Celtic Cousins - Made in Bretagne

Celtic Cousins - Made in Bretagne

Martine Nouet looks at the whisky industry in Northern France – and plots its Celtic roots

News | 25 Nov 2004 | Issue 44 | By Martine Nouet

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A land with a profound sense of identity, Brittany became part of French kingdom only in the 16th century. With its own Celtic language – the exact replica of the Cornish one – its culture deeply rooted in myths and legends, its climate so similar to Ireland’s or Scotland’s west coast, Brittany has the spirit for distilling grain.It also produces an apple brandy called ‘lambig ‘ or ‘fine de Bretagne’ which can be palatable but does not have the richness and delicacy of Norman calvados.Warenghem: from chouchen to whiskyWarenghem distillery was the first to launch a ‘whisky Breton‘ on the market in 1999. Established in 1900 near Lannion in Côtes d’Armor county, Warenghem produces Fine de Bretagne and also Chouchen, the traditional breton mead.Making whisky looked a natural extension for the company distilling skills of manager Gilles Leizour.“But it took some time to establish the notion of ‘whisky Breton’ in the consumer’s mind,” he says. “For them whisky could not but be Scottish or Irish. Now other companies have walked on our steps. Talking of whisky breton does not give a shock anymore”.Warenghem produces a blend and a single malt, both bottled at 40 %. The former called WB (Whisky Breton) shows a black and white label, a hinting at the Breton flag. It is a “double single”: 75 per cent of homemade wheat grain whisky and 25 per cent of Armorik, the company single malt distilled in pot stills.Armorik is a non aged single malt, a five years old according to Gilles Leizour. It is matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. It is slightly peated (a good 15 ppm).“We do not produce a heavily peated malt as this does not suit French taste. Consumers prefer smooth and sweet whiskies,” he states.The only figure Warenghem manager will release is the annual production of 650,000 bottles which includes Fine de Bretagne, mead and beer as well as whisky.The distillery welcomes visitors during the summer season only.La Distillerie des Menhirs: 100 per cent buckwheatLa Distillerie des Menhirs works on a much smaller scale and with a different philosophy.Guy Le Lay, a former maths teacher, decided to start a distillery on the very spot where his great great grandmother had installed her first still. A family business (Guy Le Lay works with his wife and three sons), la Distillerie des Menhirs (i.e the standing stones distillery) is located in Finistère (land’s end) at Plomelin.The idea of distilling whisky came as a fun challenge, thanks to his Scottish pals as Guy Le Lay likes to point out.“I have made great friends in Scotland. I love the atmosphere and the friendliness of the industry...”Also a keen malt enthusiast, Guy Le Lay has established close links with Dalmore distillery. Fondly attached to Breton culture, he did not want to produce a replica of Scotland single malt.But he did not want to be locked up in the label ‘whisky Breton’ either. And thus came the idea of using buckwheat, a typical Breton raw ingredient to produce an original celtic whisky.Buckwheat has traditionally been grown in Brittany, as it suits poor soil and wet climate. It was the basic food in the old days.The first distillation took place in 1999. The trickiest bit was the malting. Guy Le Gay could not find a maltster for its buckwheat at the start.He decided to make his own malting, but they did not have a kiln. And gristed green malt got sticky in the mash-tun. So they mixed it with unmalted buckwheat.They finally found a malting plant able to do the job two years ago, which will result in a 100 per cent single malt soon to be launched.The current Eddu Silver is entirely made from buckwheat but not 100 per cent malted buckwheat. The name Eddu is Breton and means blé noir (buckwheat in French).The first batches were just three years old but now the distillery bottles a four year old. Production is made on a small scale, “It is more or less the equivalent of 50,000 bottles. We sell 30,000 bottles per year. “Eddu is a light and floral whisky, with elderflower, rose, and litchi notes, reminding of the Old Portrero American Whiskey. Quite unusual but very aromatic. It matures in ex-cognac casks after a short stay in new oak. La Distillerie des Menhirs has just launched a blended whisky called Grey Rock which is a blend of Eddu, Dalmore single malt and grain whisky from Invergordon.Glann ar Mor: (very) small is beautifulAnother distillery is just about to be born. Celtic Whisky Compagnie, a small independent bottler based in Côtes d’Armor has specialised in finishes, whether French wines or armagnac, sold under the label ‘Celtique Connexion’.Jean Donnay buys casks in Scotland and matures them for a year or so in his dunnage warehouse, facing the most stunning sea shore. A creative and inspired daring entrepreneur, Jean Donnay left Paris and a successful career in marketing eight years ago to start a new life with wife Martine and young daughter Charlotte in Crech’ar Fur, a remote village on la presqu’île sauvage (the wild peninsula).Wild it is when the prevailing west winds sweep up the coast, blowing a briny atmosphere in the warehouse. Celtic Whisky Compagnie was the first to experiment with the sauternes finish. The Speyside and the Caol Ila ones are real crackers. A1993 Highland malt finished in a Montbazillac cask, a 1990 Speyside in Cadillac and a 1993 Highland in côteaux du Layon have just been launched. All these white wines are sweet ones, similar to sauternes.Jean Donnay came to Brittany with a dream: establish a small scale single malt distillery entirely based on traditional skill.The dream is coming true. The mill, four Oregon pine washbacks, the two direct fired onion shaped pot-stills (a 1,000 litre washstill and a 650 litre spirit still) and the wooden worm tub condenser are in. The first spirit should run before the end of the year. Jean Donnay has even organised the collection of draff by local farmers!The name given to the ‘baby’ reflects the location: Glann ar Mor (by the sea). The new make will mature only in ex-sauternes or ex-bourbon casks, all first fill.Two styles of whisky will be produced: a non peated one and a seriously peated one (around 40 ppm). The only step in the process which cannot be fait-maison for the moment is the malting. Building floormalting and a kiln is very costly. Jean Donnay had to adjust the dream to financial constraints, especially as the whole distillery is self financed. He gets his malt from French and British maltings.A cask or cases sale offer of Glann ar Mor ‘en primeur’ is available on the website. Celtic Whisky Compagnie also proposes a very limited edition of its first distilling experiments, made on 31st December 1999 on a small still.A visitor centre is planned for the coming years. In the meantime visitors are most welcome at Crech’ar Fur. Celtic hospitality is a major ingredient in whisky making.
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