Victor Brierley: China, not France, maybe the true threat to Scotland's whisky crown

A new report says France could soon become the 'home of whisky'. We asked whisky writer Victor Brierly whether he believes France could soon be taking Scotland's whisky making crown.

Published 18th Mar 2016
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Unquestionably, the French love whisky. I’ve taken enough parties of French whiskophiles round bars and distilleries to realise that person for person, the average Frenchman or woman knows more about Whisky, than the average Scotsman or woman.

Until now, it’s always been scotch whisky that's been the ever present popular choice, but unless you have been under a rock for a year or two, you’ll see others are starting to get in on the act.

I blame Science.

Because distilling is now a matter of getting your science act together and learning from the masters. Lots of chemistry high flyers are avoiding the enviro-complex ‘petro-chemical’ arena and turning their massive brains to distilling.

Same sort of gig, lots more smiley faces and, at the moment, less Greenpeace activists on your case. What would you, as a Chemistry supremo, rather be: a ‘Master Distiller’ or a ‘Planet Destroying Fracker’?

Erm, let me think about that for a nanosecond.

If you can sit an office overlooking sleepy (and sometimes sunny) Speyside or lecture to some fourth generation Scotch/Irish in a Brooklyn bar, it sure beats plying your trade wearing a survival suit, 50 miles out in the middle of the North Sea.

So, you’ve solved your Chemistry conundrum and decided for something less risky, you’ve opted for whisky. Wise move, even more so, when you consider that technology, lower entry investment levels due to new legislation and cheaper technology and the reduced setup costs and time means you don’t have to work for a Brewing Behemoth or Drinks Dynasty, you and some chums can set your OWN gaff up, anywhere.

‘Crowdfund’ the dough you need, build it somewhere unfashionable to attract an eager workforce and Government grants. Make it achingly trendy, to attract the best talent. You can do lots of this, just using the Internet.

Yes, at the moment, French whisky is being made at levels which probably aren’t much more than ONE mid-level Scottish distillery, so you could be forgiven for thinking that some drinks dudes are getting all alarmist on you.

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After all, Scotland isn’t exactly sitting doing nada. I used to have a faintly pathetic boast, telling anyone who would listen that I had been to every Scottish Distillery. Not any more, I haven’t. A new Scottish Distillery springs up just about every month, so there are a few I have not visited yet. Add this to the older scotch whisky distilleries doubling in size or completely reinventing themselves, surely scotch is fighting fit, ready to rekindle bromantic dalliance with our Auld Alliance mate as a customer, not a competitor?

Well, yes and no. Yes, the global whisky pie is slammed in at gas mark 7, after getting its pastry lid rolled out to a previously unforeseen size. Yes, Scotland’s definitely the meatiest part of the pie, but it’s not just Scottish steak and a bit of Japanese kidney any more. No, it’s now a real fusion, bakeoff special with South African, Irish, Welsh, Indian, English, German and yes, French tasty whisky treats all being being added, in increasingly meaty chunks, to the gravy.

Like most ‘ingredients’ in life, if you are producing something that can be made or ‘copied’ somewhere else, whether it's asparagus, Aberdeen Angus coos, suits or shipping, in the fullness of time, it usually will be.

Unless we make Scotch IMPOSSIBLE to mimic, by developing unique provenance, or making it the best in the World, or giving it a joined-up and matchless ‘tone of voice’ it’s just going to be a series of ‘products’ made in Scotland for sure, but able to be replicated, anywhere.

So, while people are already getting ‘xenofroggic’about our Auld Alliance chums having the audacity to do it themselves and mimic our national swally, I have other, altogether larger copycat concerns. China.

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I was speaking to a wine expert last week and she told me of only ONE Chinese wine, firm who sold 250 MILLION bottles of Chinese made vino, lots of it ‘European Style’. Hardly surprising, as in China, they now have more vineyards, than France does. Not that we’d ever have to worry about China, a vast landscape with an increasing taste for Scotch, every copying our national drink, using the squillions of ‘terroir-tastic’ land, ideally suited for producing Whisky.

They wouldn’t do that, would they?

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