 distillers making whisky in France.” With that kind of growth, it won’t be long before a multitude of French whisky options wash up on our shores.
A few standout offerings have already arrived. Two of the leading sellers in France, Armorik and Bastille 1789, have been making their way over the last decade into select markets in the United States. I caught up with David Roussier, Director of Armorik Whisky, and Charles Daucourt, Brand Ambassador of Bastille 1789, to talk about the growing category of French whisky and discover what makes their French whiskies so special.
The Warenghem Distillery in Brittany has been making spirits and liqueurs for over a century, but it wasn’t until 1983 that they finally got around to producing a whisky. Armorik was the first double distilled whisky made in France, and it has set a high bar since then for the dozens of new whisky-makers emerging across the country. “Armorik is known for producing a solidly classic Scotch-style single malt,” says Dan, but with a uniquely French twist, of course.
The whisky is distilled on traditional copper stills and produced from 100% French malted barley grown in rocky soil just six miles from the sea in a wet and windy environment not unlike the Scottish Highlands. That unique terroir is evident in the kiss of sea salt found in several of Armorik’s expressions. The flagship offering is a traditional mix of ex-bourbon and refill Sherry, but the portfolio also includes a number of finishes, from classics like Sherry to more unique, and decidedly French, expressions finished in Armagnac, Pineau des Charentes, and local Breton oak.
What makes French whisky unique from other whiskies on the market right now?
David Roussier: French whisky is unique because we are the only country where we master every step of the production from barley growing to cooperage. We also like to think that French Whisky is about elegance. The French are famous for quality spirits, and that reflects in the whisky too. We also use a lot of different wine finishes not found in single malts from other countries.
What makes Armorik whiskies unique?
David Roussier: Armorik is a certified Breton Single Malt Whisky (geographical indication), which means that the Breton origin makes a difference in terms of water used, climate for maturation, etc. The standards are quite close to the Scottish [standards], but we have a completely different climate that changes a lot in terms of length and quality of maturation, growing of the barley. We are also one of the only brands to be certified organic on the whole range now, and we use unique oak casks from the local forests.
The French are notorious for their whisky-consumption. What are the challenges and advantages of producing a whisky for such a discerning consumer?
David Roussier: The challenges were to convince people that we could make great whiskies in France. Being the first in the eighties was a huge challenge. At that time, people were not as open minded as they are now. The challenge is also on quality. French are experienced whisky drinkers, they want quality, thus Armorik is focused on quality. The advantages are that once your whisky gets its legitimacy through quality, people are really faithful and proud to drink Breton whisky. And the market in France is really big, so there is a lot of potential for quality Breton whiskies such as Armorik.
What does the future hold for Armorik?
David Roussier: We are currently planning to open a cooperage, a malting facility, and we will continue to increase our aged stock of whisky to launch older expressions of Armorik. A 10-year-old and a 15-year-old are on the way. We might also launch some additions to the Yeun Elez (heavily peated) range in the near future!
The Daucort family has been passionate about spirits and the art of distillation for four generations, operating a distillery in the Cognac region of France where they have produced several successful spirits brands. Inspired by his Irish mother, Jean-Marc Dacourt studied the art of whisky-making in Scotland and returned to France where, together with his brother Edouard and nephew Charles, he set about to make “a singular whisky with a unique French savoir faire.” Bastille 1789 was that whisky.
Bastille 1789 is produced as both a single malt and a blended whisky, a style wildly popular with the French and many other whisky-loving countries. It is made from grains grown in the northeastern part of France where some of the world’s finest Scotch producers also source their malt. After fermenting with a proprietary yeast strain over a century old, distillation occurs on a Charentais copper still, an alembic still with a unique swan neck typically used in Cognac production. The whisky is then aged in rare Limousine oak barrels from France that previously held Sauternes, Cognac, Burgundy, or Sherry, depending on the expression. “It’s a deliciously smooth, blended Scotch-style whisky,” says Dan, “which on the palate is both dry and slightly fruity.”
What advantages do the French have in whisky-production?
Charles Daucourt: First of all, France is the main producer of malted barley in Europe and the leading exporter of malt in the world. That means that most of the malt used in European whiskies is grown in France. It makes sense that France, a country known historically for its distillation expertise and unique experience producing spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados can make a really good whisky.
What makes Bastille whiskies unique?
Charles Daucourt: The temperate climate adds a certain quality to our cellars, and this is very important in the ageing process. We noticed that some of our French whiskies can attain very interesting profiles in a shorter amount of time than some traditional Scotch or Irish whiskies. We believe the number of years of aging is not as important as the end results. As we continue to develop and progress in whisky production, the French will likely break with some of the various regulation codes of other whisky producing nations.
The French are notorious for their whisky-consumption. What are the challenges of competing with whiskies from other parts of the world?
Edouard Daucourt: French People are big consumers of whisky indeed, and they are looking more and more for products made in France. They are now aware that French whiskies are quality products which is very positive for our brands. In France, price competition with some foreign whisky brands is still a challenge. As our production volumes increase, this should level off.
What are the future plans for your brand?
Edouard Daucourt: We are currently working on new products in the Bastille range for limited editions. Stay tuned!
The Quest For Elegance
Armorik and Bastille whiskies are helping to put the category of French Whisky on the proverbial map, not only because of their quality but also the range of unique flavor they offer the whisky consumer. When I contacted the Fédération du Whisky de France to provide background on the French Whisky industry as a whole, a spokesperson stressed the benefits of such diversity, not just between Bastille and Armorik, but across the entire category: “France is a country of taste, known for its diversity of landscape and regional culture. This diversity is the strength of French whiskey. The common point of these producers…is to create high quality whiskies, which reflect our respective terroir.” Whether through a subtly coastal, Bretton profile, as with Armorik expressions, or the use of Limousine oak and other français elements, as with Bastille, both brands have found their own unique ways to represent this growing and exciting category.
“It seems to me that like with everything the French do, they bring a certain flair and refinement. They see spirit distillation as an art, as well as a craft, and so they take it very seriously,” says Dan, who is proud to include both Armorik and Bastille in the Heavenly Spirits portfolio. That dedication is evident in the early success of both brands. In only a few short years of limited market exposure in the United States, Armorik and Bastille have already received numerous accolades from prestigious publications and internationally recognized competitions. To their proud makers, that recognition is appreciated but not entirely surprising. After all, the French, as David insists, “are known to possess a certain persistence in the quest for elegance.”