When Unfiltered visited Paris in 2010 to report on France’s fervour for Scotch, it was the number one export market by volume, with almost 160 million 70cl bottles shipped there at that time. Since then, the French are drinking even more Scotch, up by almost a fifth in the past 10 years to around 190 million bottles.
But why would France, already home to such a diversity of quality drinks, be so madly in love with Scotch in particular? There are a number of reasons, according to Cyrille Mald, SMWS ambassador in Paris and author of Iconic Whisky.
“Whisky is romantic because of its complexity, so of course that makes it a seductive drink,” he says. “But France has had a love affair – for a long time – with spirits in general, so consumers were and still are used to drinking strong alcohol. So why whisky? I think the French wanted to shift away from spirits such as cognac and armagnac because they were viewed as ‘old school’ and above all seen as digestifs and not at all as aperitifs. Whisky is seen as both.”
In fact, whisky has traditionally been perceived as more cool and sophisticated in France, compared with its domestic spirits – a reputation that dates back to the country’s liberation in 1944, and which continued to grow in the years following the end of the Second World War.
“When the Americans came, they were looked on as liberators, and in Paris young people were absolutely frantic about them,” says Martine Nouet, a French whisky writer and chef whose own love affair with Scotch led to her relocating to the Hebridean whisky island of Islay. “The US soldiers drank blended Scotch, and that was a discovery for the French youth at the time. So whisky became very fashionable and a great symbol of freedom and liberty for teenagers and young adults.”
“To us post-war generations, whisky always meant ‘the new cool’, something more rock and roll than cognac or calvados – or even wine,” says Serge Valentin from the whiskyfun.com website.
“Then we started to have enough pocket money to afford drams of single malt in what we used to call ‘American bars’. There was the ‘green’ (Glenfiddich) and there was the ‘white’ (Cardhu). They were for the cognoscenti and, of course, we were all self-styled cognoscenti when we were 18.”
Whatever the origins of the French love affair with whisky, there’s no doubt it’s in good health, as drinkers become ever more selective in their choices.
“There has been an element of ‘premiumisation’ in the Scotch whisky world,” says Cyrille Mald. “The French are actually drinking less in quantity now – although we’re still the world’s number one consumer of whisky – but better in terms of quality.”
Now that sounds like a love story worth celebrating.