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Jean Donnay - Glann ar Mor

By Dominic Roskrow

I feel dreadful… I've made it to Spain, Germany, England, Wales, Cornwall, Belgium, Ireland, Kentucky several times, even New Zealand and Australia, and yet after many promises and the best of intentions, I've yet to make it to visit any of the distilleries operated my Celtic cousins in Breton.

My ancestry on my father's side is Cornish - Roskrow is a strong and traditional Cornish name associated with Redruth and tin mining - and the Celts of Wales, Cornwall and Breton are related by language and culture, and are distinct from the Celts of Ireland (my ancestry on my mother's side) and the Scots.So it's criminal that I've not been to see the distilleries in the Breton region, and particularly that of Jean Donnay, an exceptional whisky maker - Glann ar Mor.

The whisky coming from this distillery is nothing short of sensational. I'll be visiting before the next issue, but in the meantime, I caught up with Jean to ask how 2011 was.

Tell me about how 2011 was for you and the distillery

We have concentrated on building up our maturing stock in 2011. It's still growing slowly but regularly. We still have to bottle at just over three years old, which very fortunately is not a problem with the unusually favourable maturation condition we enjoy. But I am waiting impatiently for the time when our maturing stock will allow us to bottle at an older age. Every year we produce a little more than the year before, but we are still a long way from working at the distillery's full capacity. On a different subject, we have been expanding our new premises originally built in 2008 and the work will be completed early in 2012.

What whiskies did you release this year?

We have released three Glann ar Mor and four Kornog, including the most recent, the "Sant Ivy 2011", a single cask at 'natural strength' - I don't really like the term 'cask strength', as I don't understand what it is really supposed to mean...

At the moment, my priority is consistency which certainly isn't the easiest thing with a new distillery, but I am quite happy with the consistency we have now reached with our bottlings. But at the same time I have to combine my quest fine tuning the process in the distillery, with the need for consistency, and that's quite a difficult thing to do. Delivering more exotic expressions is very easy, but that is not a priority and it will come later when we will have enough stock to afford it. Consistency means you have to progress with only small adjustments at a time. Doing so protects you from getting it wrong, but on the other hand the price you pay is that your learning curve is slower than you might like. To be honest 2011 was actually a bit different than the previous years so far. Now that I feel I have at last what I may call a decent maturing stock, this made me more relaxed and allowed me to be more ambitious to afford. I keep asking myself a lot of questions such as 'what would happen if I were doing this like this instead of like that?' I am less frustrated this year as I have finally been free to try a few of those things. INothing really new or unusual in the traditional process of whisky making, as there are simply so many small things which can make a significant difference. And naturally, only time will really tell how relevant or not it is> I am very keen to see the results!

Is there a Breton whisky style and/or is one developing?

That is a good question which the Breton producers have asked themselves. My answer is a realistic and unambiguous 'no'. With only three Breton distilleries offering whiskies and grouped in a small territory, we somehow manage to have a very wide variation of characteristics. It is difficult to imagine more different characteristics than what can be observed between the buckwheat whisky from Distillerie des Menhirs and our own Kornog peated single malt. If it could be put into figures, the ratio of difference in character to number of distilleries we have in Brittany would be unbeatable. Having said that, I feel I should say a little more about our own style at Glann ar Mor distillery. I don't make it a secret that my reference is Scotland. That does not mean I am trying to emulate whiskies from Scotland. Not at all. There are quite a few things I do in my distillery in the same way as they do it in Scotland, but there are also quite a few things I do very much my own way. Again, small changes can bring significant variations.

Where can we find your whisky?

Our whiskies are sold in France by our network of "cavistes" (traditional wine merchants), they are also available at our visitor centre and in our online webshop (http://www.tregorwhisky.com). Our current priority is to develop sales in the domestic market. Yet, we have already started with some export sales in Italy, Holland, The United Kingdom, Switzerland and soon, Sweden.

Are you excited about the emergence of new world whisky?

There is a lot happening almost every day and it is thrilling and stimulating to look at it. But I have some concern about the laws governing what can be called a whisky in different countries. It varies significantly, and consumers should be well aware of those differences.

Is France/Brittany becoming a whisky force? Do you link up at all in France?

That is difficult for me to answer. To me, Glann ar Mor is before anything else, a Breton and Celtic distillery ("The Celtic distillery with a Breton Heart"), and the fact that it is located in France comes second to that. Only time will tell, but I think Brittany has what it takes to become eventually a whisky force. Whisky is a Celtic drink, part of a distinctive culture with distinctive traditions, as well as being related to geographical environment and climate. Although not an isle, Brittany is surrounded by sea and is very much a maritime country. Brittany is not a land of wine, but a land of grains. When you have grains and no wine, you produce beer, and when you produce beer, you distil it and you make whisky. Brittany has a long tradition of beer making, and it was producing some whisky dating at least back to the middle of the 19th century, although it is difficult to say to what extent. As a drink, whisky has to do with the personality of the people and of the land. And in this area Brittany has a lot to share with its Celtic cousins from Scotland and Ireland. If you look at the countryside and the sea coast of Brittany, if you listen to its music, it is impossible not to feel it.

What are your plans for 2012?

We have so far been concentrating exclusively on the production side, and unfortunately have completely neglected the marketing side of the business. Although this has been very frustrating, I believe it was our best option. We did not really have an alternative : we are a very small team and simply have to work according to priorities. But in 2012 I will set a much higher priority to marketing. We will develop some much need sales materials, create a brand new website for the distillery, and invest finally some decent time and energy in to our sales. The expansion of our new premises is almost completed : we will fit out our large room overlooking a gorgeous landscape surrounded by the sea, where we will organise tasting sessions and training. The extension also means we will be able to create a small museum about whisky in our visitor centre.

I will pursue distilling and cask filling to a higher level than the year before, and will keep doing some fine tuning experiments, in particular developing a couple of nice and rather exciting new things.