On the Trail

The French Whisky Est Arrivé

David Othenin-Girard
The picturesque area of Hérisson, home to an unusual French whisky.

The picturesque area of Hérisson, home to an unusual French whisky.

France is not a place known for its whisky. Wine, brandy, cheese—these are things that are distinctly French. But you may be surprised to know that France is the world’s top consumer of Scotch whisky by volume. More than thirteen million cases of Scotch are consumed there every year. The French are also well-known lovers of distillation. Whether in Alsace, Normandy or any other region, the French love to distill and consume spirits. It should be no surprise that over the last twenty years, nearly forty French whisky distilleries have opened up. These are often small, artisan distillers who make a tiny bit of whisky as part of their standard business, but some have committed fully to the category. Even more impressive, despite their countrymen’s astronomical consumption of Scotch whisky, these new distillers have, by and large, committed to crafting products that are completely unique to their region, even going so far as to specifically avoid influences from other types of whisky to ensure their distinctiveness. We’ve been on a search over the last year for the best, most compelling offerings from the wide world of French whisky, and we are now proud to offer these special products exclusively at K&L. 

When I first arrived in Uberach my worst fears were confirmed: the distillery doors were sealed shut. I’d arrived in town without ever actually making contact with the distillery. My emails to the website had gone unnoticed and the phones seemed to ring off the hook. After three unsuccessful days of scouring Switzerland for the next great single malt (it’s not in Switzerland), I’d decided to drive to Alsaceon a chance. But there I stood, the bright Alsatian sun gleaming and the unassuming little distillery looking like it hadn’t been used in years. In fact, everything about Uberach is unassuming. The strikingly beautiful drive from Basel had gone by in a flash, darting between the small Alsatian villages; they all start to blend together. I’d arrived early in the small, sleepy hamlet, not more than a bend in the road really, and nearly missed it. Just a grouping of several homes, most of them rather modern and not as picturesque as other villages in the area. A tiny boulangerie, a miniscule bistro and this desolate distillery were all I saw. As I drove through the sleepy streets I came across a small industrial area just outside town. Some modern modular buildings had been erected there, but again no sign of life. The local organic brewery sat silently, but I noticed a small wine shop in the corner.

I spent the next hour quizzing the shopkeeper about Alsace, eau de vie and, of course, malt whisky. Uberach, despite its small stature, was in fact home to two world-class distilleries. Alsace, you see, is blessed with an incredible abundance of fresh fruit. The finest soils and climate create what many consider to be the fruit basket of France. Until recently, distillers mostly made their living off their neighbors, distilling the excess fruit from local orchards and selling it back to the growers. The very best developed relationships with their best growers and began producing superior quality eau de vies. That’s how the Bertrand Distillery started some 150 years ago, their founder’s motto a good indication of the commitment to quality: “Seeking perfection through the love of a job well done.”

As I left the wine store, the shopkeeper assured me that someone would eventually be by the distillery to open up. I ducked into the little bistro and quickly realized the reason the streets had seemed so desolate: the entire town was gathered inside that little restaurant. Construction workers, businessmen, young professionals, all had stopped their work day by noon to walk into this restaurant, order a bottle of wine and enjoy some of the most exceptional food I’d had the whole trip. A glass of the local Pinot and the noix de veau with chanterelles put my worries at ease. After my exceptional lunch at Restaurant de la Forêt, I made my way back to the distillery.

By this time, the front doors were wide open, exposing the beautiful, antique alembic stills shining in the sunlight. I made my way around the building until I found a little office staffed by a very elegant woman. I think she was quite surprised to have an American there, and she ushered me into a small gift shop and introduced me to a distillery worker who walked me through the lineup. Stylistically, the range of casks, all sourced from French wine regions, function very similarly to the aging options in Scotland, with new and used French oak correlating with bourbon or virgin oak; Banyuls giving an almost Oloroso sherry quality; the Rasteau and Rivesaltes acting like port pipes and the vin jaune bringing some flinty mushroom, somewhat similar to the effects of a fino sherry aging. When I asked my guide 

if any of the malts we had tried would be available, he said almost certainly no. Everything was made in small batches and production is tiny, so he couldn’t guarantee that anything would be available. We’d have to wait for the owner, Mr. Metzger, he said. Demoralized, but not defeated, I thanked the generous staff, left my card and prayed for the best. As I was walking out, Isabelle called down from the office, “Wait, wait, I have Mr. Metzger on the phone.” I rushed back to the office and took the phone to hear a gruff voice ask me what I planned to do and why I was there. I said that I worked for one of the best stores in the States and that we would be honored to be their partner in California. Seeming surprised, but not at all shocked that I’d loved his whisky, Mr. Metzger said that I was the first American to ever visit the distillery. He then informed me that he won’t allow his product to be sold on just any shelf in just any store. He selects his partners exactingly for their commitment to independent producers, quality and integrity. I smiled and said, “You sir, I believe, are a perfect fit for us.” 

When I returned to Alsace this year, I finally got to meet the proprietor of the spectacular Bertrand Distillery. Jean Metzger is unflappable and direct, but also kind and gracious. He’s a total local, but loves to go surfing in Sri Lanka and works as a lifeguard at the local pool to make ends meet. He’s first and foremost a wine lover, wine before whisky without a doubt. It was this passion for wine that ultimately led him to attempt something special in the burgeoning category of Whisky d’Alsace. The AOC classification is finally done after nearly a decade of work (a big deal here in France), but distilling beer is not a new thing here. In fact, the distillery has a shared trademark (with two other local distillers) for an eau de vie of beer called Fleur de Biere that goes back many years. His first distillation of single malt (a wort containing no hops and 100% malted barley) was in 2003. While it was not the first malt whisky distilled in Alsace, Jean figures it was likely the second, and he makes a point of the fact that it was the first to be distilled with beer brewed in the same place as the distillation. The organic brewery next door is responsible for mashing and fermenting. This is why he calls it Uberach, homage to the place he feels is an essential element to the spirit’s character. Other than the sense of terroir that he’s trying to capture, the other element that is essential—as is true with almost all whisky—is the élevage, or aging.

That brings us to the barrels. Oh, God: the barrels he has are just silly. It’s a veritable Rolodex of France’s finest wine producers. It should be noted that while Metzger does work with some of France’s most renowned and exciting wine producers, he does not feel that the intensity of the wine influence necessarily means better whisky. Certain casks, like the first-fill Banyuls (a fortified wine something akin to port), turn out rich, inky whiskies that are obviously heavily marked by the flavor of the wine. Jean prefers those same casks on the second or third fill. He’s concerned with highlighting the malt and making sure the flavor of the spirit is not completely overshadowed by the cask influence. 

I think that his most impressive whiskies are the oldest, with the most intense cask influence, but perhaps that will change as the quality of spirit and the average age improve. On that note, I did get a chance to taste a two-week-old spirit peated to 40ppm that has replaced the less peaty versions from earlier distillations. It’s clear that there’s been a massive improvement in the base spirit over the last thirteen years. This new spirit is full of sweet malt and earthy peat playing perfectly together. While it doesn’t feel like a young Islay (it is malted on locally sourced peat, of course), the closest thing I can compare it to is the wonderful young spirit coming out of Kilchoman. 

Unfortunately, due to many factors, the distillery can only produce a few weeks out of the year. With his small stills and bootstrap attitude, he’s filling less than thirty barrels a year. We’ll be lucky if we see any of Mr. Metzger’s exceptional single cask products this year, but in the meantime you can check out his wonderfully unique and utterly quirky assemblage he bottled for especially for us.

The next wild French whisky that we stumbled upon is the very unusual Hedgehog whisky from the commune of Hérisson in Allier. The Hedgehog is unlike any other whisky in the world. It comes out of one man’s passion and determination to make a truly unique regional whisky without the influence of any other production style or method. I mean, this guy—the whisky is distilled under the pseudonym Mr. Balthazar—literally didn’t do any research on other ways to make whisky. Located in the department of Allier, the center of France and the historic realm of the Duke of Bourbon, Hérisson (which means “Hedgehog” in French) is a popular summertime destination for theater lovers. Whisky lovers who venture behind the famous Church of St-Sauveur will find the workshop where Hedgehog was first produced in 1983. And on the wall inside the workshop is an old joke of W.C. Fields, slightly modified to fit the circumstances of this whisky: “One should always carry a small bottle of Hedgehog in case of a snake bite. And one should always have a small snake handy.”

The distiller starts with locally grown corn and malted barley, these he mills himself and blends in about 20% rye which is milled locally as his apparatus can’t get the consistency correct. These are then put through an enzymatic breakdown process of different temperature washes. The whole mash is then fermented on the grain using two proprietary yeast strains which the distiller has cultivated over the years from local sources. Fermentation is very slow, sometimes up to 14 days in small tubs. This unlautered mash is then distilled with all the solids (not unlike bourbon) on a small Holstein still built in Germany. The second distillation takes him close to 70% ABV, which is cut to 60% before filling in heavily toasted new French oak barrels. After a year of oak extraction, the spirit is transferred into ex-cognac barrels for another three to four years.

The result is a rustic, uncompromising spirit that’s as wild as the man you created it. Honey, oak, slight grappa notes on the nose are balanced by a supple mouth feel and a long easy finish. It’s truly unlike any other whiskey in the world. Undoubtedly some will turn their nose up at this unrefined specialty, but I find this hearty beverage ultimately delicious, unique and unpretentious in the best way. I would recommend some serious aeration before judging this whiskey as the powerful nose softens nicely with air. This whiskey is a labor of love and production is miniscule. We received a very small allocation, but it will likely sell quickly thanks to pure curiosity.

-David Othenin-Girard