[Editor’s note: we couldn’t find a good picture of Naguelann Mesk, such is the way with obscure whiskies… So instead we’ve got this one instead. You get the right idea.]
France may be most widely known for its wine heritage, but it also possesses a distinctive passion for distilling spirit. This may have started several hundred years ago with the small batch single distillation associated with Armagnac, but Cognac is also embedded in the French psyche. Thus, it comes as a surprise that until relatively recently – compared to these distilled spirits – that whisky has only gained a foothold in this nation that loves an aperitif, digestif or plainly speaking an alcoholic beverage. Arguably the French were having such a great time enjoying Scotch that it took the recent whisky boom to question why no one had considered actually producing a French whisky?
The existing scattering of French distilleries can be split into two camps. Those post-2000 that have start life to specifically produce whisky and those that were already in existence producing other styles of spirit and have adapted internally to create their own whiskies. This latter camp includes the Distillerie Warenghem that was founded in 1900, but only started producing whisky in 1994. The distillery is located on the outskirts of Lannion in Brittany, which offers a similar maturation climate to the United Kingdom and the potential for whisky.
From this northeasterly site that is not too far from the English Channel, the first French single malt was created in 1998 as Armorik and since then the range has expanded. Generally, Armorik is reserved for single malts made from French malted barley whereas its blended malts feature Brittany wheat for its recipe. The distillery utilises a combination of casks featuring traditional ex-bourbon barrels from America and those flavoursome Spanish sherry casks. No surprises here then, but more interesting is the use of Brittany oak casks thanks to a partnership with the ONF (office national des forets) who are responsible for maintaining France’s forests. This hookup along with the last local cooperage provides the tantalising prospect of Brittany oak casks from the Cranou and Broceliande forests. Traditionally, fresh European oak is far too dominant when it comes to maturing whisky, so it must be used sparingly.
Distillerie des Menhirs
The second whisky comes from the Distillerie des Menhirs in Bretagne that was founded in 1986 and started life producing cider and apple brandy, although distilling is very much in the family blood stretching back to the 1920’s. In 1996, the family decided to distil their own whisky before bottling this in 2002 under the name of Eddu. Yet this is no mere single malt as Guy Le Lay decided to produce a whisky made entirely from buckwheat. Eddu is Breton for buckwheat and in the whisky realm, it’s the only one out there made entirely from this type of grain. It’s distilled using the traditional double method in a pot still heated by a direct flame before being matured in French oak casks. This Eddu Silver is bottled at 42% strength and is only available locally much like our next French offering.
The final whisky comes from the recent start-up of Naguelann, located in Languenan (hence the anagram), it started life in 2014 after 4 years of research and design. Founded by Lenaick Lemaitre, a former bartender, it’s more of an enterprise that creates whiskies using its grain (buckwheat) and sourcing stock from other distilleries such as Warenghem. Mesk is Naguelann’s debut concept and is bottled at 44% strength with an outturn of 500 bottles. The unique aspect of this whisky is that it is then vatted into cider barrels – bequeathed by Lemaitre’s grandfather – that is at least a century old. The whisky itself may only spend a year in such a cask and prior to this will have spent 3 years in ex-bourbon casks with additional quarter cask finishing if deemed necessary.
A voyage through whisky is very much one of discovery with plenty of scrapes and bruises along the way. For every admirable whisky, you may have to endure several that leave a bad taste or dent in your bank balance. One thing we’ve learnt at Malt throughout is not to dismiss countries outside of the Scottish heartland; heck even the Irish are finally improving. An open mind, as well as palate, is vital, as we sit down with these three expressions. The first of which the Armorik Double Maturation bottled at 46% strength. Initially, it commences its maturation in those local oak casks before a finishing in sherry wood giving it an age of around 7 years. You can expect to pay around £45 for a bottle of this single malt that is widely available nowadays.
Armorik Double Maturation
Colour: a light sandstone
On the nose: abrasive initially which I put down to the sherry cask and youthful vigour. Now it’s sliced green apples with an element of coconut and lemon. An orange vanilla theme unfolds assisted by a caramel flow.
In the mouth: a creamy porridge with a dollop of marmalade jam thrown in for good measure. It’s a sweetie but not overly so. Sour green apples follow as does pencil shavings, a hint of mustard seed and a coarse vanilla.
On the nose: quite sappy with a wine emphasis initially. Pungent white grapes give way to lemon and oddly a rich egg yolk. There’s passionfruit and malted vinegar, cider and apples. Time certainly helps with a eucalyptus stepping forth and an oily texture. More traditional notes with mango, vanilla and woody notes soon follow.
In the mouth: very bizarre. Ok, there’s vanilla but a heavily diluted orange juice and more of that wood sap. The watery aspect limits what this achieves on the palate. There’s an almond finish but it has a roughness that’s not enduring and feels young and immature.
[Editor’s note: Naguelann Mesk is not pictured – but this other Naguelann photo is much nicer.]
Colour: an apple cider
On the nose: sliced apples with a hint of caramelisation and fizz. Custard Cream biscuits bring vanilla and cereal, followed by a floral aspect that delivers a countryside lightness to the journey, then mint leaf.
In the mouth: very gentle with the strength being lowered a tad too much. There’s juicy apples and poached pears with vanilla. Blanched almonds with peanuts on the finish and a salty aspect I wasn’t anticipating.
The Armorik is clearly the safest of this trio and very inoffensive. For the asking price, I feel it’s a little too much for the experience provided, but it won’t be alone in the whisky realm and there are far worse releases out there fleecing consumers. The Eddu is an experience and one arguably that I wouldn’t want to replicate over the course of a full bottle. There’s probably a reason why buckwheat has never taken off when it comes to whisky or been more widely used, and I think we now know the reason. The Mesk, well it’s certainly been dominated by the cask finish and watered down to the extent that borders on criminal, but it’s drinkable and somewhat enjoyable.