They say peated whiskey takes you way back. If that’s true — and I’ve often heard similar things– the reason may be that the savors of smoke and peat are lodged deep in our collective genetic inheritance – whatever you want to call it, it is reverence for fire, all that. Kornog is a French single-malt peated craft whiskey that does what you might expect from a peaty scotch. It evokes what a dear friend of mine, a very talented painter in the romantic tradition, used to call, in a tremulous voice as if evoking the old gods, “ancient memories.” (By the way: smoke, by reference to a taste in whiskeys, is not the same as peat — though they are definitely related, and they seem to have similar effects.)
It may come as news in the peated whiskey sector that the wine- and cognac-loving French are now producing “serious” whiskeys – not only whiskeys but the most ancient-DNA-evoking kind, “peated” whiskey. – The French word for it is “tourbé” – with reference to that ancestral after-the-hunt campfire-evoking taste. “Tourbe” being good old fashioned bog-turf – extracted blocks of decayed vegetal matter, found in wetlands that characterize parts of Scotland, Ireland, Finland and Russia, to begin with. (My colleague Mike has already written an intro to peat on our website – in “GET ME SOME PEAT” — check it out.) The smoke of burning peat is used to impart flavor to germinated i.e. “malted” barley. This process is the secret of “peated whiskeys” – “wayback machines” in a bottle.
In the case of Kornog, the whiskey in question, I would argue it is not French, or “a scotch” made in France — it is Celtic.
Both sides of the English Channel
France – especially northwest coastal France, Brittany – is smack dab part of ancient Celtic territory (geography that goes back to the 13th C BCE), and the new whiskeys remind us of that. This transcends nations and borders. Whisky-making is part of the old world.
The French of course had been producing whiskey before then, but in the 1980s they went from small batch dilettantism into serious production in Brittany –where else — on La Manche, the English Channel. Today, there are several distilleries of note producing quality whiskeys in respectable quantities, among them the Glann ar Mor distillery (it is a Breton phrase meaning, “on the sea”). Among its offerings is Kornog, a peated single malt whiskey in an Ardbeg-lookalike bottle, and a similar black box, Celtic style lettering and all.
What’s in the bottle?
Bill of Materials:
– 46% ABV
– single malt
– Northwest France
– no age statement
– aged in Sauternes barrels
– a craft whiskey
Matters of Taste
The Celtic lettering on the box is not just an affectation – this is a tradition-aware whiskey that evokes and honors history that ignores the borders of modern nations. It wasn’t Ireland, Britain and France — it was Iverio, Albio and Gallia, and hello King Arthur. It might be noted that since Kornog is a young(ish) distillation, connoisseurs might take this historical iconography with a grain of salt. Personally I’ve only had a few shots of it, and its youth is evident, but I must say, it is very hard to tell it from a good peated Islay scotch, except for one thing. Kornog is among the very few peated whiskeys in the world to claim that it is aged in Sauterne barrels and it is evident in the tasting.
Speaking of enjoyment: probably the kind of glass you use matters. Probably. I confess I am in the “Joe Gibbs school” (NCIS television show, he drinks bourbon from a fruit jar in his basement while building a boat or small ark to escape civilization). The opposite of fancy. My version of Gibbsware for daily use is a repurposed jar of Polaner All Fruit® Preserves; however I do know many people with actual good taste (honest!), who make more sensible choices in glassware. My friends swear by the importance of proper whiskey glasses, perhaps of the fluted Glencairn type, such as the ones depicted below.
About those barrels…
Sauternes, which I admit I like, is a sweet, sophisticated dessert wine with a honeyed, nutty flavor and body. The production is located in the Graves region, in the southern part of the Bordeaux, maybe 35 kilometers south of the city, and the grape has a long and noble history. A glass of Sauternes with its concentrated sugars can be very charming and, in the case of some of the best exemplars out there, like the famous Chateau d’Yquem, pricey. What the barrels seem to confer to Kornog is a kind of madeira feel, a nutty, toffee-like herbal texture, plus certain notes of coriander, heather and herbs, with just the right hint of acidity. Sauternes barrels are not charred, so the smokiness of Kornog is not due to the barrel… it’s direct from the peat burned during the drying of the barley. Kornog also has the iodine and maritime feel you might recognize from Ardbeg or Laphroaig. The whiskey is young but it seems as natural as the moody weather on the potion’s native Bréton coast.
Speaking of tasting notes: if you have a few minutes, you could do worse than checking out this YouTube review by the inimitable ralfy (ralfydotcom), who manages to not only describe Kornog but the global history of peaty whiskeys, and the place of Celtic peoples in it.
What’s in a Name?
It’s not a bad thing to learn a few words of Gaelic. As a case in point, the name “Ardbeg” comes from the Scotch Gaelic Taigh-staile na h-Àirde Bige meaning “distillery on a small promontory.” Gaelic is one of the languages of Celtic culture and in fact the word whiskey itself comes from the Scottish Gaelic phrase, ouisge beatha (“water of life” i.e., aqua vitae) – so ouisge (or ouisce in more modern Irish usage) simply means “water.” (Note: “Scottish Gaelic” is a language that developed along with Manx and modern Irish, out of old Irish — just a note to say that Gaelic is one of the languages spoken by Celts, where Celtic refers to a people and a culture.) Origins of the name “Kornog” — I’m not sure, but it sounds like a portmanteau of the name of the monk who is first on historical record buying malted barley for single malt whiskey (Friar John Cor); and the word “nog” which apparently comes from the Middle English word noggin, which before it became a block of wood or a whimsical way of referring to someone’s head, was a small mug for serving alcohol. Wikipedia references the 1494 Exchequer Rolls: “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, by order of the King, wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
Peat, History and Language
Kornog was launched in 1997, made by the Celtic Whisky Compagnie. It’s not as peaty as Laphroaig or Lagavulin or even Ardbeg – the three titans of Islay’s moody southern coast – but it’s close. Then again not many whiskies, regardless of “phenol” content, are. But Kornog is every bit as complex as any of the great peat bombs and to my taste anyway, it adds something new to an ancient tradition.
Maybe Size Matters
Speaking of tradition and craft brewing, and these unique histories, it is somewhat distressing to read how many of the great whisky labels are in fact owned by large enterprises. Not by numinous pioneers and visionaries of “the water of life,” or even by romantic drunken elves out of Tolkien, but by international conglomerates. Case in point: I was shocked to find out Ardbeg belongs, I kid you not, to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. Laphroaig is owned by Beam Suntory, part of Suntory Holdings (Japan). And Lagavulin, by Diageo, one of the three largest purveyors of distilled beverages in the world (along with Pernod Ricard and Suntory). Luckily, none of these brands seem ruined or diluted by these tribal allegiances. The smoky intensity survives, instilling curiosity and appreciation of the Gaelic, Celtic roots of the tradition of whiskey-making.
Final Word on Geography
The heartland of the Celts really consists, not so much of central Europe as we have often read, but of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, England, Brittany, western France, down to Spain and Portugal (as per An Sionach Fionn). https://ansionnachfionn.com/2013/03/25/the-homeland-of-the-celts-where-the-celts-have-always-been/
Good to have the region reconstitute itself in distilled “spirit”! We’re waiting for more…