Whisky Connosr

Warenghem Distillery, France

By Dominic Roskrow

What is your background and where did your interest in whisky come from?

I studied in a business school in Angers for five years with a specialisation in finance. Then I started working as a financial auditor. What I wanted to do was to create or to take over a small family company. And of course with my father in law owning a distillery, I took interest in it. When I joined the company I didn’t know a lot about whisky, truth be told. But I went for a few trips to Scotland to discover the whisky world and that’s where I discovered my own passion for this spirit. The diversity of whiskies, the history and the whisky itself really convinced me to continue in this direction. I also discovered an industry where people are passionate and ready to share about their passion: John MacLellan from Kilchoman, Duncan McGillivray, Jim McEwan from Bruichladdich, Jim Swan and all the people I met during various festivals.

How did Warenghem whisky come about?

The Warenghem Distillery is a very old distillery (112 years old) and we are in the whisky business for the last 25 years. But if you go back a few years, my father in law, Gilles Leizour, decided to create the first Breton whisky because in Brittany we share the same Celtics roots as the Irish and Scottish, so why not try to make some whisky in France? The fact that France is such a huge market for whisky also came into account. He went to Scotland also to learn more about it and worked both with Scotsmen and people from Cognac where they also know about distillation. Speaking of my own experience now, when I joined the company we only had a few whiskies sold in the supermarkets and I wanted to develop high-end whiskies and sell to retail-shops and on export market. We had to create a new range of whiskies, with improved quality. We worked really hard on the maturation and the cask management. The distillation process was also improved and we tried to be more active on communication.  

How difficult was it?

It was very challenging. Making whisky in France… I think Gilles didn’t sleep for a few nights. The investments were huge compared to the size of the distillery and making everything work was a tough job. But somehow we managed to do what we wanted to do at that time. Still today, we are struggling to have whiskies maturing longer and at the same time developing sales abroad.

Often whisky producers face the largest obstacles in their home market. Is that true in France, particularly given the strong wine and Cognac link there, and the high Scotch sales?

The biggest challenge is convincing people to try our whisky. In France, a lot of people still think that whisky has to be Scottish. But when they do try, they discover that it is possible to make an excellent whisky in France. Surprisingly it seems easier to convince people in other countries such as Germany. People are very open-minded when it comes to whisky. This being said, we are selling more than 200,000 bottles of whisky in France so I think we can say that people are taking us seriously now. The thing is we also started by producing a blended whisky for supermarkets, so of course now that we are selling high-quality single malts, people still have in mind the blended quality. But it is coming along nicely, I would say. In France we are also specialists for putting a lot of regulations on companies, so we have to deal with that. And finally of course, a distillery has to finance its stock and that is definitely a big challenge.  

How have you gone about your business? Who do you sell to and where?

We used to work a lot with supermarket chains in France. All of them have a Breton whisky. We have a specific range for them with blends and two Armorik single malts. Recently we hired a salesman in Paris for the supermarkets as a lot of Bretons live in Paris. For the last three years we have decided to work on specialist shops and export. For these markets we developed a new range of products: 46%, un-chillfiltered, longer maturation, special casks. It works as we are really growing in these markets: La Maison du Whisky in France is doing a huge job with Armorik single malt and in our export markets Armorik is growing quite a lot. We are really focused on these markets as Armorik needs to be known; both as the first Breton whisky and as an excellent world single malt whisky. So to sum-up we sell to supermarkets and retail shops in France (but with different ranges), and we are also selling to the USA, Canada, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Japan.  

Is there a French whisky style, or indeed, a Breton one?

I don’t think we can talk about a French style, the climates are really different when you are in Brittany, Alsace or Corsica. For the Breton style, of course the climate creates some similarities but we are doing unpeated, fruity whiskies, while another distillery is making peated whisky, and another one, buckwheat whisky. So it is hard to find anything in common to these whiskies. The Breton way, though, is to be passionate about whiskies and work really hard to make them to the best quality possible.

Is securing stock in to the future an issue?

We don’t have this kind of problem as we mash, ferment, distill, mature and bottle ourselves. We are working on the entire process. But on the other hand, as a small distillery, it is very difficult to finance the maturation of the stock. One tends to sell the whiskies as soon as it is ready, but we are trying hard to mature our whiskies for longer to ensure a higher quality and to find more ways of blending. We can still double the production with the distillery we have right now, so there no problem of shortage.  

What next for your business and for French whisky in general?

We are going to expand in the export markets, continue to work on higher and higher quality and try to innovate with new Armorik. And we may hire someone to take care of our visitor centre throughout the year, as we have more and more curious people who want to discover Breton Whisky. For French whisky in general, I think it will continue to grow and that people will definitely come to respect French whisky as we are all working hard to have the quality.

How do you view the world of whisky going forward in to 2013?

In 2013, I think single malt market will continue to grow. And the rise of world whiskies will continue as well. Maybe even more distilleries will be created in Europe, USA or other countries. More and more whiskies will be sold in Asia (China and India) and everyone will have to deal with the huge quantities on these markets. It will also be interesting to have a look at what will happen with the 'big ones' : Diageo buying United Spirits, Rémy Cointreau owning Bruichladdich…  

What are your aims and ambitions for the future?

I really want Armorik to be recognised as an alternative whisky: something different but a true single malt whisky. I’m definitely not going to compete with the Scottish distilleries but I would like Armorik to be sold in most of the world as a high quality whisky for people who want to taste something truly Breton (and French).  

Can France become a serious force in whisky?

I think we already are a serious force. Of course not in volume or size or fame, but quality wise we are a serious force. As I mentioned before, we are not trying to compete with other whisky nations but offer a high quality alternative.