To the untrained eye Scotland is naturally seen to be whisky central, and while that’s certainly true in terms of production, what many don’t realise is that when it comes to consumption France is in fact the global epicentre of Scotch whisky culture, consuming more whisky per capita than any other country. Surprising, yes, given France’s wealth of wine, brandy, fruit liqueurs and cidre, but you see it’s all the fault of a little beetle. Back in the 1880s the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. The canny Scots were quick to take advantage, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice and still dominates to this day.
It comes as no surprise then that the French, given their long history of distilling spirits, would have a go at making whisky themselves. Armed with the world’s biggest market in their backyard, excellent barley (much of which makes its way across to Channel to Scotland’s distilleries anyway) and no shortage of stills, the only question is why it took them so long. Thus Brittany or Bretagne as the locals call it, the Celtic enclave on the beautiful North Western coast, has become France’s officially recognised whisky region. Sporting a similar climate to the west coast of Scotland but with a few more degrees °C, distilleries in the area include the decidedly Celtic sounding Glann Ar Mor and of course our subject for today, Distillerie Warenghem.
Distillerie Warenghem were the creators of the very first Breton Single Malt Whisky, Armorik. Armorkia is the ancient name for the part of Gaul between the Seine and Loire rivers, and includes the Brittany peninsula, and if you’re wondering why it sounds familiar, you must have been a fan of Asterix in your younger years: it’s the indomitable Gaul’s homeland.
At the end of the 19th century the Warenghem family decided to settle on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast. Léon Warenghem, the patriarch, founded the distillery and released his first product, Elixir d’Armorique, a honey herbal liqueur still popular today. Leon’s son Henri took over in 1919 and developed the distillery with fruit liqueurs and cremes (mint, blackcurrant, and kirsch) until his son Paul-Henri took the helm in 1967, along with his associate Yves Leizour, a true Breton by birth. The partnership clearly worked in Yves’s favour because today the distillery remains in the Leizour family, with Gilles Leizour taking the reigns in 1983. At that point the distillery was getting close to bankruptcy, however ruin was avoided thanks to some cunning innovation from Gilles. The distillery successfully diversified their portfolio and introduced mead in 1984, apple brandy in 1992, apple wine in 1998 and beer in 2001.
But the idea that revolutionized Distillerie Warenghem was the creation of the first French whisky. Like any hardcore whisky fanatic, Giles was convinced that he could make a good whisky himself and so he ensconced himself in the laboratory, developing and releasing the WB – Whisky Breton in 1987. The results were good, inspiring him to invest in a whisky-dedicated distillery with two pot stills in 1992 and the release of Armorik, the first Breton single malt, followed in 1998. Armorik Millésime 2002, the first 10 year old single malt, was released four year later and in 2015 Breton Whisky was officially recognised as a geographical indication – with the same significance as Champagne or Bordeaux in wine terms. And so, as we’ve heard with so many stories of origin of other successful distilleries we’ve featured, a man with a vision took a daring risk that paid off, with Distillerie Warenghem now the leading French whisky producer.