Eddu Buckwheat whisky: a brief history

Fleur de blé noir

Buckwheat or saracen*(blé noir, i.e. black wheat ou sarrasin in French) is a native plant of Central Asia which was introduced in Brittany in the XVth century.

The short season crop –sown in May, it ripens in September- adapted and throve in the poor acidic soils of Brittany and at a time when fertilizers were still unknown, was a significant higher yielding crop than other cultivated cereals, such as wheat and rye and, not least of all, was not subject to tax.

All of which explains why buckwheat rapidly became a staple food in the Breton diet and prompted Noël Dufail, a major Renaissance writer to to hail buckwheat as Armoric’s providence when writing on rural Brittany in the 1550’s.

Until the middle of the XXth century, when buckwheat was almost wiped out as the use of nitrogen fertilizing benefitted more productive crops such as wheat and potatoes.

Today buckwheat shows a slow yet real revival well on its way to becoming once again the symbol of a region that now harvests a promising acreage of 3000 hectares a year.

 

*Because it was brought to Europe by the Crusaders.

Guy Le Lay dans un champs de blé noir

An exceptional cereal

Whisky is cereal-based by nature. Barley, wheat, maize belong to the Gramineae botanical family whereas buckwheat is part of the Polygonaceae family such as sorrel and rhubarb.

Cereals are plants whose grains can be ground into flour for human consumption. So does buckwheat, illustrative of a broader notion of cereals that regroup Gramineae and a polygonaceae*.

(*hence it being also classified as a pseudocereal)..

Plant description

In summer, the heart-shaped branches blossom into clusters of white flowers, quite attractive to bees. Soon the stems turn blood red and the flowers yield silver grey seeds containing a very odorous flour that will be used to make pancakes or whisky !

Buckwheat is an organic plant by nature, it does not like fertilizers and its culture does not need particular treatments. Buckwheat essentially contains mineral salts, glucids (starch), proteins, amino-acids and fibers. It is also gluten free.

The elaborate process of buckwheat whisky

Blé noir en sac

Malting :

Buckwheat is soaked in water allowing it to germinate. Once the shoots have appeared, germination is stopped and buckwheat is then dried during which process enzymes convert the starch contained in buckwheat into fermentable sugars. It is now called malt.

Grinding and mashing :

Buckwheat malt is now filtered (removal of husks, etc) and ground down in a mill, producing a coarse flour called grist which, in turn, is progressively put in a large vessel to be mixed with hot water and slowly stirred. This results several hours later in a sugary liquid called wort, buckwheat wort.

Fermentation :

Mesure d'Alcool

Fermentation is a critical phase all the more so with such a singular ingredient as buckwheat and the  current process results from extensive fermentation testing. Fermentation consists in adding yeast to buckwheat wort. Yeast will produce carbon dioxide, alcohol as well as a number of compounds which will concur to give its own particular flavours and aromas to the future whisky. Once fermentation is complete, the distiller assesses the quality of aromas and checks its alcohol content.

Distillation :

This is the heart of whisky making.

The distillery operates two naked-flame heated 2500l copper pot stills and follows a double distillation process.

First, the fermented buckwheat grist or wash is brought to boiling point in the still whose copper also helps liberate aromas. The alcohol vaporises and rises up to the still head where it accumulates  before channeling into the swan neck and the coil. This is the first distillate referred to as « brouillis » or « low wines », which is turbid with a rather unpleasant taste and an alcohol content of 25-28% and calls for a second distillation.

The second distillation is named «bonne chauffe » (literally, good heating). It is a delicate step as it enables to eliminate « heads » and « tails », e.g. both the pungent alcohol that is too strong or too weak in alcohol level. What remains is the « heart »: a clear, perfumed whisky 70% ABV.

Maturation :

Chais avec fûts de chêne

The heart is now put into oak casks to mature. Casks are not neutral vessels. Wood is porous. Over time, it breathes in air from its surrounding storage environment and also mingles its own wood sugars with the whisky as it concentrates through selective evaporation, bringing about its singular flavours and aromas. As such, oak is the ideal type of wood for whisky making and any authentic French whisky should age in casks shaped from the finest French oak.

Whisky constantly evaporates during maturation. This natural process is dubbed « Angel’s share » and represents a loss of about 3 % of the cask contents per year.

The storehouse is the cellar master’s domain where he carefully selects the casks that are finally primed for bottling.