Single Malts and Chestnuts in the Cévennes: Visiting the Distillerie des Camisards

Published on 31 January 2024 at 11:18

After visiting Domaine des Hautes Glaces and Marseille, I took a morning train to see Distillerie des Camisards. After a quick stop in Nîmes, I took the tiny train below to Grande Combe la Pise. It's a beautiful area, just sitting at the edge of the hilly Cévennes. The distillery name comes from the Camisards, a set of Occitan-speaking Huguenots here in the Cévennes who rebelled against French royal authority in the early 18th century. 


This is an area with distinct memories for me. My first ever trip to France, in fact, was as a nine year old visiting the Cévennes. Staying with a family friend near Anduze and St André de Valborgne, I remember taking the train à vapeur, Mont Aigoual, and more sights and sounds which came back to me in the course of this quick visit.


I’d highly recommend the lovely walk I took in the late September sun along the Gardon d’Alès. That said, the distillery site is definitely intended for car access from the opposite direction, so it took me a while to find my way to the entrance! If you visit and see this sign above, you’re in the right place. 


Finally finding my way to the distillery building, I poke my head inside and am greeted by the flat cap and wispy beard of Antoine, the owner and distiller. He tells me about how the distillery got started. Antoine works in entertainment and advertising, but back in 2016 he wanted a new direction. Despite hailing from Normandy originally, Antoine had already made the Cévennes his home by this time. He noticed that the region had many breweries but no whisky distilleries. Hey presto - Camisards was born!



  • 3000L washback
  • Mashing takes place twice per week
  • Portuguese 500L pot still
  • Charged with 400L wash 
  • 7 runs to process one 2800L batch of wash
  • After two or three second distillations…
  • 300L final spirit at 65% ABV (enough to fill 2 Camisards casks)


A quick note on the maths here: As a general rule, you concentrate your spirit by about three times with each distillation. Your 7-8% ABV wash will turn into 20-25% low wines, which then become 60-70% spirit. That’s very rough, and only for “standard” Scottish style double distillation, but it's a good rule of thumb


Production kicked off at Camisards in 2017, initially using wash brought in from a nearby brewery. In fact, it was only in the week I visited Camisards (purely by coincidence) that Antoine began mashing and fermenting his own malt on this site.

All Camisards’ current whiskies are single malts, produced from organic Occitan barley malted near Valence. Some earlier batches used Normandy malt, and various smoked malts and even rye will be coming to Camisards in the near future. Antoine loves experimenting, and he wants to produce some of France’s most heavily smoked whisky over the next few years. These will be released as Dante Purgatory, Hell, and Paradise expressions (each offering different smoke levels).


Antoine’s idea to start this distillery came in part from discussions with a friend who works at Northmaen, a brewery and whisky distillery in Normandy. Despite being located at opposite ends of France, Camisards and Northmaen are therefore linked by a shared heritage. The mill used to grind Camisards’ malt comes from the old Northmaen farm. 


Naturally, in a distillery this small Antoine is aiming for quality over quantity. “I really make it with love”, he says: “it takes a lot of time”. I imagine the worm tub condenser is lending further body to the spirit, but at this scale of production, using one is barely even a choice. 


Similar to Trolden (which uses similar sized Portuguese stills) or even Stauning, single malt made here is normally going to be lighter than that made at a larger distillery. The ratio of copper/surface area to volume of spirit is much higher than in massive Scottish distilleries like Glenfiddich.



We enter what Antoine declares his favourite part of the distillery, where the casks age. Camisards whisky lives in local oak barrels from the Tonnellerie D’Oc, a cooperage which also supplies local vineyards. While French oak isn’t rare as such, this is still a pretty unique and sustainable source of casks. 


The barrels age in a space which climbs as high as 45C in the summer and drops as low as 7C in winter. The angels’ share is naturally high, but Antoine couldn’t give me an exact number. No temperature control - he wants to let the environment make its mark on the whisky, which I’m personally glad to see. Besides, not using energy to cool the space aligns with Antoine’s environmental ethos. 

From the start, Antoine has made Camisards an environmentally conscious distillery. No plastic is used in packaging; waste is kept to a minimum. The bottles comes from less than 100km away, with labels printed in what could be called the capital of the Cévennes, Alès.


Camisards only had around 15 casks full at the time of my visit. In a few years’ time, this amount should expand by a factor of ten. Antoine plans to release around 5,500 bottles per year based on current production during four months of the year. 



What’s really distinctive about this distillery is the use of oak for main maturation before a finish in chestnut. “Chestnuts are the emblem of the Cévennes”, Antoine says. I see in my mind’s eye the chestnuts I picked up off the road on the walk into St Jean du Gard, and the lizards I tried to trap with an upturned shoe near Tourgeuille.


It turns out that my own mental link between chestnuts and the Cévennes far undersells the strength of this connection. Chestnut groves have been planted in the area since the 11th century, and have been a principal source of food for locals ever since. Tannins from the wood supported local industry, their roots anchored bancel terraces to the steep hillsides, and shepherds sheltered their flocks from the sun under the trees. 


Local varieties of chestnut are well adapted to the hot, dry conditions, and since 2020 the Cévennes chestnut has had protected AOC status. Finally, every October, Anduze hosts the annual fête de la châtaigne - a chestnut festival!


Chataigne des Cévennes

historicair, licensed under CC-ASA 3.0


So Antoine wanting to involve chestnuts in the making of his whisky is a naturally, genuinely Cévenol idea. Though chestnuts are mostly starch by weight, you can’t legally make whisky from them as they are not a cereal grain. You can’t put chestnuts in the whisky either: that becomes some kind of infusion or liqueur instead.


Finishing Camisards whisky in chestnut wood is therefore the way to go. It's a local source of wood. Better for the environment, and something which makes more discussions of terroir possible with this whisky. When I visited, 5 new chestnut casks were on their way in. The used chestnut casks then go to local breweries. 


If you’ve ever had the chance to try a chestnut cask aged whisky, you’ll know they can be quite potent. The tannin content of chestnut wood is higher than most oak, so it can be overpowering, hence why Antoine only uses this wood for a finish. Though young, his whiskies have spent at least three to four years in oak before getting their six month chestnut finish. He reduces the spirit to 58% before moving it to this final cask, and the final whisky is bottled at 43%. 


In fact, Antoine adds water 3 to 4% at a time to slowly reduce the ABV. Antoine explains his thinking: the range of flavours which diffuse from wood into whisky change depending on the ratio of water to alcohol. Antoine prefers the chestnut cask flavour which comes through at a lower alcohol content.  



I was lucky enough to taste multiple samples of Camisards whisky - thanks Antoine! 


Chuca-Raca is perhaps the ‘main’ expression, finished in chestnut and bottled at 43%. It really does have chestnut aromas on the nose; a sweetness like bourbon but with a much more oily, grainy character.


Chuca-raca (not cucaracha, as I once typed by accident) is a local Occitan saying, literally meaning ‘twisted intestines’ but also referring to a strong and spicy spirit. Despite the low ABV, the tannins keep it spicy. This whisky has a nice rich sweetness to it, almost dark like a sherry cask. Personally, I really like how many layers of flavour emerge!


Kwercus simply refers to oak, with letters swapped to include the ‘w’ and ‘k’ in ‘whisky’. ‘Quercus’ is not only oak in Latin, as I understood, but also Occitan! One special edition Antoine produced is the bourbon-aged Cèu Puèg, or ‘Heaven Hill’ in Occitan (named for the source of these bourbon casks). This dram has an almost sour, creamy nose of fromage frais on it. Antoine suggests aromas of vanilla and almond linger at the back, and he’s absolutely right. It also strongly reminded me of canelé, which I had tried for the first time in Marseille a few days earlier. 



Roboppy, licensed under CC ASA 2.5

The most recent batch to be released comes from 4 Martinique rhum agricole casks: Kwercus Macouba. It’s on sale now, but when I visited the Macouba still had 2 months left of its 9 month finish. Tasting some from the cask (at 44% ABV), I find it has a spicy, slightly saline bite. The nose has a really good, light rum edge which carries through to the finish: everything gels well together. The sourness of a young single malt is used effectively here without being hidden. As the finish progresses, the barley comes out. 


The range of flavours here is spicy, a little off-kilter, and thoroughly fun to explore - not one for the average Aberlour-drinking French whisky fan! The characteristic spice of young whisky and chestnut casks isn’t going to be for everyone, but as far as I can tell, the casks overall are behaving beautifully. 


Finally, the Bèstia - this is cask strength (56.4%) single malt which spent its final six months ageing in the Grotte de la Salamandre (a cave around 25km away). This limited edition has a rich colour. To me, it smelled of anise and mixed spice. 


Comparing this to the lower-strength Chuca-Raca, you can see the difference a lower ABV makes to the ageing process. This dram stayed at a higher ABV throughout maturation, and the chestnut tannins morphed into these kinds of aromatic spice notes - to say nothing of the grotte’s influence.


Antoine’s plans include:

  • His next release, the Feuillette (Nov. 2024 release). This comes from 400L cognac casks used to age raspberry beers - I’ll give you a moment to take that in
  • Nordisk (2027) release of rye malt aged in calvados. The name and choice of cask are nods to Antoine’s Norman(dy) roots
  • Shaman (2027), beech-smoked single malt

It was fun to visit another micro distillery after the much bigger operations at Warenghem and DHG. Keep an eye on these if you're in the Cévennes and looking for a local whisky. Camisards drams are distinctive to where they were made, and they're environmentally conscious products well worth your time. Antoine sells these whiskies all over the region, so you don't have to visit the distillery to taste them. Cheers, or in Occitan, santat!

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