Jérôme Kerviel has a new life away from the financial sector, much of which involves taking long contemplative walks during a two-month charity hike before his three-year prison term for his part in the €4.8bn rogue trading scandal at SocGen begins.
Eric Cordelle, Kerviel’s former boss, was a bit-player in the rogue trading scandal, but after 15 years working in derivatives across Paris and Tokyo, he was thrust out of the financial sector amid the uproar in France. After a year or so running his own consultancy EC2, he’s now trying to turn a new leaf in Brittany doing something decidedly un-Franco – making whisky.
Nestled close to the coastal town of Saint-Quay-Portrieux in northwestern France is Cordelle’s distillery, where he’s been quietly trying to perfect his first single malt for the past year or so, with the aim of releasing it on to the market in 2014. He’s also switched from clean cut financier to a look more akin to 1970s baseball player - sporting a buzz cut and horse-shoe moustache that would make any Old West sheriff proud.
The former head of Delta One at SocGen is playing his cards close to his chest. Is he aiming for a malty, grassy whisky in the lowland blend or a sweet, fruity heathery style highland type? It’s a mystery. It is, quite simply “too soon” to talk about his new vocation Cordelle told us in a very brief interview for this article.
Cordelle knows that there’s a market for his product, at least locally. While French consumption of wine continues to decline (to a mere 53 litres a year per person in 2011, still the most anywhere in the world), the country is also among the largest consumers of Scotch whisky – behind only (bizarrely) Singapore, Latvia and Panama.
But while the French may consume around 2.5 bottles per capita (or some 165m bottles), they produce very little – approximately 40,000 nine-litre cases, according to 2010 estimates from the International Centre for Spirits. This organization hosts a five-day training programme called “Knowledge of Spirits”, attended by Cordelle in April, which offers everything from tasting notes to distillation techniques.
Cordelle has clearly sensed an opportunity to tap into the French whisky appetite – and he’s not the first to do so. “Within ten years the French market has increased from three or four producers to almost 30 now,” says Alex Roche, an enthusiast who launched the site FrenchWhisky in 2010. “More recently, we’ve seen people from the financial sector, but also people with a background in wine making in particular.”
Roche says French whisky doesn’t really resemble its Scottish ancestors: its fruity flavours are closer to Brandy. To earn the official name of whisky, the spirit needs to be fermented in barrels for at least three years. However, Cordelle started his project in December 2012, and aims to get the first cask ready for sale in 2014. French whisky connoisseurs are skeptical. “A young whisky of at least two years may please some fans and have some typical characteristics, provided the conditions are right – quality of contents, choice of drums and careful distillation,” says Antoine Bocheux, researcher at the International Centre for Spirits.
All of this seems like something of a gamble for Cordelle, particularly when you consider the investment required. David Roussier runs the largest distillery in France at Werengham in Lannion, just 30km away from Cordelle’s operation. He was a former EY auditor in Geneva before taking over the family distillery. “The initial investment can be extremely large. Between the building, equipment and drums, it can end up being €500k,” he says. “Then you know in principle that there is zero revenue and a lot of expenditure for the first three years. And, since the financial crisis, the market has contracted in France for the first time in 30 years.”