1983: Launch of the Whisky Breton project
In 1983, the Warenghem distillery in Lannion, Brittany, and its director at the time, Gilles Leizour , embarked on a project that seemed insane at the time: to produce whisky in Brittany.
The idea emerged after reading an article in the newspaper in which a journalist recounted the discovery of a French whisky at the Garden Party at the Élysée Palace on 14 July 1983. Called Biniou, it was in fact a blend of 98% neutral alcohol distilled in Antrain with 2% Scottish single malt.
However, this journalistic approximation was enough to inspire Gilles Leizour to produce a whisky in France: the history of French whisky was underway!
1984: Production of French whisky begins
A year later, the Warenghem distillery started production. In order to adapt to the market of the time (far from being as favourable to single malt as it is today), Gilles Leizour decided to produce a “blend” made from malt and wheat whiskies distilled in an iron still.
1987: First 100% French Blend: WB
After having spent the statutory three years in casks, the first French whisky was born. Named WB for “Whisky Breton” (or Whisky of Brittany), it is a blend of 25% malt whisky and 75% grain whisky. It was intended for mass distribution and was the only French whisky for over a decade.
1998: First 100% French single malt: Armorik
If 1998 was a memorable year in many respects, it was particularly so for the birth of the first French single malt, still in Brittany.
Indeed, the Warenghem distillery continues to lead the way with the first whisky made from 100% malted barley. Called Armorik , it is aimed at a public of amateurs and will gradually spread in the assortments of Breton wine shops.
2000: 7 Distilleries are active in France
At the turn of the millennium, only 7 whisky distilleries are active in France, and only two of them market their products.
The other distilleries do not yet have sufficiently aged stocks to be able to claim the whisky appellation, which requires a minimum of 3 years of ageing.
They include Glann Ar Mor , Distillerie des Menhirs and Warenghem in Brittany, Gilbert Holl and Lehmann in Alsace, Wambrechies in Nord Pas de Calais and Domaine Mavela in Corsica.
2004: First Alsatian whisky: Lac’Holl
If the French whisky epic began in Brittany, it quickly spread to Alsace. The region is teeming with small brandy producers and distillation has been culturally established in the region for over five centuries.
At a time when traditional brandies are losing ground (the French are already beginning to turn away from digestives), whisky appears to be a relevant growth factor. Especially since many French consumers drink it as an aperitif.
Gilbert Holl opened the way in 2004 by bottling Lac’holl, the first Alsatian whisky.
2010: France reaches the stage of 20 French whisky distilleries
Between 2000 and 2010, 13 whisky distilleries have opened in France. At that time, French whisky was still confidential. The annual market represented 215,000 bottles, which were consumed regionally, mainly in Brittany and Alsace.
2015: Creation of the Breton and Alsatian Whisky PGIs
In January 2015, the two main whisky-producing regions adopted a PGI and published specifications for the labels “Whisky Breton” and “Whisky Alsacien” respectively.
Largely motivated by changes in legislation (at that time the European Commission was preparing to ban all geographical indications on labels if the products concerned had neither a PGI nor an AOC), the creation of these PGIs also reflects a desire for transparency and structuring on the part of producers.
2017 : The single malt appellation is framed
As the number of distilleries reaches 50, the European Commission publishes the Decree n° 2016-1757 of 16 December 2016 on the labelling of spirit drinks. From now on, “only whiskies made exclusively from malted barley mash, in one and the same distillery and by simple discontinuous distillation may bear the designation single malt.”
2018 : 1 million bottles of French whisky sold in France
In just 8 years, sales of French whisky have multiplied by 5.
This dynamic shows a growing craze for local production. The number of distilleries continues to grow (10 more distilleries over the year) and we are witnessing a boom in independent bottling. In 2018, there are about twenty breeders and refiners working on whiskies brewed, fermented, distilled and aged in France.
2020: 86 distilleries are operating
France produces 2 000 000 litres of pure alcohol per year.
If this figure seems significant, it corresponds to the volume produced annually by a single medium-sized Scottish distillery.
Although French whisky is growing rapidly, it is still a craft industry.
Most of the French production is made up of malt whisky intended for a public of well-informed amateurs, but we can already measure how far we have come since the WB of 1987!
The idea of the Version Française range was born in the spring and the very first bottlings were released in the autumn, on the model of the independent Scottish trade and bottling, allowing the provenance of the products to be seen in all transparency.
2021: 95 distilleries are operating
History continues to be made as we approach the 100 distillery mark, to which we must add some fifty independent bottlers.
The Version Française range continues to grow and for the first time includes a selection of armagnacs from small producers.
The industry’s figures
- 95 active whisky distilleries in France
- 1,100,000 bottles of French whisky sold in 2020
- 2,000,000 litres of pure alcohol produced per year
- 50 French whisky refiners in operation
- 115 brands on the market
The mastery of raw materials is one of France’s strong points for whisky production. Three of the world leaders in malt production are French companies/cooperatives: Vivescia (Malteurop), Soufflet and Axéréal (Boormalt). France produces an average of 65 to 70 million tonnes of cereals per year.
Although French distilleries have opted massively for malted barley, some experiment with more unexpected raw materials. One thinks of the Distillerie des Menhirs in Brittany and its buckwheat whisky, but also of whiskies made from wheat, corn (malted or not), rye and even oats and spelt.
Brewing and fermentation
France’s know-how in the field of beer is centuries old. This expertise has been put to good use in the production of whisky. Indeed, before obtaining a whisky, it is necessary to produce a fermented wort which is similar to a beer without the hops. Moreover, if it was the distilleries that opened the way to French whisky (Warenghem and Gilbert Holl produced brandies and liqueurs), the brewers quickly joined the ranks of the producers. While this step of the production process is not much exploited in Scotland, the French distilleries do not hesitate to innovate at this stage of the product elaboration, by working in particular on indigenous yeasts and long fermentations.
Distillation is probably the stage in which traditional French know-how has the most to contribute to the world of whisky. On the one hand, because the producers rely on more than 7 centuries of experience in this field, and on the other hand, because there is a very large variety of distillation apparatus on the French territory. Thus, French whisky can come from small columns, from Charentais stills, from low pressure pot-stills or even from steam stills!
From the management of its forests to the art of cooperage, France has acquired a world-wide reputation for its mastery of ageing. In addition to the production of very high quality new barrels, there is a rich and diversified stock of second fill barrels. One immediately thinks of ex-wine casks, whether white or red (or even Jura yellow wine), fortified wines such as Banyuls, fortified wines such as Pineau des Charentes, Ratafia champenois or Macvin du Jura, but also cognac, armagnac and many other eaux-de-vie that are the pride of France.