Travel

A Voyage of Discovery

Martine Nouet takes us through the gems of French distilling
By Martine Nouet
If foreigners had to give the reasons why they choose to visit France, good food alongside with fine wines would probably be the first box they would tick. But whisky would certainly not come as a priority (well I bet it would not even feature on the survey list!).

Yet, planning a discovery journey about French whisky is no longer an oddity. As in many other European countries, it has become trendy to produce what is referred to as whisky but often does not deserve to be called so. It seems every month or so, a new name appears, produced by some obscure spirit distillery (see www.francewhisky.fr for more information). However among uneven production, some are worth a visit.

Your quest of French whisky should start and maybe end in Brittany. Which seems rather logical as ‘little Britain’ (the meaning of Brittany) is immersed in Celtic culture, more vibrant than ever. There is a Breton language which derives from Cornish and Welsh. The music can’t be more Celtic, with the biniou, the Breton bagpipe, and the harp. Each year the Festival interceltique de Lorient attracts thousands of Celtic music lovers in August and features artists from across the planet, all symbols of the Celtic diaspora.

For centuries, Bretons have produced cider, cider eau-de-vie, beer and chouchen (a kind of mead) but whisky was unknown until 1987 when Warenghem Distillery started distilling grain to produce a blend. Here begins the history of Whisky Breton. Now three distilleries are in operation, all different, all interesting.

This is the beginning of a whisky trail, nothing to compete with Scotland, Speyside or West Coast, but enough to provide the visitor a very enjoyable journey in one of France most beautiful regions.

Why not start the trip with a dram of whisky Breton? I would highly recommend to stop in Cancale. This is where Olivier Roellinger, a three star Michelin chef, has built up the kingdom of Celtic gastronomy. Starting with La Maison de Bricourt in Cancale which was his restaurant before he closed it and gave up his stars a few years ago, he acquired a superb manor facing the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay, le Château-Richeux. The restaurant Le Coquillage offers the best of the sea. Some of Olivier’s iconic dishes are on the menu such as le saint-pierre retour des Indes (a John Dory cooked with spices). All in this place speaks of the ocean: the décor, the books on the shelves in the cosy lounge and the whiskies. The list is an invitation to ply from island to island, from Brittany to Scotland and further. It features Talisker, all Islay whiskies including Kilchoman, Arran and the two recent productions of Jean Donnay’s Celtic Whisky Company, Glann ar Mor and the peated Kornog. A good sign, the two bottles were almost empty when I visited two weeks ago. Japanese malts, Yoichi and Yamazaki, also prove to be popular.

If you manage to leave that heaven, which will require a good dose of will, carry on along the granite coast. Come to a halt at Saint-Malo, the Corsairs’ city. The motto of Saint-Malo tells it all:

“Neither French nor Breton, Corsair I am”. The old town is surrounded by solid ramparts on which you can walk and discover the beaches and scattered islands around. The walls have retained the fragrances of the spices that La Compagnie des Indes tall ships used to bring back. L’Entrepôt des Epices opened by Olivier Roellinger perpetuates the tradition.

Following the coast, head to Pleubian at the very end of “la presqu’île sauvage”. There is a family likeness with Scotland’s West Coast. This is one of the reasons why Jean Donnay decided to establish Celtic Whisky Compagnie here and build his distillery. Glann ar Mor (seashore in Breton) is one of the smallest distilleries in the world. The first spirit ran on 12th June 2005, at 5pm on a warm sunny day…

The first Glann ar Mor was released in 2008, soon followed by Kornog, the peated version (west wind in Breton). A detailed article on the distillery will be published soon. The distillery itself can’t be visited. But Martine Donnay welcomes visitors at the shop in Pen-Lan, 2 miles away which also shelters a huge warehouse. You can taste the whiskies as well as some of the Celtique Connexion range.

Don’t forget to take a walk on the Sillon du Talbert, a geological curiosity very close by. It is a long thin trail of pebbles stretching out almost 2 miles in the sea.

Next stop for next distillery is 20 miles away. Lannion is inland. A quiet city which is worth a halt…to visit Warenghem distillery. Tours are offered from June to August.

The single malt Armorik was distilled in 1998. Warenghem now offers several expressions which have gained in body and in flavours. Armorik double maturation (in Spanish oak and in Breton oak) has received a positive welcome from whisky aficionados. Breizh Whisky, a 100 per cent Breton blend (both single malt and grain whisky are home distilled) is rich and well balanced (it contains 50 per cent single malt). Warenghem also produces beer, pommeau (a cider spirit based apéritif) and chouchen.

Two hours drive down south, the third distillery was a traditional “lambig” (cider spirit) distillery before exploring the whisky trail. Open throughout the year, the Distillerie des Menhirs (standing stones) offers tours and tastings.
The whisky which is produced here is “single” and… singular. It is made from a single grain but from buckwheat. Not exactly a grain. Buckwheat is classified as a pseudo-cereal as it does not belong to any variety of wheat.

Buckwheat has been essential to Breton diet for ages. You can still find it in “galettes bretonnes” (the dark-colored savory crêpes). Quite unusual for a whisky but palatable : floral and fruity with a honeyish profile. Eddu Silver was first distilled in 2002. Eddu means buckwheat in Breton.

There is plenty to see around. Don’t miss Quimper, the Breton capital of Earthenware and an historic city.
Now you need to learn a few words to share a dram with the old fishermen in the bars: Yec’hed d’ho kostezioù (pronounce kos’tèyo) (cheers to you) and Bevet (pronounce ‘béwèt) breizh ! Here’s to Brittany.


What to see



L’entrepôt Des Epices

2 rue Saint-Vincent, 35400 Saint-Malo
Distillerie Warenghem, route de Guingamp, 22300 Lannion
Tel: 00 33 296370008
Web: www.distillerie-warenghem.com

Celtic Whisky Compagnie

rue de Pen-Lan, 22610 Pleubian
Tel: 00 33 2 96 16 58 09

Distillerie Des Menhirs

Pont-Menhir, 29700 Plomelin
Tel: 00 33 2 98 94 23 68


Where to stay and eat



Château-Richeux

D 155 route du Mont-Saint-Michel , 35350 Saint-Méloir des Ondes

Kastell Dinec’h

Le Castel 22220 Minihy-Tréguier
(a charming hotel with an excellent restaurant. On the menu, a salad using Kornog whisky)

Restaurant La Cotriade

15 Quai Armand Dayot, 22500 Paimpol


Info



Everything you always wanted to know about French whisky but you were afraid to ask ! A passionate whisky lover has compiled (and tasted) for a few years every spirit which comes out under the label “whisky” in France. The list is impressive. A good number are just grain spirits distilled in Holstein style stills (for fruit) and hence don’t stand comparison with standard single malt. But there are a few gems.

www.francewhisky.fr