Home of the first Breton Whisky - Armorik and Distillerie Warenghem

Published on 12 December 2023 at 18:47

This was a really significant visit for me personally. It was a wet day in Lannion when I rocked up on a train from Rennes. Together with Christophe of the Rennes Whiskey Club and More Drams, Less Drama , I went somewhere I had first tried to go in 2017: Warenghem Distillery, the home of Armorik whisky.


You see, I visited Brittany by myself in 2017, just after I had started working at the Scotch Whiskey Experience. I wanted to see the area generally, but I also wanted to try and learn about Breton whisky. In fact, I had mentioned Warenghem's blended whiskey 'Breizh' in my interview for the job at SWE! 


However, I got to Lannion too late in the day to take a tour of Warenghem Distillery. Instead, I hung out in a bar called Le Flambard, laughed at a car park named for the twin town of Caerphilly, and got the train onward to Rennes. Now, in September 2023, I was getting the chance to finally take the tour - just 6 years late!


The visitor center has been upgraded in recent years, and now has this fantastic timber interior. In a way, it's a blessing I missed my chance in 2017. I took a bilingual tour hero in English and French - might sound like a tough way to do things, but it really works. The success of this approach, I felt, was really down to the skill of the tour guide


Speaking as a former one myself, it requires skill to do fluently in one language, so the fact she was doing it in two, switching back and forth between English and French, was very impressive!


The tour starts with a film about the brand - OK, not my favorite start to a tour but it's well done and not too long. 


Warenghem claims to be the first single malt distillery built in France, with construction completed in 1993 . The first Armorik whiskey was released in 1998, certainly representing the first ever Breton single malt . The business is still family owned, and they were instrumental founders of the 'whiskey breton' PGI. 


In case you didn't know, Breton whiskey is one of only four designated types of whiskey in Europe with legal protections based on protected geographic origin. To no-one's surprise, Scotch whiskey and Irish whiskey are two. The other two, however, are both in France - whiskey from Alsace, and whiskey from Brittany. 


One feature of 'whiskey breton' is that it needs to be aged in oak specifically, not just 'wood' as wider European legislation decrees. That said, the intro video for the Armorik tour (rightly) doesn't go into all this detail. Instead, they really foreground the role of the Breton maritime climate in how Armorik whiskey develops. 


Then we got to move onto the stillroom and see the real meat of the tour!


The Details

  • Batches of 6000L of water and 1200kg of malt
  • Double distillation to 73% ABV 
  • 6000L wash still and 3500L spirit still 
  • Only one truck of peated barley is distilled per year, representing <5% of their annual total (22 of 500 tonnes)
  • Approx. 200,000 LPA production, similar to Holyrood, Raasay, or Kingsbarns in Scotland. Pretty high by continental standards!
  • Warenghem's oldest whiskey is a 21 year-old


Both stills have notably downward-angled lyne arms going into shell-and-tube condensers. Our guide explained that they want some oily, greasy body to come over into the spirit from the pot stills. Armorik is distilled reasonably slowly, but they don't make a big deal about that aspect of production. The cut point is high (69%) to maximize esters captured from the distillation.

These pot stills are French-made, but they're also a product of three-way collaboration between the master blender and CEO David Roussier's father in law, a cognac distillery, and Scottish still-makers. Cognac stills are normally direct-fired, but the idea for Armorik involved steam-fired systems which had become near-universal across Scottish distilleries in the late twentieth century. David's dad had to get some designs from Scotland to help French design teams put the pieces together.


Into the Warehouse

The walk through Warenghem's warehouse was a lot of fun. One enormous wall is stacked with bourbon barrels - the other has plenty of sherry casks. The warehouse seems airy to me, but also fairly closed-off, not windy. There are some vents on the roof, but the air getting in here to create a maritime influence should be fairly subtle. Armorik casks are reused for 20 to 25 years.


Our guide explains how Warenghem thinks of combining multiple barrels in a single malt like an assembly of wine . Some virgin Breton oak casks are in the works for a new expression. There's only 1 remaining cooper in Brittany making them , and he's right there in Lannion. Supposedly these will add some honey notes to Armorik whisky. They already have small numbers of other casks - madeira, port, rum, tokaji, cognac, pinot charentes, palo cortado. 'This is an experimental kitchen here', she says. 


Our guide explained how Warenghem sees changes in the rate of aging based on how full the warehouse is . After a recent expansion, barrels were moved into new spaces and the old warehouse became empty. With a smaller mass of liquid inside the building, the temperature inside was able to fluctuate more strongly. 


Saw this and had to snap a photo for 3006 Whisky


While German warehouses have to maintain a low rate of alcohol parts per million in the air (see my visit to Hercynian Distilling Co. for more on that), Warenghem isn't allowed to have air conditioning in their warehouse . You do see big seasonal temperature changes, but our guide claims the annual angels' share is still around 3% per year .


While the maritime environment increases humidity, she says, the air isn't actually all that saline in Lannion. She believes that the humidity instead captures aromas in the air and brings them into the casks as they breathe. However, the Yeun Elez (Armorik's heavier peated expression) might have more salt, she notes.


I guess the only way to be sure is to get hold of some older Armorik expressions and try them for yourself…


The Tasting

At the end of the standard tour, you end up in a very nice tasting room with two drams to try: the standard bourbon and sherry cask expressions of Armorik.


First, the bourbon cask . It has some peach notes, and the fruitiness is a little heavier than some continental whiskies. Notably, it doesn't have that plum/grappa note I find common to many French whiskies. This whiskey has some banana on the nose, but the palate retains apple and peach juice. Adding a drop of water to the bourbon cask Armorik works well - it lets some fruit out and the body doesn't wash away. 


Contrastingly, the sherry cask expression of Armorik has a surprisingly vegetal note at first. Fresh cherries, our guide suggests. This dram is fairly savory on the palate, with some more raw red grape and apple juice. The specific sherry used is oloroso , but Warenghem also does a single cask PX expression


One interesting expression at Armorik is the limited edition Maître de Chai . You can see on the box (photo below) exactly which casks were combined to create this whiskey - distilled from 2012 to 2019 in casks ranging from bourbon and STR to Banyuls and oloroso. I was lucky enough to try a sample of this later and all I can say is - get it if you can! It's like Clynelish on steroids, maritime, rich, deep and all-round beautiful.


Their oldest commercial release is a 15 year old single malt at €95 per bottle. I haven't tried it, but it shows how much longer this distillery has been around than many others on the continent. The Warenghem shop also includes fill-your-own tanks for locals to reuse bottles! Love it - what a way to be more sustainable, have a bit more fun, and also encourage connections between the distillery and local customers specifically.


All the wheat used to make Breizh, the distillery's blended whisky, is local. This used to be pot distilled - nowadays it comes out of a small column still, the same one used for making the Breton apple brandy lambig . If you're not a whiskey fan, take a look at this line of other products from Warenghem. They make Breton pommeau , an apple wine fortified using their own lambig . Imagine making port with apples and you'll get the idea. 


Finally, chouchenn is honey-based. If it's any different from mead, I couldn't tell when drinking a glass paired with saucisson sec in St Goustan du Port back in 2017. After all, this isn't EuroMead!


I'm so glad I finally got to visit Armorik! And I have to say a big thank you to Christophe, David Roussier, Paul Klocke, my guide, and all the distillery staff. Warenghem is definitely one of the larger and more smooth/visitor-focused distilleries I've been to for a while. Like St Kilian , this is a larger outfit with an eye on the long term picture for European whisky. Moreover, they're one of its progenitors!


I highly recommend trying Armorik whiskey, but especially if you can get/afford it, their older expressions. And go visit - it's Brittany, what more excuse do you need?

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