October 28, 2014

Gartbreck - Excitement builds for Islay's next distillery

Courtesy Gartbreck - artist's view
Earlier this year, I sat down, on a grassy knoll at Laphroaig Distillery, with Jean Donnay, entrepreneurial distillery designer and whisky maker, to talk about his exciting new project - Gartbreck, soon to be Islay's ninth distillery.
The occasion was Feis Ile, Islay's festival of whisky and music. Regular visitors to this blog may have read my previous posts about this fabulous week long event, one that Jean is looking forward to being directly involved with, once Gartbreck is operational and the whisky is flowing.

On my first day at Feis Ile, I spotted this vehicle and immediately went scurrying off to see who was driving it. I had been hoping to meet up with Islay's next whisky maker, so this was a fortuitous encounter indeed. Jean and his family spend some of their time in France, where he has another very successful distillery, and some of their time on Islay, where he's working diligently on the myriad of activities necessary to build a distillery.
We exchanged contacts and arranged to meet later in the week, and where better than Laphroaig distillery on Laphroaig Day, soaking up the sun, dram in hand, and looking out over a calm bay.
I asked Jean to tell me about the journey that brought him to Islay to build a distillery. This is his story.
Many years ago, he had been living in Paris, working in advertising and as far removed from the world of whisky as it's possible to be. He decided that he wanted some big changes in his life so he asked Martine, his wife to be, whether she'd like to go with him to Brittany, where he thought he might build a distillery. Of course, why not!
Carol, Jean et Martine
Initially, to establish a whisky business, he started buying barrels of whisky, having it bottled under his own label and selling it but, after nine years of intensive planning, he decided it was time to build. Jean does not have an engineering or design background, nor does he come from a long line of distillers or blenders. Rather, he is an intelligent and intensely curious man who decided to learn everything possible about how to make good whisky in a traditional manner, and to understand the best production practices and processes to achieve this end. Furthermore, he undertook the design of the distillery himself! The result was Glann ar Mor - a genuine Celtic Distillery producing very well respected Single Malt Whisky in a truly traditional manner.
So what comes next for a successful entrepreneur with a Celtic distillery in France? Impassioned by the success of Glenn ar Mor, an inclination for more adventure, and a belief in the great benefits of a maritime maturation climate, Jean decided to do it all again on Islay, an island he had come to love, and an already established whisky region.
The opportunity to purchase Gartbreck with its buildings and farm land, provided the perfect spot for Jean's next vision. Idyllically situated on Loch Indaal, across the water from Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte, and just a few kilometres from Bowmore, this is the spot where construction for the new distillery will commence in the Spring of 2015.
Jean's philosophy is clear. Gartbreck will be a small distillery, with its own floor maltings, producing malt peated to about 35ppm. Barley is already being grown on the estate, and the plan is to produce about 20% of the distillery requirement. Oregon pine washbacks and some wild yeasts will be used for the deliberately long fermentation process, designed for more flavour development. Small copper pot stills will be used to optimize the interaction between the spirit and the stills, and these will be direct heated, an authentic and now seldom used process, which was prevalent until the end of the 60's, but has been largely replaced by steam coils. Although direct heating is more costly, difficult and time-consuming, Jean is passionate about this slow heating method, especially for the wash still, and considers it essential for producing a balanced, oily, rich and complex spirit. Gartbreck will be the only distillery on the island to use this method, which will make for a unique visit, as well as distinctive whisky. The worm condenser will be 40 metres long, allowing a leisurely transformation from alcohol vapours to liquid. In fact, slow and steady will be the name of the game at Gartbreck.
Jean draws analogies to cooking. It's impossible to produce tender, succulent, slow cooked lamb shanks by just turning up the heat and making everything go faster. So it is, he proffers, with making whisky. Start with fresh barley and pure soft water, let it enjoy a long fermentation process to develop flavour, allow an unhurried distillation to bring out the best aromatic components and, equally important, use small, high quality casks for optimum interaction between the maturing spirit and the barrels. Last but not least, let the barrels enjoy the fine Islay maritime maturation climate. Jean favours predominantly ex-bourbon, a few ex-sherry, and some ex-Sauternes barrels to mature the planned output of about 60,000 litres a year. According to Jean, he was the first person in the industry to mature whisky in ex-Sauternes casks, a practice now common at many distilleries for special expressions.
Courtesy Gartbreck
Production will start in 2016 and it will be a few years before we can taste the mature fruits of Jean's labour but, if the whiskies produced at Glann ar Mor are any indication of things to come, we can expect exciting and important additions to Islay's already impressive range of Single Malt Scotch Whisky offerings.

Slainte Gartbreck! The whisky world awaits with great anticipation!