An undeniable agricultural know-how, a perfect mastery of distillation and aging techniques have made France a standard meter in the production of spirits. Proof of this is the turnover of the sector’s exports, which places balm at the center of the foreign trade balance. That said, French distillers could have contented themselves with living off their situational income and … making a disastrous mistake along the way. Fortunately, a handful of passionate pioneers have been able to reinvent our country’s witty history.
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Who would have bet a cent on the adventure of a Guy Le Lay who decided, in 1999, to launch Eddu, the first Breton whiskey, with the addition of buckwheat? His sons, who took over the Distillerie des Menhirs, have just released a 21-year-old Eddu, the first French whiskey of such a high age. A sign that the category has reached maturity even if the stocks capable of supplying old spirits are still limited. However, more than 1.1 million bottles were sold in 2021 compared to 100,000 at the turn of the last century.
From today, French whiskey is produced in more than one hundred distilleries scattered throughout the territory and also at high altitude with the Mont Blanc Distillery, perched next to Chamonix. Others, Rozelieures or the Domaine des Hautes Glaces, even produce plots, or expressions of a delimited terroir as in the world of wine. The French touch is now recognized by foreign amateurs. Furthermore, the Fédération du whiskey de France is not mistaken in the campaign for the creation of a protected geographical indication in order to avoid that alcohol imported from elsewhere, but aged or bottled here, does not benefit from the mention Made in France. A phenomenon experienced by Japan, which for some time obscured the aura of its formidable spirits.
The new boom in French spirits has finally revitalized a sector that is sometimes constrained by strict regulations. Example: in Charente stills can distill cognac only between the start of the harvest and the following March 31st. Some have taken advantage of these few months of forced rest to distil something else. The worldwide success of Gray Goose and Cîroc vodkas started from there. The creator of the second, Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, now chairs the Maison Villevert, one of the locomotives of this Spirits Valley with a French flavor. “We must not forget that our DNA is based on wine”underlines to explain his iconoclastic approach a priori. “Distilling gin or vodka from grapes instead of cereals, as tradition dictates, also demonstrates our capacity for innovation”continues the trained winemaker, who wants to give to French style to spirits of rather Nordic obedience. And it works.
“I really believe in vermouth”
His Maison Villevert has about fifteen brands (G’Vine, Quintinye Vermouth Royal, La Guilde du Cognac, Excellia tequila, etc.) and it’s not finished, as evidenced by the recent acquisition of Breton whiskeys Glann Ar Mor. “In this profession you have to be brilliant in advance, for example I strongly believe in vermouth, which in mixology is of capital importance, in a negroni in particular”, he concludes, insinuating that other surprises will come from Spirits Valley. That the recovery is emerging from such a conservative sector as that of cognac is a good sign. Because it is the basis of maintaining a centuries-old quality. A heritage claimed by young distillers. Example with Mathieu Sabbagh, former international director of Pernod. Madly in love with obsolete French spirits, pomace and other fines, in 2018 he bought a family distillery in Saône-et-Loire. He travels from Burgundy in search of winemaking residues that winemakers are required to recycle. These “geniuses” then pass in his travels still installed on the market of villages like Pommard or Gevrey-Chambertin before becoming spirits of considerable frankness. In his spare time, Mathieu Sabbagh also distills gin. On an alcoholic basis obtained from pinot noir and chardonnay. Bringing back luster to the spirit of the past by living with the times, a completely coherent approach.
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