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Vive le whisky

Published:  18 January, 2007

Pity poor President Chirac arriving at the G8 summit smarting from the humiliation of France's failed Olympic bid.

Marooned in a country with the worst food this side of Finland, whose only contribution to farming has been the mad cow, he must have felt wretched. And being at Gleneagles, there was the ever-present threat of haggis on the menu - a dish he has detested ever since former Nato general secretary George Robertson once forced him to try it.

At least the hotel, being owned by Diageo, was awash with whisky and carries an impressive range of single malts. The temptation to drown his sorrows must have been overwhelming at times. Back home, his countrymen's taste for Scotch whisky endures. According to the Scotch Whisky Association it remains the biggest market of all, with shipments of 10.7 million (9 litre) cases last year, up 3% on 2003. In terms of value, France is still third behind the US and Spain, but it is moving in the right direction, with exports worth 249 million - a rise of 9% on the previous year.

Breaking down the figures further, bottled blends were up 11% in both volume and value, and now stand at 6 million cases worth 169.7 million, while bottled malts rose 7% to 0.6 million cases, and 9% in value to 49.9 million. Of course, shipment figures are a crude measure of performance and never quite relate to actual demand - especially in the EU, with all its cross-border shopping and parallel trading. But anecdotal evidence suggests France is performing OK after a terrible 2003. In fact you could almost say Scotch is proving remarkably robust.

Of course, things are not perfect. Mention France to most in the whisky industry and you'll provoke a weary sigh. Yes, it's the biggest market in the world, but the bastards screw us for every cent' - a reference to the big buyers who are ruthless in the extreme. Not that French consumers complain as they trawl the well-stocked aisles for a bargain. As they reach the spirits section, they can find malts for as little as €10 a bottle.

Yet what a choice awaits them! According to AC Nielsen, the average hypermarch carries a staggering 54 references' to Scotch, of which 19 are malt. Some references' may be just different bottle sizes of the same brand, but even so - 54! It certainly puts Tesco to shame. What is particularly encouraging is that this number has not changed for several years. After the summer of 2003 and the worst heat wave in living memory, MAT sales of single malts were down 14% at one point. The industry was terrified the French buyers would take an axe to their shelves. So far this hasn't happened, partly because there is no category waiting in the wings. Vodka is growing from a small base, but there is no equivalent of rum in Spain, whose sales are predicted to jump from 4 to 7 million cases in five years.

The off-trade accounts for three-quarters of sales and is all about price, apart from a small band of cavistes (independent off-licences) who cling on against the odds. Yet there is not the rash of deep-cut price promotion that grips the UK and encourages such promiscuity. French consumers can expect offers of €1-1.5 a bottle, which makes a more stable environment for building brands.

Unfortunately, the means of reaching the consumer through advertising are massively restricted by the Loi Evin. The restrictions of what you can and cannot say in print - TV being banned - are probably worse for spirits, whose image is about lifestyle. For single malts into promoting their flavour and origins, it may be easier to get the message across. Single malt sales are flat, but showing encouraging growth at the top end. Above the real premier prix malts, comes La Martiniquaise's blended malt, Glen Turner, at €14, number three to Aberlour and Glenfiddich, who fight for poll position at around €20. The range of malts sold through the hypermarkets begins to peter out at about €30 when the cavistes take over. Malt drinking is 85% at home, while blended whisky is stronger in the on-trade, which accounts for a third of its sales. Malts are treated with respect though not obsessively so, while blends are drunk in all sorts of ways - quite often with Coke.

So far, whisky drinking is a cross-generational affair in France, free of that stigma of being an old man's drink'. Much of the credit must go to the big blends like J&B, Ballantine's and Johnnie Walker, who have been innovative in their advertising and active in all the right bars. A lobbying lesson for M Le Prsident, perhaps?