Rye High in the Hills - French Whisky with a View at the Domaine des Hautes Glaces

Published on 11 January 2024 at 10:35

Last September, I was incredibly fortunate to visit the Domaine des Hautes Glaces in the mountains above Grenoble. Getting a lift from Geraldine (the distillery's Commercial and Marketing Director), I was stunned by the scenery on the way there. This area, the Trièves , is a 900m high plateau named for three ways through the mountains - south toward Marseille, north toward Lyon, and east towards Switzerland. 


Combined with the old priory buildings which the distillery now inhabits, the morning felt like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.


Walking up a gravel path through lovely trees, I was welcomed to the distillery by friendly staff and two lovely dogs! One, Laga , belonged to production manager Pierrick Guillaume , who showed me around the Domaine. Most of the information below comes from him, so I want to thank him up front along with Geraldine and other staff who made the whole day a breeze!


The other buildings around the old priory house artist in residence programs, event spaces, and soon-to-be visitor accommodation. 


Now on to the distillery itself - which I'll refer to as DHG for short to save us some time!



After its first beginnings in 2009, DHG's first whiskey appeared in 2014 . Local organic farmers have supported the dreams of founder Frédéric Revol . Rémy Cointreau became a shareholder in 2017, supporting the construction of new facilities and modernizing the distillery. While the distillery has been here for some time, it underwent a significant renovation in 2020. The new capacity is around 80,000 LPA . That's roughly the same output as Oban - not massive in Scotland, but very significant for a continental distillery!


Pierrick worked at a series of Diageo distilleries across Scotland, so his English is a) excellent and b) notably Scottish inflected from his time living there. I did speak French at some points during the day, but thankfully for me, the distillery staff spoke very good English. 


Alongside Pierrick, I head for the first production buildings with Laga (can you guess which of Pierrick's former employers she's named for?). You have beautiful views of the landscape from almost everywhere, including the road in and the maltings (below).



At DHG, it's all about the grain - the start of the whiskey making process. The Trièves plateau is one of the highest altitudes where barley is grown in Europe. An association of 19 farmers in the area, the Graines des Cimes , works to develop better regenerative agriculture practices. Members of this group must be fully organic, including diverse sorts of grain, practice effective rotation to enrich the soil, involve meat and dairy in a holistic system, and also be involved in milling/baking. 


Of course, the meetings used to communicate within the association and maintain standards are true French affairs full of paté and wine. 


The goal, as Pierrick puts it, is 'to master the way we are growing cereals and protecting the soil.' While casks are so often the focus of modern whisky, Pierrick is glad to see the starting elements of grain and yeast also finally coming back into focus. 


This all builds to a focus on that all important word, terroir. The French pioneers of DHG are intimately familiar with the concept and putting it into practice more than almost any other distillery (whatever Waterford and Rozelieures say). 


These round tubs represent the distillery's plant nursery. Working with a French seed bank, DHG tests samples of old cereal strains to reintroduce here. These small plots can produce enough seed to grow micro parcels of land, which can in turn produce a proper quantity of seed for harvest.


DHG aims to become self-sufficient in malting its own grain too, although they haven't reached that point yet. They have built brand new maltings , capable of producing 7 tonnes of malt at a time. For comparison, the famous Port Ellen maltings in Islay combines 6 tonnes of peat and 23 tonnes of malt in each batch. 


I didn't get any good photos in the darker spaces of the maltings, unfortunately, but it's a space full of new, fresh timber. A smart design allows grain to be malted and kilned in the same large trough , saving space and materials. Strong doors close off the trough to make this possible, and the air for drying malt is heated by wood pellets. Bear in mind, this part of the site is not part of regular visitor tour.



When it's time to grind that grain, DHG turns to a unique little thing - a Scottish bobby mill dating to around 1912. Pierrick tells me how Ronnie Lee (legendary within the industry) still comes over from Wales, driving all the way down through France to help maintain this unique piece of equipment.

Alongside barley, DHG is big on rye, and that presents distinct challenges for distillers which Pierrick took time to explain to me. Compared to barley used for single malts, rye has very little husk . That means that it doesn't self-filter the same way, making the process a bit more complex for distillers. You're essentially trying to filter a paste, and avoid the dry remnants sticking to the bottom of the mash tun. Even when done well, you have to go in after and manually scrape rye paste off the filter plates.


Rye also has nowhere near the diastatic power of barley - essentially, it doesn't produce the same levels of enzymes to break down starch into sugar. Less sugar means less alcohol, so your yield declines. However, DHG does 100% rye distillation for the flavor: it's worth it

It doesn't get any easier when you add hot water to make your wort. The normal temperatures for barley would be too high, so rye starts colder: around 54-56C for the first water, before rising really quickly to something much hotter. That shift is when the rye gelatinises , and you risk turning the whole thing into an intractable volcano of sticky porridge.


They use 4 waters , with the 3rd and 4th waters being reserved to form the 1st and 2nd waters of the next batch. This is done for both barley and rye, just at different temperatures. DHG is trying to reduce its water usage, and like most modern distilleries, they use heat exchangers to save energy.


Fermentation is also a very interesting process at DHG. They use beautiful French-made Oregon pine washbacks holding 8-9,000L each. Each washback uses radiators full of cold water from the heat exchangers to hold at a consistent 22C for a week-long ferment. Near the end of the week-long ferment, DHG's mash ends up more acidic (near 3.5 pH) as esterification progresses and new congeners develop.


The local indigenous yeasts used by DHG are not modern high-efficiency distilling yeasts, and they struggle at (normally optimum) temperatures like 34C. At Lagavulin, Pierrick could achieve 427L of alcohol yield per tonne of grain: here, it's nowhere near that! 


However, that's kind of the whole point . The goal is a specific model, a range of flavors, not quantity. Thankfully, the new parent company Rémy Cointreau understands and has not put pressure on DHG to increase yields. Let's hope it stays that way!



They're starting a run of smoked spirit as I arrive in the warehouse. Everything is heated by wood pellets - if you have to burn something for energy, at least this is low waste, not fossil fuel, and made from lumber waste. 


As you walk along the line of stills, the smell changes from dark rye bread to something clean, light, and heady. Pierrick tells me that the specific heat and personality of each still is different: “they're all breathing differently”. 


DHG's stills are direct fired and run into worm tub condensers. All 4 main stills are the same capacity, and they run “slow as fuck” over the course of twelve hours (and that's a direct quote).  

Let's walk through how DHG distils their spirit. After all that work with grain and yeast, they have a 9000L batch of wash. Together with around 550L of facts from earlier runs, this batch gets split evenly between each of the 4 main stills. Now about 2350L in each, the stills run and produce a total 2000L of low wines or brouillis .


However, the rest of the process draws more on cognac production than Scotch whiskey-making. After running three batches through this first distillation, DHG collects all the resulting low wines and combines them.


This then goes forward for the second distillation, which splits into four parts rather than the three commonly seen in Scotland: heads (têtes), hearts, seconds, and tails (queues). At DHG, an additional cut creates 'seconds' in between the hearts and tails. Rather than make the final cut at a low ABV, DHG sends these seconds back into the low wines tank for re-distillation. 


The congeners in the seconds aren't what they're looking for in the final cut: Pierrick says you would immediately smell the difference if they left them in. Baked apricot, dark fruit, etc. - sounds good to me! Pierrick tells me about working at Glendullan, where these smells developed late in the distillation and reminded him of his grandma's kitchen. So these aromas in the seconds are nothing bad - it's just not the style DHG wants. 


Every cut here is managed based on alcohol meters and automatic systems, so the system can run without someone hanging around to make every cut. Just because DHG now has a big corporate owner doesn't mean everything suddenly becomes a matter of heavy industry, nor does having some automated meters in the stillroom mean there's no craft here.


On the whole, the process feels a bit artisan but not so small as something like Hercynian Distilling Company. One particularly charming part of DHG is the 5th still in the stillhouse row, named Petite Bertha ! They use this to triple distill some of their unaged rye spirit. Recently, DHG did a run of smoky spirit in which one still ran fast and 'dirty'. That specific distillate was then re-distilled in Petite Bertha, which is the only still without automatic cut ability.


While reusing draff for things like animal feed is nothing new, DHG are experimenting. There's a batch outside being composted for a year, mixed with pot ale, before being used as fertiliser. The new bottles use dried and compressed draff for their corks , all heated using excess heat from the stills. 


But of course, there's one step remaining before we get to bottles…



Stepping into the DHG warehouse, the air seems heavy and doughy with strong alcohol in the air. It's not the same as humidity - in fact, the air is very dry here. Dry air accelerates aging, as do temperature swings over the year. As we often see with continental distilleries, whiskey ages faster here than in Scotland . Pierrick estimates a five year old dram here could resemble a fifteen year old from Scotland, but the aim here is slow and distinctly mild aging


To that end, DHG sometimes spray water in the warehouse to increase humidity in the summer. The rear half of the concrete-walled warehouse is half-buried under a garden, and the opposite walls have jute shades on the outside to smooth out temperature swings. 

DHG uses older, tired wood to preserve their spirit character. They do sometimes use new oak casks, but only for three weeks at a time. They want to preserve aromas and congeners produced by their distinctive grain, not overpower it with a strong cask.


Sometimes, DHG will even take their whiskey out of the cask early and store it in these porous ceramic tubs (vases? planters?) to let the spirit breathe further without ageing. Of course, the whiskey is physically getting older, but it isn't reacting with a wooden barrel and therefore doesn't legally “age”. 


Barrels are racked three high here. Most are old cognac casks , sourced through the distillery's Rémy Cointreau connection. DHG also works with some local vineyards, but their wine casks are closely monitored and tasted every month to make sure they don't go too far. It's such a stark contrast to many European distilleries who are (understandably) trying to cram oak flavor into their younger spirit. 


Pierrick also worked in the unique Leven Distillery , Diageo's experimental facility and “the only distillery in Scotland to reside within a bottling facility”. There, you have 1.3 million casks all going into the fixed recipes like Johnny Walker Black. Here, by contrast, he has to manage a very limited inventory to maintain consistent flavours. 


Some corn whiskey on the way…?


Before we go into the tasting - just look at these bottles ! The old bottles and branding were frankly utilitarian, placeholder bottles with plain sans serif labels. Fine for something new, but this? This is next level . The faint green glow of the recycled glass perfectly fits the mountain setting which the bottle base mimics, I've never seen anything like it. It's satisfying and weighty to hold without relying on the cheap trick of a solid inch of glass in the base. 


This revamped core range is appealingly simple, with only two expressions.


Vulson is a triple distilled 100% rye spirit, bottled at 43% ABV and intended as a digestif or partner to tonic in a cocktail. The retroaction (finish) is not too dark or aggressive. The name comes from a parcel of volcanic soil 4km away where DHG founder Frédéric grows his own grain. 

The guide taking me through my tasting, Mathieu, was excellent. He compared the Vulson to fruits de mer flambées . While it isn't coastal at all, there is earthy, toasty rye combining with something sharp or saline coming through it. I don't think I'll ever be a big fan of unaged spirits myself, but this is no rough or immature dram for sure.


The Indigène is a NAS single malt bottled at 44%. The nose is sweet but (to me) a little hard to place. On the palate, there's a creamy body and something Mathieu diagnoses as almond. The finish retains that distinct herbal racine note of DHG terroir. It's soft, smooth… coming back to it after a minute away, I find more varied fruity notes dancing around . The racine notes of DHG's terroir is balanced nicely with the cask here, without being overly earthy or herbal.


On the whole, I think DHG has made many smart but simple choices in how these new whiskeys are presented. The Vulson and Indigène form a core range, but they also have a well-thought-through 'exploratory' range of limited editions, the Epistémè . Each one has a code, such as the R18P23 I tried. 


R for rye; 18 for the year the grain was harvested; P for the land used to grow it; 23 for the year of bottling. This particular bottling was 47% organic rye whiskey , and the parcel of land used here can be found on Mont Aiguille, a striking mountain only a few kms from DHG. On the nose, it makes me think of tobacco smoke , although Mathieu stresses that this rye was not smoked. On the palate, filter coffee . Coming back to the nose, it resembles the freshness of the Vulson. 


In fact, I then got to compare this to another Epistémè made from Vulson grain. This one is creamy and almost pineapple-like on the nose - the whole range of sweet smells seems much younger.


Finally, I got to try a little épeautre (spelt) - what Mathieu calls ' le grain méditerranéen par excellence '. DHG isn't the first to make spelled whiskey but it's still rare, and this is apparently the first whiskey made from older varieties of spelt. This 53% ABV batch represents a preview of some future experimental releases and wow - what an amazing nose it has on it! Light, sweet, bourbon-esque. 


However, the palate? Bizarre ! Almost rubbery, yet somehow still persistently sweet. The nose now seems to have that kind of butyric sweetness redolent of Hersheys. I'm not sure I like it, but that will probably change with some further aging/tweaking, and it's absolutely something you should try !



I've said a lot about the distillery and its whiskies, but I have to finish by talking a little more about the mountain surroundings. Please, do visit - the area is stunning, in the true sense of the word. That's coming from someone with experience visiting many beautiful corners of France. 


While waiting to return to Grenoble, I walked around the hillside outside the distillery admiring the view. A van driver pulled over to ask me something (in French, of course). “Do you live here?”


“No, I'm visiting the Domaine des Hautes Glaces," I said. I was standing by the side of a rural road, looking around with no bag or anything: he probably thinks I'm lost or need a lift . “I 'm walking around, I'm not lost,” I said. “I'd love to live here though, it's so beautiful here.”


“Too beautiful!” he said. “It's my first time here.”


“Mine as well!”


With a quick “bonne journée!”, he was off. So he didn't think I needed help - he stopped because he thought I was a local and wanted to compliment me on how beautiful the Trièves were

If you visit, you'll likely have to drive. The nearest train station, Clelles-Mens, is 15km away from DHG. About 6km in the other direction is the town of Mens, which I found surprisingly vibrant for a mountain town . Middle of the day on a weekday, there were several places open for lunch clearly drawing folk in from a wider area. Funny enough, the bartelette I had with my lunch there was flavored with chocolate and apricot, providing the same kind of dark sourness I got on the first Epistémè dram . So there's a local pairing for you!

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