Travel

French flair

Ted Bruning visits the distilleries making waves in Brittany.
By Ted Bruning
Imagine a rugged foreshore with seals cavorting on a rocky outcrop a couple of hundred yards out to sea. The clouds are low and gunmetal-grey; there’s a spatter of tepid drizzle; and steam drifts sluggishly from the open worm-tubs outside the ancient stone-built distillery.

You take a reflective sip of your smoky, peaty, single malt, freshly drawn from the bourbon cask where it’s been forming and shaping for the last two years. It’s too early to tell, of course; but by the time this slightly wild teenager is ready for the bottle, it could well be a world-beater. Ah, Islay!

Only this isn’t Islay. It’s Port-Béni just outside Pleubian on the northern Breton coast. And the single malt you’re drinking should, in a few months, become the first commercial product from Brittany’s newest whisky – or should that be whiskey? – distillery, Glann Ar Mor.

Distilling is nothing new in Brittany. It’s cider country, like Normandy; and like Normandy, it has a long tradition of making apple brandy on the “alambics ambulants” that go from farm to farm.

The region’s oldest commercial distillery, Warenghem, was founded in 1900 in the northern town of Lannion by former civil servant Leon Warenghem to produce herbal and fruit liqueurs as well as apple brandy.

But whisky is a rather more recent departure.

Warenghem sold its first bottles of Whisky Breton only in 1987; Eddu, made rather controversially from buckwheat by the Distillerie des Menhirs at Plomelin near Quimper in the south, appeared in 1992; and Glann ar Mor, as we have seen, is on the point of giving birth.

For Warenghem director Gilles Leizour, the decision to diversify into whisky distilling was a straightforwardly commercial one. He had just taken over the business from the last of the Warenghem family, and economic times were difficult.

Sales of some of the more traditional products were in decline, and the company badly needed to innovate.

“We were a small company making regional specialities and we didn’t want to try to compete with the giant distillers like Pernod-Ricard,” says Gilles, who is, rather handily, a chemist by trade. “Whisky appealed to us as a credible product, we Bretons are, after all, just as Celtic as the Scots and Irish!” For Gilles, it meant a whirlwind tour of distilleries in Scotland and Cognac, the building of a completely new distillery on the Lannion site, and the sourcing of suitable ingredients. The water comes from Warenghem’s own borehole, and the barley comes from the Paris basin and is malted for Warenghem in Reims: does that make WB (the blend) and Armorik (the single malt) the Champagnes of Breton whisky?

It’s certainly been the success Gilles hoped for: WB is distributed throughout France; Warenghem supplies the whisky for the Carrefour supermarket chain’s Reflêts de France range; and Armorik is exported to Germany, Japan and the USA (although not, as yet, the United Kingdom). Acask-strength limited edition is also in the pipeline.

For Guy and Anne-Marie Le Lay of Distillerie des Menhirs of Plomelin in the south-west of the region (there is actually a group of genuine 4,000-year-old menhirs at the distillery gate), branching out into whisky was a way of turning a seasonal business into a year-round one.

Guy’s family had been running travelling stills since the 1920s as well as making their own cider and “lambig”, or apple brandy.

(No connection with the wild Belgian beer: the word is simply a contraction of “alambic”). When Guy, who had previously been a maths teacher, took over the business he set about expanding, planting 40 hectares of new orchards and making pommeau, a blend of lambig and apple-juice.

But the apple-based business was still only seasonal; and a mid-winter visit to Dalwhinnie, where they saw men busily at work and trucks moving in and out, persuaded Guy and Anne-Marie that they needed an entirely new product and that whisky was it.

But Guy, a Breton through and through, didn’t make things easy on himself when he decided to use the region’s traditional blé noir or buckwheat instead of barley. He malted the first batch himself, but with no drying equipment found he had a sticky green gloop which couldn’t be milled without the addition of unmalted product.

He has now found a maltster who can process it properly; even so, the goods in the wash back tend to be rather sticky and hard to filter.

Then there are some who say that as buckwheat is a fruit related to rhubarb, and not a grain, Eddu is strictly a brandy, not a whisky. It also has a rather… well, distinctive flavour which isn’t to everybody’s taste; but that hasn’t stopped it gaining wide distribution in Brittany where its Celtic credentials are well appreciated.

The problems the Le Lays have encountered and overcome are nothing compared to the struggle Jean Donnay has had to get Glann Ar Mor off the ground, though. You have to admire his dogged determination in pursuing a dream that to more sensible citizens is just plain barking.

Even he admits that his decision to start a new whisky distillery from scratch was “just the craziest idea.” And seeing that it’s now 10 years down the line and he still hasn’t made a penny back on his investment, you’d have to agree with him.

Glann ar Mor (Breton for ‘By the Sea’) is, as the former advertising executive says, the product of a mid-life crisis – broken marriage, career angst, that sort of thing.

Parisian born and bred, Jean had spent his childhood holidays on Breton beaches and decided that the rugged coast of northern Brittany was the ideal place to start a new life and a new business with new wife Martine and new baby Charlotte.

But the old stone-built farmstead that the Donnays bought on the edge of a rocky bay near Pleubian is, says Jean, “even better than Islay” for maturing whisky. It has the same sea breezes; but being 1,000-odd miles further south, the climate is a good deal milder with only a few frost days every year so, of course, the angels do get a rather generous share.

And maturing whisky is how Jean funded his vision (no-one would lend him money!), buying stocks of different Scottish malts at 10-12 years old and ageing them for a further two years in sauternes casks, under the brand-name Celtic Connection. And while making his living, and restoring the farmhouse for his family, he immersed himself in the practice and theory of distilling. He had work experience at Bruichladdich and elsewhere, and absorbed every technical manual he could get his hands on.

He also “spent 10s and 10s of hours” fussing over every last detail of his two stills, which he had built in Cognac and which were commissioned in 2005. They’re small – under 2,000 litres; direct-fired to create convection; onion-domed to collect all the aromatics and congeners; and with outdoor worm-tubs to condense the spirit in the cooling breeze. The wash backs are custombuilt, too, made of Charentais oak to encourage colonies of microflora and fauna which, says Jean, will give his whisky more character.

It’s been a huge effort. “I have worked like mad, seven days a week, for the last 10 years without a holiday,” he says with a trace of pride.

And it should pay off this summer (2008) with the launch of his first commercial products, made from Scottish malt, bottled at three years, and available in both peated and unpeated versions.

If the whiskies of Brittany have anything in common, it’s a roundness of body and a slight sweetness on the palate – Eddu, for instance, is more like bourbon than Scotch; and Glann Ar Mor combines its smokiness with an almost oily fullness.

But whether it’s with or without an “e”, and whether it’s Scottish or American in character, the emergence of Breton whiskies, coupled with the opening of distilleries in Wales and Cornwall, completes the Celtic circle of whisky making.

With one exception, that is: how long before we see a whisky from Galicia?