Spirits

Whisky’s Next Frontier Is… France?

January 28, 2021

Story: Clay Risen

photo: Lizzie Munro

Spirits

Whisky’s Next Frontier Is… France?

January 28, 2021

Story: Clay Risen

photo: Lizzie Munro

With new styles emerging in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and beyond, Europe has become a hotbed of experimental whisky production. Here are the places and distillers to look for.

In 2013, a friend of mine called from a liquor store in Paris. He was there on business, and before he left he had asked if he could pick me up something I couldn’t find in the United States. I had immediately rattled off a half-dozen French whiskies—a category I’d been hearing more and more about, but still couldn’t find many examples of, even in New York.

Now, on the phone, he said there was a problem: The clerk didn’t want to sell him any. As I listened, she tried to steer him toward Cognac, Armagnac, even single malt Scotch. Eventually he put her on the phone. French whisky, she told me, was no good. Certainly nothing worth lugging home to America. Not wanting to set off a minor international crisis, I settled for a bottle of Cognac.

I don’t know how that clerk feels about French whisky today, but in the years since that awkward trans-Atlantic phone call, its reputation has improved dramatically. There are 86 distilleries scattered around the country, making a variety of styles. And while the bulk of their output is consumed domestically, more and more distillers are exporting—these days, you don’t need to wait for a friend to mule you back a bottle.

And it’s not just France. Every major country in Europe now has a local whisky scene, though almost all the distilleries are pipsqueaks beside the average Scottish behemoth. In 2019, the entire French whisky industry produced about 530,000 gallons, a rounding error compared to Glenfiddich’s approximately 4.5 million-gallon capacity—still a dramatic leap from just 49,000 gallons in 2010.

But what these distilleries lack in size, they make up for in excitement. While many of the distillers outside Scotland and Ireland make malt whisky, and generally follow the Scotch-centric whisky rules laid down by the European Union, innovation is much more welcome, even expected, in these regions. It’s not uncommon to see the use of different grains, distilling methods and cask types, some of which draw on local traditions and some of which are the result of being wild about whisky and untethered to hidebound expectations.

In many ways, the European whisky scene resembles American craft whiskey in the early 2010s: an industry flush with ideas, new distilleries appearing like mushrooms after a rain, and heady discussions about what the future will look like. What sort of national styles will emerge? Who will be the trendsetters, and will any of them rise to compete with global brands from established whisky regions? It didn’t take long for American craft whiskey to come into its own, and it will likely happen even faster in Europe. Countries like England and France already have strong distilling traditions, and in some, like Sweden and Germany, several distilleries are already well into their second decade of operation, producing well-aged spirits with a practiced hand.

France

By far the most developed whisky industry outside the British Isles, France draws on its long history of distilling in Cognac, Armagnac, Brittany/Normandy and Alsace-Lorraine. As of 2015, these last two regions even have their own protected geographic indications, with their own rules in addition to those of the European Union. Brittany is, by no small measure, the largest whisky region in France, and quite laissez-faire: It allows producers to use malted barley, wheat, corn, rye, spelt, triticale and oats, and to distill on a column, pot or hybrid still. (They must, however, use oak barrels to age.) Alsatian whisky, meanwhile, is much more demanding: It must be made on a pot still, using only barley.

Like French wine, French whisky is diverse, with a national character at once obvious and hard to place. The best examples are both innovative and traditional, drawing inspiration from long-established practices in novel ways. Brenne, for example, uses Cognac yeast and Charentais stills to makes its single malt, distilled from barley grown in Cognac and using Limousin oak casks that previously held—you guessed it—Cognac to age some of its whisky. It has an unmistakably floral nose and a sweet, almost bubble-gum quality on the palate. Another brand from Cognac, Bastille 1789, is likewise aged in Limousin oak and quite sweet, though in this case with apples, pears and vanilla.

Alsace-Lorraine, site of many of France’s top eaux de vie producers, is also home to two of its most promising distilleries. G. Rozelieures’ Origine whisky, made with its own barley, is lightly peated and aged in sherry and Cognac casks. Though the distillery has been in operation since 2007, the whisky is still young, with a grain-forward palate of bread, smoke and vanilla. Distillerie Meyer’s, renowned for its fruit brandies, makes both single malt and blended whisky, combining malt with a healthy dose of grain spirit, aged for seven years in ex-Sauternes casks.

Terroir, a concept conventionally associated with wine, is making its way into whisky, too. High in the French Alps, Domaine des Hautes Glaces, owned by Rémy Cointreau, makes its whisky from barley and other grains grown on-site in distinct parcels, or “climats,” chosen for their soil and sunlight—a standard vineyard practice.

France’s oldest modern whisky distillery is Warenghem, in central Brittany. In operation for over a century, in 1998 it released a single malt, Armorik; today it’s one of France’s bestselling whiskies. Warenghem’s Double Maturation expression, named the sixth-best release of 2018 by Whisky Advocate, is aged in local oak and finished in first-fill sherry casks. It is floral and slightly grainy, very different from another Breton whisky, Kornog Roc’h Hir from Glann ar Mor, located on the Breton coast. Heavily peated, it exudes maritime smoke, full of beachside fire, salt and iodine.

Two other brands worth watching are what the Scottish would call independent bottlers: Alfred Giraud sources the whisky for his Heritage and Harmonie expressions from Rozelieures, Warenghem and an unnamed distillery in Cognac, while Benjamin Kuentz, who calls himself a whisky “publisher,” works with a number of distillers to produce his line of whiskies, with creative names like “Fin de Partie” and “(D’un) Verre Printanier” (“From a Spring Glass”).

England and Wales

In recent years, the main event in English distilling has been gin, but whisky is a notable undercard. It’s not as strange as it sounds: Up until the early 20th century, several sizable whisky distilleries operated in England, including Vauxhall, a grain distillery in Liverpool that produced 2 million gallons a year.

The last of those distilleries shuttered in 1903, and it wasn’t until 2006 that another, the English Whisky Co., opened outside Norwich. Its Peated Single Malt is a bit briny in its smoke, comparable to a light Islay despite Norwich’s landlocked location. The comparison is particularly apt, since English whisky, unlike many on the continent, is very much an adjunct to its northern cousins; not only is there no “English style,” but there doesn’t seem to be much desire among distillers to create one.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek them out. Cotswolds Distillery, on the northeast edge of the Cotswolds itself, makes an exquisitely balanced single malt, with honey and citrus on the palate and a poise that belies its young age. The same goes for Penderyn, a Welsh distillery that has won worldwide acclaim for its whiskies, including a muscular yet sophisticated Madeira-cask finish.

Germany and Austria

Germany is whisky-mad: There are about 200 distilleries in the country, versus about 130 in Scotland, and most of them make whisky. Like those in France, they are tiny, but together, they might be the most innovative of the European distilleries: Eifel Distillery, in Koblenz, runs its single malt first through a column still, then a pot still, a heresy in Scotland. The distillery ages some of it in barriques made of acacia wood (as well as barriques that once held red wine) before transferring it into former sherry casks for a year. The result is smoky, with molasses and black tea on the palate. Its rye whisky, made from a mash of 90 percent rye grain and 10 percent malted barley, spends just a year in new and used oak and acacia casks, producing a youthful, umami-rich spirit laced with vanilla and maple sugar.

The heresies continue at Slyrs, a distillery on the Austrian border, where they smoke their barley over beechwood instead of peat, giving it a unique herbal note on top of floral, bright fruit and vanilla notes.

Austria likewise has a small but budding whisky sector, with 50 distilleries spread across the country drawing on its own history of farmhouse fruit distilling. Reisetbauer, best known for its eaux de vie, also produces a small range of single malts, partly aged in ex-chardonnay casks, as well as casks that once held trockenbeerenauslese, a dessert wine.

Belgium and the Netherlands

With a long history in brewing, Belgium and the Netherlands didn’t have much of a leap to make into distilling. In fact, one of Belgium’s best-known breweries, Het Anker, recently released a distilled and aged version of its popular Gouden Carolus tripel—minus the hops and aromatics. Aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in ex-wine casks, it’s citrus-sweet on the nose, with a young, malty and slightly bitter palate. Another noteworthy Belgian distillery, Belgian Owl, produces vivacious young single malts.

In the Netherlands, Zuidam Distillers in Baarle-Nassau has been making genever since 1975, and in 1999 started trickling out whisky as well under its Millstone label. Today it produces single malt and rye—the latter is called “100,” being made of 100 percent rye, distilled completely on a pot still, aged for 100 months in new American oak barrels, and bottled at 100 proof.

Italy and Spain

Like France and Germany, Italy has long been in love with whisky. It is the largest market for Scottish distiller Glen Grant (owned by Campari), and it is home to several of the world’s most famous independent bottlers, including the legendary, late Silvano Samaroli. Now the country is getting into distilling whisky as well.

Perched on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps, the Puni distillery has been making whisky since 2010. Like Austrian and German distilleries—and Alsatian distilleries in France—Puni draws on a tradition of Alpine eaux de vie, creating whiskies with a light, fruity body. Its secret is a mash bill using barley, wheat and rye, most of it locally sourced, as well as a variety of wine-cask finishes—its Alba whisky spends two years in Marsala casks and a year in ex-Islay Scotch casks. It is redolent of plums, white wine and stone fruits, with a mineral-rich palate wrapped in a haze of smoke.

Spain is likewise a big market for whisky—Cardhu is its single malt of choice—and has its own homegrown industry. The Destilerías y Crianza del Whisky, or DYC, a subsidiary of Beam Suntory, has been making whisky since 1958. It specializes in low-cost, low-excitement expressions, but its sherry cask–finished 12 year old is worth a sip. So are the whiskies from Navazos-Palazzi, an independent bottler formed by a noted sherry house (Equipo Navazos) and Nicolas Palazzi, a Cognac merchant and founder of PM Spirits.

Scandinavia

Like Germany to the south, the Scandinavian countries (and here we’re counting Finland, too) have tried to put a firm regional stamp on their whisky distilling. Sweden’s Mackmyra, probably the best-known Scandinavian distillery, smokes its barley over locally sourced juniper and bog moss, instead of peat, à la Scotland.

Teerenpeli, founded in 1995 in Finland, uses locally grown barley, though its stills come from Scotland, and its casks are ex-sherry, ex-bourbon and ex-port. It is a continental mashup that highlights the red thread running through Europe’s various emerging distilling traditions: local differences and traditions, but a shared sense of what makes great whisky, and a sense of innovation and risk-taking in their determination to get there.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, where he writes about whiskey and the spirits industry. He is the author of Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland and American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit.