Elegant Craft Whisky from the Breton Countryside: Naguelann

Published on 21 May 2024 at 13:55

In some ways, this distillery is the one which germinated the idea of EuroWhisky in my head back in 2017!


Recently, I attended the first Malt in France salon in Rennes, a small festival dedicated to French whisky which I would highly recommend to anyone! The following day, I had the chance to visit Naguelann Distillery and see the source of this Breton dram which had pulled me into the world of European whisky...


You see, I visited Brittany soon after I started working at the Scotch Whisky Experience. I was keen to expand on my growing knowledge of Scotch whisky and learn more about whiskies from other countries. I found my way to St Malo and Ar Koad, run by distiller Lénaïck Lemaitre. 


I tasted German, Czech, and Breton whiskies - including two from Lénaïck's own brand, Naguelann. You'll see more on those - the Cuvée Grand Pa and the Ed Unan. They left a lasting impression on me. Leaving the bar at 2pm to run for my TGV to Paris (with a quick detour via the beach), a fire had been lit - I had to try more whiskies like this! 


In April, I took an early BreizhGo train out to Languenan-Corseul. Or rather, I took a train and replacement bus - the branch line is being reworked at the moment. A nice little walk from the station along the damp hedgerows of Brittany's northern coast, and voilà.


NB. I conducted this whole visit in French, so if I make a mistake from my own mistranslation, sorry Lénaïck!


Naguelann is not a big distillery designed for visitors - more of a farmhouse operation. How did it start? Lénaïck was producing Breton whisky blends before distilling his own spirit. Starting in 2014 with €1000, he worked alone until 2020 with his blends helping to fund the distillery set-up. From there, a change started - first, using local barley. Lénaïck could then switch from using wash brewed in St Malo to producing his own. 


Lénaïck also works with Romain and Clément, so the distillery team is small - very like what I saw at La Canya last year. The other two also produce gin at the Distillerie de St Malo, just over the street from Ar Koad in the heart of the walled city. Not only does Lénaïck manage all this - he’s also one of the foremost experts on whisky breton generally. He gave a masterclass on the whisky IGP only the day before, which I had sadly missed: he was kind enough to fill in a few of the blanks for me.


Current stocks of whisky breton total about 1.3m litres (or about 300,000 litres pure alcohol). This represents about 30% of all whisky français, and in turn about ¾ of whisky breton comes from Armorik and Eddu alone

Compared to them, Naguelann is a smaller craft distillery, currently producing about 20,000 bottles per year with aims to increase that to 40 or 50 thousand in the next few years. If it helps you make sense of these numbers, Lénaïck fills three barriques per week at the moment.

His current brewing space will become a chai (ageing warehouse) specifically for quarter casks, which he works with a lot. Lénaïck is also installing an arm capable of funneling grist straight into the new mash tuns. That said, there will still be a hands-on approach, literally: ‘On brasse à la main’. The mash tuns are small enough that he and the other workers can turn the steeping grain over with wooden paddles.


The site has 2 silos, one holding malted Breton barley, the other holding grain specifically sourced at a farm right behind the distillery. This grain is sent to eastern France for a light peating (using turf from the Low Countries) before returning and arriving by train. Since 2021, much of the French barley has been processed at the Belgian Malterie du Chateau, but Lénaïck is working to use local Breton maltings more and more.



  • 3000L wash, filtered
  • Fermentation ‘up to’ 100 hours
  • M1 whisky yeast
  • Direct fired 1000L pot stills (x3) 
  • 1 run = 1 barrique of new spirit
  • Slow distillation - 18 hours (‘jamais moins que ça’)
  • Serpentin / worm tub condensers


Walking into the stone stillhouse, I find a strong smell of esters. They had to take the roof off these buildings to get stills and mash tuns in - it certainly isn't a new build! The 3000 liters of wash from each batch are split evenly between the three onion-bulb alembics , all serving as wash stills. After this first run, the low wines (combined with tails from the previous batch) all go together into the single oldest still for the spirit run.


Nothing here is automatic. While Lénaïck sometimes shifts the first cut to capture more fruity aromas, he always ensures the alcohol content of the low wines is consistent as it goes into the second distillation. Would have been good, then, if I had made a note of what that was!

The spirit is all cooled using an equally old-fashioned worm tub condenser , passively cooled by a pond outside. From this old stone farmhouse, we move into a more modern wooden structure currently serving as Naguelann's warehouse...


It's a small space, but one with a range of quite striking casks. The roof is only corrugated plastic, the walls thin wood. I like the thought of how these casks must respond to the shifting temperatures and humidity of the local Breton climate. The casks are mostly American oak quarter casks, French wine, or Breton cider (with taps on!). 


Wanting to see the effects of each distinct batch clearly, Lénaïck produces and fills 1 barrique at a time. Lénaick often finishes his whiskeys for 18 months . In the distillery's earlier stages, this helped to rotate everything, but the increasing age of Naguelann releases is making the current chai fill up fast. He might go for a more isolated environment in future - the redevelopment is still a little in flux. Just outside the distillery office, he has a few red wine barrels sitting at a constant temperature, and apparently these have an almost rum-like smell. 

As I suggested above, whiskies here are aging quickly with little buffer between them and the local climate. Lénaïck wants to age whiskey more slowly, that much is sure - he stresses the importance of aromas which cannot be imitated but can only develop over time. We discuss the difference between whiskeys made to be drunk young vs old . Longer aging means more actual wood interaction with the spirit, but in the short term, the casks' previous contents are more prominent (hence the strength of finishes).


Most Naguelann whiskey is going to stay in the four to six year age range for a while, but Lénaïck does mention plans for a 10 year old (using spirit from 2018) and even one cask set aside for a 20 year old bottling in future! It's hard for small distilleries like this to hold back stock and resist the urge to sell it now.



We headed to the Naguelann office for some tasting. Just as the stillhouse was an old stone farm building, the office is situated in an old kitchen, the mantle of Breton granite standing strong like a lighthouse rock . The location has really shaped the distillery's development ('la maison fixe les limits de production…'), and constantly reminds you what part of the world you're in. 


Naguelann has 9 different whiskeys . Firstly, you have two trilogies: Mesk (mixed, with different grain sources) and Dieil (peated, 35ppm) - then the Ruz , Ed Unan , and Grand Pa . Though currently 50cl, the whole Naguelann range is moving up to 70cl bottles.


The whole range is envisioned in a different way from Scotland or Ireland. Irish whiskey is popular, very good and cheap at the same time - Lénaïck cites Green Spot - to say nothing of France's famous appetite for Scotch whisky. In France, age statements aren't equivalent in what they produce; you don't have the same benefits of scale. €50 is the mark for a good single malt in France, and prices have been growing (as with everything else). So the aim is to keep Naguelann prices between €50 and €70, though the limited edition 10 year old will be more.


Let's start with the Mesk Kelt - a mix of everything that Naguelann is, including barley, buckwheat, peated spirit, the works. 41% ABV, but plenty of complexity: its  moelleux , Lénaïck says. That's a word that needs unpacking, one you have to use a lot to talk about whiskey in French. It's like 'soft', or 'smooth', but it's definitely not 1 to 1 with any English word. You'll see 'moelleux' on loaves of bread, or cakes in France. 


Mesk is a little modeled on Irish whiskey in a sense, fruity and elegant. Including a touch of unmalted barley , so makes sense! I get a sample of that element in isolation - it's a bit drying, but with a rich, gorgeous oak flavor.  Quarter casks are used to concentrate aromas in the Mesk bottlings. He doesn't have any dedicated quarter cask expressions. Instead, they act as a seasoning , like a fond in cooking creating a base flavor (think of a more French analogy than that!). 


Ruz is an interesting one - aged purely in St Émilion Grand Cru barrels. To me, it does have a lovely wine cask aroma for sure - if I hadn't known otherwise, I would have guessed it was a rich sherry. I'm not a wine expert! But Lénaïck explains that St Émilion is a fruity wine with low tannins; a sweet nose with a rich palate. The aging includes first, second, and third fill barrels, all providing different levels of wood flavor. 


Lénaïck employs another metaphor to talk about these flavors: jazz . A musician himself, he wants each Naguelann whiskey to have the same attack - the same sensation - even as other aspects change. He tries not to play too many notes even as he adds complexity. 

Dieil Sklaer (meaning clear) is bottled at 49% ABV and peated at 35ppm. Aged in older barrels, this is quite a light colored dram but still with a sweet, light nose on it. It's sophisticated - peaty, but with a very light character and no burn. Suits my taste!


Dieil Tantad is also a 49% peated dram, but this one is aged in Bordeaux casks before finishing in ex-Islay for 6 months. This one has a more rich, full flavor like a good Caol Ila. This whiskey still has that light, sweet spring in its step, just with heavy boots on. Though made from the same basic spirit, it was cut differently during distillation to keep more heavy peat aromas in: more tails, I assume. 


Talking about the higher strength of these drams, Lénaïck elaborates with a metaphor. Alcohol is like a wagon, carrying flavors . You need something strong enough to carry the weight, but it isn't where the flavor or 'strength' of a whiskey actually comes from. 


With that in mind, the Ed Unan is a 62% buckwheat whisky. Not harsh at all, for all that higher strength - if you didn't tell me, I would have guessed this was 49% like the other drams! This spirit comes from Eddu originally - Naguelann doesn't process any buckwheat itself. 

The Grand Pa is full of citrus, peach, and cooked apples . Not as strong as calvados on the apple notes, but it's reasonably intense for 45%. This is, in a way, the classic Naguelann as it was Lénaïck's first expression. While he's moving on to new things as Naguelann grows, this is still a classic to me. 


The casks this whiskey ages in are completely unique, and something of a genre I wish more Breton whiskeys would explore. Lénaïck finished this whisky in casks of cidre breton from his grandpa (hence the name). The casks are recycled, sent back for cider aging again before going back for whisky… they're quite old and have little strong wood flavor as a result, but the cider does all the work. These are the old barrels which still have taps on them!


Final Thoughts

Naguelann is a single malt with a lighter, more delicate style than many in Brittany. Armorik (which I visited last year) is more punchy and akin to a Scotch whisky style. Eddu has that distinct buckwheat kick, though you get a fantastic version of that here with the Ed Unan. The Naguelann range is growing. After the Malt in France salon, it just reinforced to me how much whisky experience and innovation there is in France, and more specifically in Brittany.


I can't say everyone should visit, because Lénaïck doesn't have the capacity there (thanks for having me, by the way!). But you should try their whisky if you get the chance, and you should absolutely go to St Malo and see Ar Koad. It's just a great whisky bar in quite a nice corner of the walled city, not to mention you can go into the Distillerie de St Malo there if you'd rather try out some gins!

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