Egg-sperimental whisky: Maison Lineti

Hello strangers. It seems appropriate at Easter to break from a disgracefully long – book induced – absence to wander around the egg box in St.Emilion which is home to Maison Lineti

Read on…

For years, wines and spirits were kept separate, with some Cognac and Armagnac to some extent tolerated because they were made from grapes. Maybe this is just me being paranoid, but you seemed to get the feeling that spirits were ‘trade’, wine elevated. Never should the twain meet. Thankfully, that that boundary is steadily eroding. What can wine add to whisky? Not in terms of casks for finishing (something which is often clumsily done, but let’s leave that for another day, eh?), but a deeper exchange. 

Finding out just what is possible is why I’m driving with Magali Picard through the vineyards of Pomerol and St.Emilion to see a whisky distillery. Dark gnarly vines, the occasional person pruning, a man with a horse and plough, stubby modest wineries which seem to rise from the earth. It’s not exactly classic whisky country. 

Some background. Maison Lineti was founded by Magali Picard, her husband Alex Cosculluela, and Xavier Payan. Magali has a doctorate in oenology and for the past five years has been heading the research department at Tonnellerie Demptos. Want to know anything about oak? Ask her. 

Alex, who has an MSc in wine and spirits, met Xavier at Bordeaux’s Kedge business school . Xavier in turn then went to work for JM Cazes, owner of Châteaux Lynch-Bages (and others). All believed in a new interpretation of whisky, one influenced and guided by wine. With investment from the Thienpont family (owners Vieux Château-Certan, Le Pin and a host of others) building started in 2021 and the first spirit arrived a year after. 

The ‘Egg Box’

While organic barley is unusual in Scotch (Nc’nean remains the sole 100% organic producer), in France, it would seem, it is the norm for whisky. Maison Lineti’s is malted by Soufflet, but as will become apparent as the day progresses, for the team there’s always some other detail to be explore.

‘The malt is of good quality,’ says Magali, ‘but our aim is for a spirit that has floral characters, minerality, suppleness, and tension. We think that we can increase the floral character in the malting process, so we’re working with Soufflet on a bespoke regime.’

The minerality, Alex explains, comes from the aquifer 300m below the distillery. ‘The water’s high in calcium and sodium – that’s also good for developing the floral character. We adapted our process to the water, not the other way around.’ It’s a break with the convention which that water makes no difference. Everything here is being questioned and analysed. 

The most dramatic break from the norm is in fermentation. Instead of the usual wooden or stainless steel tanks there are seven tall white ceramic eggs. OK… why?

‘We’re looking interaction between the lees and the wash,’ says Alex. Lees is not a term used in whisky, but in wine it refers to the the dead yeast cells left after fermentation. Leaving them in contact with the wine releases amino acids and some sugars giving the wine a thicker texture. As whisky has lees, why not use them in the same way?

‘The egg shape creates thermal currents which moves the lees around, giving greater lees interaction’ he continues. ‘It also keeps the temperature at 28˚ which in turn optimises the yeast we’re using.’ 

Inside the egg

This churn is allowed to carry on for a week. Keen to explore more, this year they’ve been dropping the temperature to 7˚C after the week-long ferment and leaving the wash on lees for a further fortnight. Because of the low temperature, there’s no more movement within the egg, the lees are pumped over each day. It’s a wine thing. Get over it. ‘We love lees in France!’ he laughs. ‘They give fatness. It’s common in wine… just not in whisky …’ He smiles, shrugs. ‘Everything is being done for aromatics and feel.’

It would be rude not to taste some wash. At five days, there’s some floral elements, even pineapple, but also a vibrant, lemony acidity. After two weeks on lees tropical fruits emerge, but the raciness is retained. Here’s the tension Magali was talking about. 

‘It’s, how do you say it in English?’ says Alex, pointing to his back. 

‘The spine.’

‘Yes. If you are wanting long-lived whisky with character you have to have this spine.’

Tension. You need it in life, let’s face it. To stop thing becoming, you know, flabby and too comfortable. It’s a good quality. 

The pair of Charentais stills

Things appear to return to a degree of normality in the stillhouse with its pair of Charentais-style stills. It’s a design that’s fairly common in French whisky distilleries these, not least because Cognac producers (where by law these stills have to be used) are making whisky in the downtime between the end of the distillation period and the next vintage (by law all distillation must cease by March 31).

They’re direct fired, the belly of the still encased inside a brick oven with only its curving shoulder showing. It then swells into an onion-shaped head which thins into a slender, curving swan neck.

By now I know there’s going to be some variation on straightforward double distillation. A heads cut is taken in the first distillation which is retained for the next run. The low wines are redistilled and cut into heads, heart, and tail. Again, the heads go back to the next wash distillation. 

The heart, diluted, is casked, but the tails are handled differently. In one of the stills, after the cut is taken, the distillation continues to be run slowly – another six hours. These ‘slow tails’ are then recycled with the next lot of low wines. 

The temperature is raised in the other still, producing ‘fast tails’ (the term’s relative, this still takes four hours) which go back to the next wash distillation. The inspiration isn’t wine this time, but an adaptation of a Cognac approach. 

Why this extra complication? ‘The slow tails have less undesirable compounds because there’s more reflux,’ explain Magali. ‘Having tails that have been more rectified allows us to extend the cut point for the next distillation. The fast tails are only lightly rectified. This gives us more structure in the wash for the next distillation.’ Structure? More wine speak. 

Nearly every distiller around the world these days talks about slow distillation and maximising reflux which makes it surprising when Alex says that they’ve sped the spirit run up. 

“So, less reflux?’ I’m confused Gove that the aim is for fruits and flowers where reflux is important.

Points of reflux

We crouch beside the top of the still. ’Cognac has to be distilled slowly because they might be distilling a wine that’s months old, so you need a lot of reflux to clean things up. When we ran it that way, the result was too light, so we ran the stills faster.’

He reads my mind. ‘We still get massive reflux though. Here,’ he points to the shoulder. ‘Here in the onion, and,’ he stands up, ‘here at the highest point of the swan neck.’ Again, speed is relative.  

It’s another example of how their aversion to following the whisky tramlines and a willingness to explore how to get the characters they want. Drawing from wine or Cognac is the right thing to do. What is learning but sharing, trialing and adapting? If it works, great, if it doesn’t well you’ve learned something. The important thing is to ask the question – and then keep asking. 

We dip into the tank of new make. It’s surprisingly bready, but the light florals are there, a central fatness and green fruits which develop with water. Even at this stage, there’s length and finesse, something I’ve noticed in many French whiskies. I have a hunch the Charentais shape has something to do with it, but in whisky you can’t isolate one element and say ‘that’s it!’ 

Given Magali’s background, there’s little surprise how things manifest themselves in the warehouse. There are different toasts, char levels, sizes of cask and locations. While most of the research is around the effect of new French oak on the spirit, there’s ex-Bourbon casks as well as well as some ex-fortified wines. As she puts it, ’20 modalities.’

Swan necks

French oak is very interesting,’ she says. ‘It can bring structure and create a foundation for the new make. Its tannins prolong taste, and keep length and tension. Its fine grain plays an important role in oxygenation which also adds to complexity.

A sample is poured. ‘The cask is called Paradox,’ she says. ‘New French oak with a specific heavy toast using a central chimney with holes. This gives a deep toast, but with no char…  it’s a technique used for wine.’ By now that last comment didn’t surprise me all. 

There’s extract with stewing fruit (I write Spangles, but who but the aged remembers them? They were boiled sweets). Ripe and deep mid palate, then that acidity.


‘Now this…’ The cask is labeled ‘Essencia’.

‘It’s also new French oak, but this is pink.’

I wonder if my constant expression of surprise or bewilderment is causing them some doubts as to my fitness for my job.   

She smiles. ‘It’s something which appears in some French oaks. You can’t predict where or when it happens. You have to wait until you cut the tree,” It’s something which I’ve heard from cabinetmakers and coopers – only when splitting the trunk can you see the full story. But pink?

‘It’s rich in carotenoids which are degraded dusting seasoning and toasting at 200-220˚C into compounds like b-ionone and b-damascenone. It’s hopefully another type of oak tat will help with raising floral and fruity elements.’

‘And make you se in the dark?’ I add to complete bafflement. ‘You know.. carrots.’ 

Apparently the French don’t believe that carrots help with night vision. 

I taste.

The florals are certainly heightened, but there’s also a softer flow, gentler tannins, an upping of spic and slightly lower acids.

The difference between new French and ex-Bourbon is more obvious in the next sample when familiar vanillin and butteriness appears along with yellow fruit, creme Catalan and a mineral finish. 

Some of the 20 modalities

The first of the lees-rested spirit has only been in cask for a few months but from an new American oak casks, the fine-boned, some minerality, then it expands in middle thickening into strawberry fruit, lily and a tautness.

‘We’ also added lactic to some of the ferments,’ says Magali drawing another sample. Of course they did, Precise this is all top of the mouth, intense, sherbety. It’s a mouthful of madness, fizzing and popping around a rounded core.

The array of different approaches in distillate isn’t only driven by that questioning nature, but because to once again take inspiration from wine, Maison Lineti will release its whiskies by vintage. Each year will highlight a different approach and then be released over time in five ‘chapters’ (at three, five, eight, 10 and 12 years) meaning you can assess and observe the evolution. Nothing will change in terms of the blend, other than the impact of time.

There are wider philosophical as well as practical links between this new generation of French distillers and winemakers. The rise of organic and biodynamic cultivation, regenerative agriculture, the re-examination of ‘old’ techniques, and rediscovery of old varieties – be they grape or grain. It is a reexamination of patrimony, a respect for craft, a rejection of industrialisation. ‘Yield is irrelevant, “ Alex had said earlier. ‘Flavour is what is important.’ 

The team are using science not to restrict thinking and focus on efficiencies, but to open up possibilities. I think of the man and horse ploughing in that Pomerol vineyard and how that is the old and new linked. Whisky-making is known. What is needed for it to grow are those who push against conformity to express individuality.