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Maison Lineti: Meet the French distillery that thinks it’s a winery

Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s best-known – and most-expensive – wines. As we celebrate World Whisky Day, Peter Ranscombe heads to France to visit the team bringing winemaking know-how into the domain of single malt whisky.

Step inside Maison Lineti on Bordeaux’s Right Bank and there are plenty of familiar sights you’d expect to see in a winery. Workers discuss yeasts and casks as they walk from a glass-walled room full of concrete egg-shaped fermenters to a warehouse stacked high with wooden barrels.

Yet Maison Lineti is no winery – it’s a malt whisky distillery. The team behind Lineti is borrowing winemaking tricks to produce whisky in a sleek craft distillery that has architectural echoes of Scotland’s new wave distillers, including Holyrood in Edinburgh and Glenrinnes on Speyside.

The founders

Alex Cosculluela and Dr Magali Picard

Dr Magali Picard (right) and Alex Cosculluela Credit: Gunther Vicente

At the heart of the action stands Dr Magali Picard, a chemical engineer who holds a doctorate in oenology from the famous University of Bordeaux. Her scientific expertise as whisky master is paired with her partner and co-founder Alex Cosculluela’s business acumen.

They launched the project in 2018 with their friend Xavier Payan, who had studied wine and spirits management alongside Cosculluela. Their team was completed by François Thienpont and his son, Edward Thienpont, whose family manages a host of wineries, including nearby Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol and St-Émilion premier grand cru classé B trio Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse, Larcis Ducasse and Pavie Macquin.

While other people spent the pandemic lockdowns baking banana bread or building back-garden bars, Picard hit the textbooks to immerse herself in distilling. Drawing on her studies and her day job as spirits research and development project manager at barrel-maker Demptos, she’s documented her scientific approach to whisky-making in a fascinating fortnightly series of website posts and printed booklets called Master Notes.

From the grape to the grain

Wine and whisky both begin with fermentation, when yeasts eat sugars to produce alcohol. While wine is quickly transferred to tanks or barrels, the ‘wash’ or strong beer made from malted barley is distilled into a spirit, which is aged in oak casks to become malt whisky.

Fermentation is key to Picard’s experiments, borrowing pre-maturation winemaking techniques to create a more flavourful wash, and then toasting barrels lightly – relying more on the spirit’s characteristics than oak ageing. She wants a ‘floral, mineral spirit, with tension and smoothness’.

Picard chooses a long, seven-day fermentation to build flavour, compared with the typical two or three days in Scotland. Some of her wash undergoes ‘lees ageing’ – being kept in contact with the dead yeast cells for 14 days to encourage more floral and fruity flavours. While other parts undergo ‘malolactic conversion’, with bacteria turning sharp apple-like malic acid into softer milk-like lactic acid, not a universal practice for Scotch producers.

Concrete egg fermenters at Maison Lineti-

A long fermentation in concrete eggs builds flavour Credit: Thomas Liaunet

Her latest experiment involves cold soaking of the wort – the sweet liquid made by steeping her organic French barley in water – before it’s fermented. While Scotch distillers tend to favour a cloudy wort containing more sugar, Picard’s wort is clear to encourage terpenes to form, adding more floral character to her wash.

‘Our pre-maturation takes a few weeks longer, but it will save us two-to-four years of maturation,’ adds Cosculluela, surrounded by the seven concrete egg-shaped fermenters in a room aptly nicknamed ‘the eggbox’. He adds: ‘We experiment because [basketball legend] Michael Jordan didn’t make a dunk the first time.’

Golden slumbers fill your casks

While Lineti’s fermentation regime is inspired by wine, its copper stills are shaped like the Cognac region’s Charentais alembic stills. They are similarly heated directly by burning mains gas. In contrast to its slow fermentation, the distillation runs quickly to retain flavour, with the joints, bulbous onion shape, and long swan neck of the still creating lots of reflux, trapping heavier flavours and releasing floral notes.

Two copper stills at Maison Lineti Distillery

Alembic stills at Maison LIneti Credit: Gunther Vicente

Picard’s combination of techniques produces seven distinct spirits styles, which are paired with appropriate barrels from a selection of around 20 types supplied by Speyside Cooperage and five local barrel-makers. They include new French and American oak with varying levels of toasting. ‘We want the wood to enhance, not hide, the identity of the spirit,’ explains Payan.

More than 460 barrels are already full, lined up on wine cellar shelving rather than traditional whisky racks. A second warehouse is due to be built this summer. ‘We’ll blend the different casks to make whisky in the same way a Bordeaux winemaker would blend Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot to make their red wine,’ Cosculluela adds.

Those whiskies will be bottled as vintages, like wines. Some will be held back in cask and then bottled in subsequent years, allowing connoisseurs to compare each whisky’s continued evolution, as wine lovers do at vertical tastings.

Its first whisky will reach shops in 2026. Lineti’s tiny 60,000-litre annual output would rank it among Scotland’s smallest distilleries, where craft distillers often produce between 100,000 and 500,000 litres a year.

And the name? Only wines can be labelled as ‘Saint-Émilion’, and so ‘Maison Lineti’ is an anagram of the distillery’s location, demonstrating that science isn’t the only clever idea the team brings to the table.

Tasting notes: A sneak peek inside Maison Lineti’s cellar


First Drop

The distillery’s maiden spirit from November 2022. Three months in a mix of ex-bourbon and new oak barrels, then 12 months in ex-bourbon barrels. Really impressive for such a young spirit, with caramel and olive oil aromas leading into rich brown sugar, milk chocolate and roast meat flavours.

Umami

A demonstration bottling that’s spent nine months in ex-bourbon barrels, having undergone lees ageing and malolactic conversion. Some vanilla notes are already developing on the nose, then become much richer on the palate, with lemon and guava joining the sweet honey and caramel.

White Port

Spending 12 months in former white Port pipes has added white chocolate notes to the oats, lemon and green apple sweets on the nose. On the palate, toasted oats, wholemeal toast and crab apple jam are sprinkled with dark chocolate.

Tawny Port

Brown sugar, milk chocolate and caramel aromas are joined by a hint of orange, thanks to the addition of a drop or two of water. The tawny Port pipe’s influence brings Demerara sugar, redcurrant and chocolate orange flavours.

In context: French whisky

France’s whisky industry toasts its 40th anniversary this year, tracing its roots back to Brittany’s Warenghem Distillery. Now, France has some 140 producers – approaching Scotland’s total – although most are tiny.

Some distilleries, including Maison Lineti, make malt whisky, while others focus on alternative crops, such as Bordeaux Distilling Co’s rye whisky. Breweries also sell unhopped strong beers to distilleries to turn into spirits.

Brittany and Alsace remain the heartlands for distilling, with each gaining protected geographical indication status in 2015, putting them on a par with regional wine appellations. Nationwide production regulations are due soon.

While its domestic output may be tiny, France has a thirst for Scotch. In 2023 it was the biggest importer by volume, buying the equivalent of 174m 70cl bottles, and the second-largest market by value behind the US buying £474m.


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