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FOOD & DRINK

How France is setting its sights on the international whisky market

They are known for producing some of the best wines in the world: now the French have set their sights on nipping into the international whisky market.

How France is setting its sights on the international whisky market
France is some way behind Scotland but is expanding its range rapidly. All photos: AFP

“Not many of our clients are surprised that French whisky exists,” says Matthieu Acar, a whisky salesman and French whisky specialist at La Maison du Whisky in Paris.

“But a lot of them are surprised at how many French whiskies there are.”

When it comes to quantity and quality, the Scots – purveyors for centuries of “uisge-beatha” (or water of life in Gaelic) – will take some beating.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), more than 1.28 billion bottles of scotch are shipped from Scotland every year.

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Laid end to end, those bottles would stretch about 350,000 kilometres – 90 percent of the distance to the Moon.

In comparison, France's whisky production would barely break through the atmosphere.

But with 42 distilleries creating at least one whisky, according to the French Whisky Federation (FWF), the French seem determined to grab a share of what has become a lucrative market.

The Scotch whisky industry adds £5.5 billion (€6.5 billion) to the UK economy in 2018, according to SWA estimates.

Although the French are far behind, Nicolas Le Brun – official programmer for the annual Whisky Live salon in Paris – believes the future is bright.

“French whisky is still at a relatively young age in its history. It appeared at the beginning of the 1980s, so this is really the beginning,” Le Brun told AFP.

“But that said, with our expertise (in distilling), our culture of consumption, and again the culture of producing drinks like Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados, there's a good chance that in the years to come French whisky will find its niche.”

Mixing the grain

There may be an abundance of Scotch on the international market, but the French have some aces up their sleeves.

The French are Europe's top cereal producers and the number one consumers of whisky in Europe. And in an era where consumer choice is increasingly determined by gluten-free and organic options, young producers are taking heed.

“For us, it's all about taking the raw materials – cereals which we grow organically on our land – and transforming them into completely organic whiskies,” says Frederic Revol, co-founder of the Domaine des Hautes Glaces distillery high in the French Alps.

“Everything is organic, everything grows within 15km of the distillery, so we use barley, the classic Scotch whisky grain, as raw material but we also use different grains like rye or spelt.”

Alexandre Sirech, co-founder of the Bellevoye brand, says his passion for whisky came from a decisive experience of working in a Speyside distillery.

“I realised that good Scotch whisky is made of cereals and that the king of cereals in Europe is France,” he told AFP .

“So it was while working in Scotland and learning how to make whisky that I said to myself: 'One day it would be nice if we could make French whisky with good French grain, and our malted barley in particular.'”

His experience paid off: in 2018 Bellevoye's “Black Label” beat rivals from Scotland and Japan in a blind tasting of “peated whisky” at the Brussels Whisky Festival.

'Different aromas' 

Armorik, which pioneered French whisky production by creating a blend in 1987, is now a leader in the domestic whisky market. Making whisky “traditionally, with a Breton touch”, Armorik  matures its whiskies in French wine casks.

Another 12 distilleries are expected to open in France in 2020, according to the FWF.

And Armorik CEO David Roussier believes the French – when it comes to taste and quality – can give the Scots a run for their money.

“I think we're totally competing (on the international market). In blind tasting it's difficult to say who would be the best, a Scotch, American, Irish or French,” he told AFP.

“The French bring something else, a very different way of working, a very different way of ageing.

“Obviously the history of French wine making means we also have a lot of barrels to age our whiskies in.”

That helps to bring out different aromas, he added.

Member comments

  1. The best French whiskey, according to a French friend who specialises in knowing rare delacacies, is :
    KORNOG: made in Brittany by distillerie Pleubian in Glanne-ar-Mor. Sold in Paris at a wine bar called “Vins et Whiskey” 62 rue Monge 75005 Paris, where you can also taste it. I also think it’s very good.

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FOOD & DRINK

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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