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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Parlez-Vous Whisky?

Summertime.  Impossible to predict in this country, yet always so welcoming, especially after a tough few months of back to back projects.  After Caskstrength's busy event schedule, which included a fun and very bustling bespoke whisky bar partnership with Mumford & Sons for their recent outdoor summer UK gigs and a positively sparkling gin tasting at the Southbank Centre, it was time for a holiday and the destination for one of us was the Loire Valley in France to a remote farmhouse, perfect for idling around with family for a week.

Lois Ridley, with no wardrobe issues.
Now of course, when you're preparing for a summer holiday, there are certain demands on one's wardrobe:  are shorts really that acceptable?  How should one dress to avoid looking too much like a tourist?  Is black tie absolutely necessary for a provincial dining experience?  All these were vexing questions, cutting a deep furrow during packing.  I obtained a brand new panama hat before the trip (not the rolled, 'travelling' type) which also posed an issue regarding where it would sit in the car, without getting crushed by my daughter's extensive wooden toy collection.  Decisions! I thought a holiday was time to avoid making any but before we even set foot on French soil, I was presented with far too many.

One easy decision concerned which whiskies I was to travel with.  A lightweight, but beautifully balanced Glen Grant 10 year old would provide everything I needed for making tall, icy drinks, a Caol Ila 18 year old (in 20cl format) would provide some robust warming power in case the sweltering French weather was to turn swiftly on its beret'ed head and a Yamazaki 18 year old would provide a perfect counterpoint to the endless barbecued meat products we would no doubt be consuming during the week.  So simple there. Or so I thought.

Anyone who has travelled by car to France for a vacation will have no doubt stopped off at the many Hypermarkets dotted along the highways:  E.Leclerc, Carrefour and Inter Marche are vast warehouse-styled shopping experiences, totally out of kilter with the enjoyment of pottering around a rustic French village looking for a loaf of bread, some croissants and 200 Gauloises (I don't smoke, so I made this bit up.)

But what is truly astonishing is the selection of wines and spirits available - from all over the globe.

As I wandered down the spirits aisle, I was taken aback by the range in Leclerc, which rivalled that of a specialist UK retailer:  Single barrel bourbon, Japanese whiskies I have never seen close up and an entire section dedicated to exceptional vermouths.  The comes the prices.  Come on UK! Quite frankly, when you can pick up bottles of Four Roses Single Barrel for under 30€, Highland Park 15yo for under 30€ and the aforementioned Japanese whiskies for a fraction of the prices they appear on specialist websites, I can see why whisky is hugely popular in France. Needless to say, after spending 200€ on whisky on the first day of the holiday,
I thought I should probably settle down a bit and put my wallet away.

One interesting whisky which did catch my eye in a local Carrefour shop was from the Warenghem distillery, produced in the Breton region in northern France.

As part of my recent book project with Gavin Smith (Let Me Tell You About Whisky) I tried a number of whiskies from the region and was impressed by the emerging quality. Warenghem produce several single malts and a couple of blends: from a double matured (French oak and sherry cask) to bourbon cask matured whisky and Breizh, a blend that recently triumphed in the 2013 World Whisky Awards.

The bottling I bought from Carrefour for 15€ is labelled Reflets de France and appears to be a range of products, much in the style of Tesco's Finest - from honey to sea salt and foie gras, the range seems to represent French gastronomy at its best, so I was quite surprised to see a whisky featuring here, but equally pleased to see that French whisky is revered by its producers as highly as some of the country's more well known delicacies.

So what of the whisky itself?  Well, there is little information available on the bottle, short of the abv (40%) but a quick glance at the back label with my basic grasp of French reveals that the whisky is 'composed of malt aged for up to three years in oak casks, with an emphasis placed on the quality of the local water to add character to the flavour...'

Let's dive in, shall we. Will this be a French Fancy, or simply a case nonchalantly shrugging one's shoulders, the same brilliantly disdainful way that only the French do best... ;-)

(Breton top and Panama hat not included with purchase)

Reflets de France -  Breton Whisky -  Produced by the Warenghem Distillery - 40% - 70cl - 15€

Nose: A light, clean malty note opens up first, with a touch of dried ginger, some slight moist wood, some lightly perfumed powder, banana milkshake and a wisp of smoke perhaps? Just a touch, to give this a very entertaining mix of aromas. It is certainly young, but given a little time, a honeyed sweetness begins to emerge.  

Palate: No mistaking the light wisps of smoke here -  it is rich and oily, but still restrained - reminiscent of the lightly peated Ardbeg Blasda or Caol Ila Moch.  Alongside sits some fresh green apple, oaty porridge, an oak note, bitter hard caramel and a malted chocolate milkshake note.  Light and frothy but with a highly drinkable approach to it.  

Finish:  Given the age the finish is malty, with a hint of zestiness creeping through and a little sour cherry and light milk chocolate on the death.  

Overall: Now listen very carefully, I shall say this only once... For 15€, this is a really good example of a French whisky that one could easily get into trouble with.  Neat, over ice or as a highball, this is pleasant in all its guises and definitively hammers home that French whisky is not to be taken lightly. Whilst it won't trouble many of the serious malt hounds out there, it gets a tricolour-coloured thumbs up from us. Vive le Whisky Breton!