Here I am, back on the roads of France in my trusty BRAD-PEAT. This time, I'm heading for the North!


The idea of a region where it rains all the time is overrated! It's also very sunny. In fact, that's why we're going to find fields of barley. And what do you make with barley? Beer and whisky, of course!


To prove it, today I'm going to take you to the TOS distillery (No. 8 on yours truly's map), where a large part of the future history of Northern whisky (as well as genever and gin) is being written.


This is also an opportunity to discover two of the TOS distillery's products that still retain the "pure malt" appellation (despite being over 3 years old) : ARTESIA VIEILLI EN FUT DE CHENE and ARTESIA SHERRY CASK.


The fine nose of my van (used to unearthing French distilleries) takes me to Aix-Noulette on the outskirts of Lens.


In the midst of a nostalgic musical revival (I always let you choose the music that goes with your discovery), I arrived to the sound of the Doors' song "Break on through (to the other side)", which was perhaps premonitory. And it's right here in the centre of this village of 4,000 inhabitants that I stop off in front of.... a brasserie! 


No, I'm not mistaken, and it's right here that I'm meeting Stéphane, a whisky enthusiast with a passion for the industrial history of the North.



Once I got to know him, I told him how astonished I was that there was no mention of TOS distillery, but rather of a certain "PAGE 24"!



We haven't even entered the building yet, but Stéphane (Bogaert) gives me an overview of the history of the already experienced brewery and the younger distillery.


He tells me that it was in 2003, as a good beer-loving 'northerner', with his brother Vincent and a friend Hervé Descamp, that he created the Brasserie Saint Germain.


The initial objective, which already spoke volumes about the company's philosophy, was to revive a local flagship that had disappeared (the BRASME brewery closed in 1986), revitalise the village (of which Germain is the patron saint), use local barley and hops (already) and, above all, make good beer!


The venture seems to have been quite a success, given the number of beers produced and the medals won at the Concours Général Agricole. But we're not here to talk about beer, we're here to talk about whisky. If you're interested, take a look at the brewery's website here  Page 24.


For those of you who are curious (like me), here's some information about the name Page 24: it refers to Saint Hildegarde von Bingen (the famous Blonde Hildegarde), who wrote a treatise on beer in the 12th century. According to legend, page 24, which contains the secrets of making beer, has disappeared (perhaps it's hidden in the brewery?'ll have to find out).



As I enter the building (red brick of course, it's the north anyway), and can see that my van has some competition in the form of an old Hotchkiss truck, Stéphane explains how the brewery has developed over its 20 years of existence. It now has 17 fermenters and produces a good quantity of beer. However, he tells me that although he was a founding member, he already had another idea at the time: to make whisky (here we go)!


So, in 2017, he led his 3 companions and Katy Gravina (his partner) on a new adventure. The TOS distillery.



But why TOS (as one might have said why 'page 24')? He simply told me that, at the time, he wanted to separate the two activities (even if one depended on the other) and place the distillery on the other side of 'The Other Side' street (I thought back to the song chosen by BRAD-PEAT when we arrived!!! I love my van) and that the name came from there!  


Nevertheless, it wasn't to the other side of the brewery that we were going but inside.



As I passed through the room, I finally realised that I was in the distillery when I saw the Holstein still being worked on by Katy (who was in charge of distillation). I could also see that space was at a premium and that it was a tight squeeze here, as there were also casks.


Katy then explained to me that, thanks to the rectification column fitted to the still, it was possible to produce a 77% alcohol distillate that could be used directly in a single pass. If Michel Audiard were still alive, he would have said that Katy was a magician!



This is where Stéphane tells me about the adventure since the distillery was founded. As the original idea was to make whisky, at the end of 2017 it was indeed pure malt that was produced (4 barrels) from the brewery's Hildegarde blonde brew.


The business seems to have been a success, and in 2018, 82 barrels have already been filled.


Always on the lookout for the local terroir, between two batches of malt, the team is embarking on the production of gin and the revival of local genever.


Stéphane tells me that the second year of the TOS distillery's existence saw the birth of HUMULUS (beer brandy), BOUTEFEU (gin) and GOHELLE (gin). The foundations of TOS had been laid and regular production launched.



He goes on and jumps straight to 2020, the year ARTESIA (the whisky we're going to be talking about today) was born (well, it's still pure malt because it needs 3 years).


You know me, I immediately ask him why ARTESIA. Stéphane simply tells me that we're in Artois and that in Roman times, Artois was called Artésia (par Toutatis).



Continuing our discovery of TOS, Stéphane then took me to the brewery's 'hot room' (you know, the one where the yeasts in beer are macerated) to show me some of the whisky ageing casks. There I discovered Bourbon casks (emblazoned with the Jim Beam crest or the Buffalo Trace bison), as well as port and sherry casks. He goes on to explain that a second part of the casks is at the distillery in... Wambrechies (further north between Lille and Roubaix - no. 9 on the map of yours truly)?


As you can imagine, apart from an obvious space problem, that's all it took for me to want to know why the casks were sent there.



On our way back to the main room of the brewery for the tastings, Stéphane told me about the close (because financial) ties between the two distilleries in the north of France.


He told me that in 2019, the Claeyssens distillery in Wambrechies was up for sale and that the 4 partners had decided to buy it and turn it into a subsidiary, as they did not want it to leave the Nordic fold. They had just become owners of a second distillery, space for their casks and, above all, usufructuaries of listed buildings and industrial machinery. This gave Wambrechies a production site and a commercial and tourist profile worthy of the name.



He goes on to tell me that since 2022, he has sold his shares in the brewery (with Hervé Descamps doing the same) and is devoting himself to developing the two distilleries. Once the distillery in Lille has been fitted out with a new still and new equipment, the project to create new premises in Artesia (for the TOS distillery) is back on the agenda.


But it's also enough to slow down or postpone certain projects for the TOS structure, such as setting up on the other side of the road!


It's behind the brewery bar that Stéphane finally heads off to taste the original pure malt and the one aged in sherry casks.


He took the opportunity to remind me that while the TOS distillery's range naturally includes pure malts aged in oak and sherry casks (the subject of today's tasting), there is also a limited edition in port casks, a beer brandy (HUMULUS) and an ARTESIA rye (made from 60% rye).


He also tells me that he's aware of my appetite for peat and that he's preparing a new peaty product for us.


But enough of 'carabistoulles', as we say around here, and let's get on with the tasting.




First things first.


How better to discover a distillate than by tasting it in its 'simplest form', that is to say, aged in oak casks that have contained bourbon and in French virgin oak casks? The one Stéphane offers me is batch 7.



The liquid that flowed into my glass was worthy of a bourbon cask-aged whisky, rather golden in colour. However, the gold colour is a little more pronounced than usual (certainly the impact of the new oak).


The first nose takes us straight into a vanilla custard. However, as the cht'i is a tease, it slips in a few peppercorns to avoid falling asleep.


The second passage intensifies with fresher, more pronounced notes of pineapple and ginger.


The third passage refreshes again with floral notes, but retains the spicy overtones of the beginning.


The palate is sweet as can be.


Faint woody notes soon appear, but they are swept away by the peppery notes that we had heard on the nose. These deliciously sting the tongue.


They then dissipate and the distillate becomes mellow. Notes of barley and vanilla emerge.


When it goes down, it has a burst of spice, but leaves more lemony, fresh notes in the throat and mouth.



The colour of this second distillate is distinctly more orange-brown.


This is because the limited edition sherry distillate was initially aged in new oak casks and then finished in sherry casks, which inexorably darkens the colour.


The first nose opens with intense notes of ripe fruit (cherry, plum) which immediately mark the sherry impact.


The second pass reveals notes of chocolate and spices.


On the third pass, it reveals more citrus fruit, which refreshes the atmosphere and brings out the woody notes.


The palate is intense and fruity. There are biscuity notes with spices such as cinnamon or curry and honey, topped by the fullness of the red fruit.


The journey ends on notes of sultana.


The finish is long and delicious, with a blend of red fruit and spicy notes.


When you consider that these are only relatively young whiskies, you start to dream of great things, such as a white port version for this year and a peated version (perhaps in 2024). Who knows, maybe we'll see a 'cht'ivisky' blend between the two distilleries at a later date?


In any case, we'll be here for the rest of the adventure, especially at the future new distillery in Artesia.


With these words, I regretfully take my leave of Stéphane and Cathy (and Anaïs, without whom you wouldn't know so much by the end of this article) and set off on new adventures on the roads of France and Navarre aboard my 'bolide'!