I’ve tried a respectable number of French spirits, including some of the big names in the world of cognac, but there was one big name on my list that I still hadn’t tried: Armorik. It’s probably not a brand that most American have heard of, but it is the original French whiskey distiller and a bit of a pioneer in the industry, combining some of those cognac distilling techniques with the more well known Scottish designs for whiskey and coming up with something delicious as a result. And today we’re trying their 2022 edition single cask offering of their sherry cask finished single malt French whiskey.
Originally founded in 1900 by Léon Warenghem, the Armorik distillery in Lannion, France (near Brest, on the far western edge of France’s northern coast) is the oldest operating whiskey distillery in the country.
France is best known for their fruit based brandies (cognac, armagnac, calvados, etc), so it makes sense that this distillery didn’t originally start out distilling whiskey — they started by making their own pseudo-gin called Elixir d’Armorique that used 35 local botanicals to create a delicious spirit.
In the 1960’s, the Warenghem family started working with a business partner named Yves Leizour who expanded the range of spirits that they produced and focused their marketing on the supermarkets in the Brittany area of France. Then, in 1983, his son Gilles convinced the family to take a gamble and produce the very first French whiskey. The product launched in 1987 and was so successful that they built and opened a second distillery solely devoted to whiskey.
Since then, the family owned business has continued to expand and improve their line of spirits, winning numerous awards for the quality of their whiskey and being named a “Living Heritage Company” by the French government for their pioneering of the French whiskey market.
As with many things in France, this specific strain of whiskey is a legally protected and geographically distinct strain known as “Breton Whiskey” that can only be created in that region of France. As such, all of the raw materials come from the Brittany region and all of the distillation and maturation happens in that area as well. It’s their way of really leaning into the terroir of the area and trying to impart some of that flavor into the spirit.
For this single malt spirit, the distillery starts with a crop of 100% organically grown and locally sourced malted barley (grains that have been partially sprouted). Those grains are delivered pre-malted to the distillery who then mills the grains into smaller particles and cooks them, converting the starchy seeds into fermentable sugars.
That sugary liquid is then placed into wooden washbacks for fermentation — wood being important in that it allows for some of the microorganisms from previous fermentations to persist and provide some consistent flavors throughout each fermentation run. A combination of two strains of yeast are used, one that is specifically used due to the high alcohol yield and a second that adds a unique flavor to the liquid. After two to four days of fermentation, the mildly alcoholic liquid is ready to be distilled.
Armorik uses two copper pot stills to perform their distillation, using equipment that would seem very similar to the Scottish tradition but a method closer to the double distillation process sued in the making of French cognac. This process selectively captures the flavorful and fragrant components of the spirit that the distiller wants to collect while concentrating the alcohol content to a much higher and more enjoyable level (~63% ABV).
After distillation, the spirit is placed into oak casks for maturation. In this case, since the spirit in this bottle came from one single barrel, we know for a fact that the whiskey was distilled in August of 2018 and placed directly into a previously used oloroso sherry cask. There it sat until August of 2022, when barrel 8,287 was emptied to produce 384 bottles of whiskey. This one is bottle #147 of that run.
Modern French style seems to skew towards understated simplicity, and this definitely fits that bill.
The bottle here is a simple design with a straight cylindrical body, angular shoulder, and a medium length neck with a moderate bulge in the middle. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper. One thing I find slightly annoying is that the glass is tinted a slightly blue color — I get that this helps reduce oxidation and degradation due to sunlight exposure, but it also slightly alters the appearance of the whiskey inside the bottle.
The label is a similar story of clean, geometric shapes and clear typefaces. The labels are square and generally monotone, the bottom square being white with some red writing and the top square being red with some white writing. The only thing approaching a logo on the bottle is a series of horizontal lines, which read to me like the wind that gently blows through Brittany. It certainly stands out on the shelf, but personally I would have appreciated slightly smaller labels.
This might be a four year aged whiskey, but four years in the beautiful sea-breeze of Brittany is a way different story than (for example) four years in the sun scorched hellhole of central Texas summers. But despite that gentler climate, the spirit has still taken on a beautiful dark amber or toffee color with deep reddish orange rust tones.
As soon as you take a whiff, you can immediately notice the impact the sherry cask has had on this spirit. There’s a lot of jammy fruits in this aroma: blackberries, dried figs, apricots, dried raisins, some fresh grapes, along with a little slice of apple combined with some brown sugar. It smells like a jam that would be great on a piece of toast in the morning.
That aroma was well saturated and delicious, and translates well to the flavors. At first, it tastes very similar to the aroma, like a deliciously sweet fruitcake complete with the dried fruits and some nuts included. I’d call out dried figs, apple, dried raisins, dried apricot, and some orange citrus as clear individual components. Some baking spices join the party as the flavor develops, specifically a little bit of nutmeg that continues that nutty component. Closer to the finish I started getting a little wisp of smoke in the whiskey, and about that time I also picked up on the sourdough bread aspect that I normally see in a malted barley based spirit. On the finish there’s a good bit of that bread-like flavor and some light smoke or minerality.
The addition of some ice into a single malt whiskey is usually a really, really bad idea. The flavors are lighter and more prone to disappear, leaving behind only the strongest of notes which can get a little annoying. But in this case I think all it does is just unwrap things a little bit.
The ice accentuates the actual whiskey flavors that are in here, and downplays the sherry cask’s influence. This is less of a jammy fruity whiskey and more typical of the Scottish highlands style, which I like to describe as sitting down for a Sunday brunch. It is more floral, with honey and floral blossoms being the very first notes that I’d give to the taste alongside some brown sugar sweetness. From there, a little wisp of smoke or some light Earl Grey tea joins the mix accompanied by some melon and apple, and then on the finish there’s some toffee caramel and vanilla to tie everything together.
Whiskey is a fascinating product purely from a temporal perspective — the spirit is distilled one year, socked away by the distiller, and emerges as something new and improved many years later. In this case this cask of whiskey was laid down when the world was still somewhat “normal” in 2018 and emerged post-pandemic to a completely different reality.
In this case the maturation process isn’t just an interesting side note — it really does fundamentally change the character of this whiskey. Armorik makes a delicious single malt spirit all on their own (as you can see with the added ice), but the amazing richness and depth that the dried fruits from the sherry cask add to this spirit make it remarkably enjoyable.
I have many regrets about not currently living in France. But high on my list of regrets is that I only really get to try bottles from this distillery when I find the time to make the pilgrimage every few years.
|Armorik Sherry Cask 2022 Single Cask Whiskey|
Produced By: ArmorikProduction Location: Brittany, France
Classification: Single Malt Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 54.1% ABV
Price: $109 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
A whiskey that pulls double duty — fruity and jammy when taken neat, but floral and airy when taken with ice.