Distillery Focus

Celtic Whisky Distillerie: Tasting the spirit of France's wild northwest

Discovering the savage beauty and unrivalled artisanship of France’s otherworldly north-west coast with one of the country’s pioneering whisky producers
By Malcolm Triggs
Cellar master Aël Guélan.
Cellar master Aël Guélan.
Given its Celtic connections, it’s of little surprise that Brittany is home to several whisky distilleries. The Celtic Whisky Distillerie, one of the first, has been quietly producing malt spirit on Brittany’s north coast since 1997. Before constructing the distillery, founders Jean and Martine Donnay had been experimenting by blending whisky imported from Scotland – Islay in particular. Realising that the temperate oceanic climate of their home on the Côtes-d’Armor – consistently mild temperatures throughout the year and a high degree of humidity – was ideally suited to the production of whisky, the Donnays became distillers and quickly made a name for themselves, in both France and Scotland, too.

And why not? In denouncing the notion of French whisky, many seem either to disregard the country’s widespread expertise in producing matured spirits or concede that, while the French might be adept distillers, they somehow can’t have their cake and eat it. But if there’s one trend that’s defined the world of whisky in recent years, it’s exactly that: the whisky industry is indeed a world industry.

The recent acquisition of the Celtic Whisky Distillerie by the international spirits producer and distributor Maison Villevert, as well as its ever-growing recognition on the international awards circuit, goes some way towards quashing the unfair reputation of whisky produced in Brittany as being ‘tourist whisky’. But the only way to truly understand the spirit and philosophy of whisky producers in Brittany is to visit, to sample Breton life, and, perhaps above all else, to realise the regard for artisanship here.

The rail journey from Paris to Brittany is notable for a phenomenon which seems to occur on the line due northwest of the region’s capital Rennes, and which renders an otherwise unremarkable journey quite the opposite. Seemingly out of nowhere, mile upon mile of idyllic but unchanging French countryside gives way to a landscape entirely unlike what has come before – indeed, entirely unlike anywhere else in France.

Casks maturing in the warehouse

Jutting into the Atlantic, Brittany is simultaneously bathed by the Gulf Stream and battered by the prevailing west wind. It is a region of savage elemental beauty, its sculptured pink granite shorelines and myriad pine-sheltered natural harbours comprising a full third of France’s coastline and lighthouses. Those familiar with Cornwall will note distinct similarities.

But it’s not just the geography and climate of its northerly neighbour with which Brittany shares a great deal in common. If not necessarily nationalistic, the Breton people are immensely proud and protective of their identity. Theirs is a folklore that runs deep, carried on a thriving oral tradition and the preservation of an ancient tongue all its own, at least in France.

sin not just of Cornwall but of Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland and, of course, Scotland. Having been born in Cornwall to Scottish parents, I must say I feel perfectly at home here. The Celtic Whisky Distillerie is delightfully small, retrofitted almost entirely into a single room in a 17th-century farmhouse which looks to have otherwise undergone little, if any, further change in four centuries. The site enjoys uninterrupted views onto the Atlantic as it channels furiously eastwards towards nearby Guernsey and Jersey. Not far away is the Île Vierge, a rocky islet boasting the tallest traditional stone lighthouse in the world – thankfully still active.

Inside the distillery, malted barley is milled and pumped through to a wood-clad mash tun, before the resulting wort is transferred into two identical Oregon pine fermenters, which the team say play host to indigenous yeasts that contribute to the distillery’s unique spirit character.

Distillation takes place in a pair of unpolished dumpy pot stills, more crimson than copper, and sat atop a red brick–walled, gas-fired furnace. For both of these reasons, the set-up is notably similar to that used in the production of Cognac. Although very much of the Scottish style (being wooden, open-topped and outdoors), even the distillery’s worm-tub condensers would be recognisable to Cognac producers, who would refer the coils themselves as ‘les serpentins’.

All the better, then, for distiller and cellar master Aël Guégan, who, though born in Brittany, discovered his passion for distillation and plied his trade in the Cognac industry. “We both share the same vision,” says Aël, referring to Maison Villevert’s founder, Jean-Sébastien Robicquet. “In recruiting me, Jean-Sébastien’s desire was to become a major player in French whiskies. Our ideas are complementary. I bring the technical expertise and the short-term vision, while he brings a longer-term strategic vision.”

Drawing whisky from the cask

A short journey along the coast, on a panhandle spit, sits the distillery’s cellar. Inside, casks are racked no more than two high on an earthen floor. Evidence of terroir can be seen on the steel-clad walls, smelled in the air and tasted in the whisky. However, it’s not just a coastal influence present; there’s a rich cereal note and a distinctly creamy texture to many of the unpeated cask samples we try, which, combined with a subtle salinity, come across like – dare I say it – buttered brioche, or even mild goat’s cheese.

Unique to the Celtic Whisky Distillery in Brittany – and a sure nod to its founders’ love of Islay whisky – is its interest in peat. In fact, the majority of its output is peated, with a significant proportion of this going into its flagship Kornog single malt, meaning ‘west wind’ in Breton. Its other flagship expressions are Glann Ar Mor (‘by the sea’), an unpeated single malt, and Gwalarn (‘northwest wind’), a unique blend of the distillery’s own whisky, German rye whisky and whisky imported from Islay – it’s described by the team as a ‘Celtic Whisky Blend’.

“The Celtic world is our playground,” says Aël. “Without claiming to make the best whisky in the world, we bring something different – what we can more or less define as ‘the French touch’: a different style, a different expertise, but, above all, an experience that stands out from the other whiskies.”

Across the street, we meet Joel Giucquel, owner of Les Bouchots du Sillion de Talberg. He’s a shellfish farmer, and, inside his own warehouse, case after case of molluscs are sorted and assigned to concrete tanks. There, the shellfish are matured over years before being transferred into the Atlantic and eventually harvested and distributed around the world.

People talk of the affinity between oysters and whisky, and, while I’ll not deny it, what we’re treated to courtesy of Joel is a far cry from the often-contrived and overly pretentious oyster-and-whisky tastings given back home. Ice is piled into dishes on a trestle table, and we’re handed fresh oysters, shucked there and then by the very man who farmed them. It’s not a tasting. What we’re doing, standing in puddles of sea water, is eating oysters and drinking whisky, learning about both, as if Joel and Aël are in the habit of doing this with their friends every Friday night, celebrating their shared identity. As Aël simply puts it, “To be Breton is to face the sea, to get fresh oysters every Sunday at the market, and to enjoy Celtic music in the evening.”

The distillery exterior

There’s a clear parallel between Joel’s work and Aël’s, both men masters of their craft in time. But there’s another connecting thread in their shared terroir, as Joel explains: “Our proximity to the sea is what defines us.” Indeed, both men are dependent on water, on weather, even on wind. In fact, the only reason the Celtic Whisky Distillerie was allowed to open its cellar here (the area being reserved for maritime industries) is because local officials recognised its whisky as a product of the sea. Our trip to Brittany concludes in the commune of Paimpol, once a busy port for cod fishermen. It’s a popular tourist destination in the summer months, but come winter it lies dormant.

Looking into the still water of the marina, yachts are reflected in perfect symmetry, giving the illusion of some otherworld beneath the sea – as if mirroring the fact that Brittany itself feels like another world entirely. It’s said that the people of Brittany have never looked to Paris, but rather outwards, to the rest of the world across the sea. And tonight, somewhere beyond the sleepy lights of Paimpol, sacks of oysters roll endlessly in the swell, illuminated by the passing beams of lighthouses. The Sillon de Talbert, an alien geographical phenomenon comprising billions of pebbles and fabled to have been built by Morgana to reach her half-brother King Arthur in Cornwall across the Channel, stretches as far as the eye can see. Within the water exists a salt regarded as a fruit of the ocean, carried on the wind across thousands of acres of coastal marshland and deposited into the land itself – into bread and butter, caramel and whisky.

Brittany is a region of makers, of people who approach artisanship not just with a sense of industry but of spirituality. In writing that “the fish of the sea speak Breton”, beatnik author Jack Kerouac, monomaniac about discovering his Breton roots, seemed to believe that if all roads lead to Rome, then all seas eventually lead to Brittany – that Brittany itself is somehow the omphalos of all traditions maritime and all communities coastal. As I depart, approaching the point of transition between Brittany and the rest of France – the rest of the world, even – I begin to get a sense of what Kerouac meant.