In the heart of the rolling emerald hills, on the Goëlo Coast and nestled among the whispers of ancient legends, lies a well-guarded secret waiting to be unveiled: the Celtic Whisky Distillerie. This elusive gem has long been off-limits to the curious gazes of enthusiasts and aficionados. Yet, on a fortunate day, thanks to our local SMWS Ambassador Clément, a select few were granted the extraordinary opportunity to step behind the closed doors of this establishment known for its Glann Ar Mor and Kornog whiskies, embarking on a rare odyssey into the world of craftsmanship and unparalleled spirits. So join us as we recount this exclusive escapade, delving into the history and the intricate processes that define Celtic Whisky Distillerie.
A Visit of Celtic Whisky Distillerie
A Bit of History
The distillery, created by Martine and Jean Donnay, is housed in an ancient farmhouse from 1668, a location it has occupied since 1999. Situated at the tip of the ‘Sauvage’ peninsula in Pleubian, the building offers a picturesque view of the sea. This enchanting setting, rich in Celtic and Breton heritage, has deeply influenced the creators of Celtic Whisky Distillery. Inside, various distinctive features uphold the production of whiskies in adherence to the purest artisanal traditions: direct flame heating, slow distillation, and the utilisation of traditional equipment like two small ‘Pot Still’ stills and wooden fermenters. Furthermore, maturing the whisky by the seaside enhances its early balance and complexity.
The first single malt crafted by Celtic Whisky Distillerie is named Glann Ar Mor, which translates from Breton as “Seaside.” It is unpeated and known for its fruity elegance and hints of saltiness and iodine. On the other hand, Kornog, the distillery’s second single malt, stands out for its heavily peated character reminiscent of the whiskies from the Scottish Isle of Islay.
Maison Villevert revealed their acquisition of Celtic Whisky Distillerie on June 18, 2020. As a figure in the realm of French spirits, located in the Cognac region, Maison Villevert was deeply impressed by the quality of the Côtes-d’Armor distillery. Their goal is not only preserving the essence of Celtic Whisky Distillerie but also to use Maison Villevert’s distribution network established in 2015 in order to further develop its presence.
We were welcomed by Aël Guégan, the newly appointed distillery manager hired by Villevert following the distillery’s acquisition.
Our first stop was the distillery itself, housed in the ancient farmhouse mentioned earlier. We first went to the malt room, where malt was stored in bags, ready to be milled. Glann Ar Mor uses unpeated Maris Otter malt coming from England, whilst the 50 ppm peated malt comes from Scotland (Laureate and Concerto, depending on the years). The distillery has started experimenting with other cereals like maize and Irish malt, although these might not result in a retail product. The bags of malt are lifted to the second floor of the building using an old rustic elevator platform and milled in a small Criquet mill with two wheels. Approximately 250 kg of malt are milled and mashed every day, and unpeated and peated malt aren’t mixed.
The grist is then sent to a semi-lauter mash tun, with a chimney on top whose purpose the team is unsure of. The mash lasts for 45 minutes with the first water, followed by a second water before the wort is sent to the washbacks. About 1,200L to 1,250L of water are used for 250kg of malted barley, but only 1,100L of wort are sent to the washback through an underback, as the spent grain retains some water. The water, which is also used for reducing the whisky before bottling and for cooling, is drawn from 47 metres underground.
There are four Oregon pine washbacks, and fermentation lasts from 2.5 to 4.5 days, as there is no distillation over the weekend. If fermentation begins before the weekend, then it will last up to 4.5 days. Fermentation isn’t temperature regulated and starts at around 32 or 33°C before decreasing to 28°C as it nears completion and the yeast, a combination of distiller’s and brewer’s yeasts, is almost done transforming sugars into alcohol, flavour compounds, and CO2. The result of the fermentation is an approximately 8.5% ABV beer or wash.
In front of the washbacks are two direct flame-heated, onion-shaped copper pot stills, crafted in the Gers department. The wash is distilled for the first time in the 1000L wash still. After a slow distillation, the low wines, ranging between 25 and 30% ABV, are stored in one of two tanks. One is designated for unpeated spirit, while the other is for peated spirit. These low wines are mixed with the heads and tails from the previous second distillation (about 2/3 low wines to 1/3 heads and tails) and are distilled in a 650L spirit still. Both stills feature a downward lyne arm, and condensation occurs in worm tubs located on the other side of the wall, outside the building. Once the alcohol condenses back into liquid form, it returns inside the distillery to pass through the spirit safe, where the cut is made during the second distillation. The hearts, the desirable part of the second distillation, amount to just 120 to 140 litres at about 70% ABV. They are collected in a wooden vat holding approximately five batches, which is then emptied and transferred to a small cistern before filling the casks in the warehouse. Aël did not disclose the exact cut points, but he mentioned that it widens slightly into the tails during peated spirit distillation, as phenols are primarily present in the tails. Despite the malt’s initial 50 ppm, the peat level decreases to 22 ppm in the new make and further drops to 13–15 ppm in the bottle for cask strength Kornog whisky.
Once the new make reaches the warehouse, it is filled unreduced directly into casks, mainly bourbon casks. Some casks, like red wine casks, for instance, are filled with a slight reduction. The warehouse has a dirt floor and is humid, but it isn’t a typical dunnage as the walls and roof are made of metal, resembling an industrial warehouse. Nevertheless, the angel’s share remains reasonable, at about 3% per year. Approximately 3 – 3.5 casks are filled on good weeks. Most of them are bourbon barrels, which are reused twice. Their standard first fill lasts 3.5 years, and the casks are filled a second time before being discarded.
When Villevert acquired the distillery, there were about 100 casks in storage. However, the stock has now grown to more than 400 casks due to increased production. The distillation used to occur only two days a week, but Villevert increased it to five days a week. Despite this, only 15,000 bottles were produced last year. Although the peated make for Kornog and the unpeated make for Glann Ar Mor are produced in equal quantities, Celtic Whisky Distillery releases more Kornog bottles than Glann Ar Mor ones.
In the warehouse, Celtic Whisky Distillerie operates their own bottling line, where they handle the cleaning, filling, corking, sealing, and labelling of bottles themselves.
Aël allowed us to taste the unpeated new make at the distillery, and at the warehouse, we sampled very young Kornog spirit, approximately six months old. We tried it from two different casks: one first fill and the other second fill. Later on, we sampled two other cask samples, one filled at the end of 2018 and the other in early 2019. Both were excellent, but the younger one, the fourth cask they filled in 2019, was exceptional. For my friend Benoît and me, it was the best Kornog we had ever tasted. It’s a pity that it was filled two days before my 40th birthday! We also tried the latest Kornog Sant Ivy and the upcoming Glann Ar Mor Double Matured Fino cask expression, as well as six SMWS bottles, as the visit was just the first part of an SMWS tasting!
Before this visit, I hadn’t fully grasped the scale of Celtic Whisky Distillerie’s operation. Given the whisky’s local fame, particularly among enthusiasts, I had always assumed their production was much larger than just 15,000 bottles a year (thanks to Villevert’s production increase and their substantial stock growth). I must express my sincere gratitude to Clément, our local SMWS ambassador, and Aël, the manager at Celtic Whisky Distillerie, for granting us this exclusive tour. We had an absolutely fantastic time and sampled a wide variety of exceptional whiskies. And let’s not overlook something important: a big thank you to Aël for his patience in answering (almost) all my whisky nerd questions! 😉