When you go to Whiskyfest New York you expect to discover new whiskies.
It's one of the biggest whisky shows in the world, so plenty of producers use it as a platform to release new products. The American distillers will inevitably have something interesting to show, and some of the craft distillers have made the step up, too. New York itself has a number of thriving boutique distilleries.
'I sum it up by telling everyone I’m a one woman whisky show'
What you don't expect - or at least I certainly didn't - was a new French whisky from a distillery you've never heard of, and with its distribution right there in the Big Apple. This, though, is what I discovered when I was contacted by Allison Patel, president of Local Infusions. It's a company she founded to promote new and exciting drinks products from non traditional territories.
Her whisky story is incredible and it was made all the more bizarre when I met her for a rushed 15 minutes interview as I raced to the airport to get home before Hurricane Sandy struck.
Allison was searching for new and exciting drinks to launch for her company when she discovered a Cognac distiller who was making a single malt whisky. So she travelled to France, tried the whisky, which was just under four years old at the time, made a deal with the distiller, and then set about creating a brand.
Her first decision was to insist that the spirit be matured for longer. Then she quite literally built a brand from scratch, taking responsibility for barrel management, for importing the whisky, distributing it, marketing it, selling it, and building and managing the web site and social media platforms.
"I sum it up by telling everyone I’m a one woman whisky show, doing everything but physically running the stills," she says.
The new whisky, which is called Brenne and was launched in New York in October and the reaction has been reassuringly positive.
"I started taking around samples to influential bars and restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and couldn’t believe just how positive the responses were," she recalls. "I was told on multiple occasions that he/she couldn’t believe how smooth it was and that they were ready to place orders! I didn’t even have a name for it yet – forget a bottle, label or anything like that.
"Truthfully, I thought I was going to face more of a challenge than I have so far… but this is still in the very early stages! I always tell people that this is not trying to be a Scotch but just made in France – I didn’t develop this to be a gimmick. It’s the farthest thing from that (and doesn’t taste anything like Scotch)! Instead, it is a whisky that fully embraces the terroir and culture of the Cognac region in France. Once I let people know that Brenne is not mass-produced and is really only handled by simply the distiller and myself, then their curiosity takes over and once they try it, they are often happily surprised!"
Allison's point here is very valid. What Brenne is is a whisky produced in a distinctly French way. It is a single malt whisky made from 100 per cent French malted barely with a unique production style. The French distiller is hand-crafting this from seed to spirit at his farm-distillery which has been in his family since the 1920s. He grows two different varieties of barley organically himself next to his vineyards, taking advantage of the chalk-rich soil of Fine Bois region in Cognac.
The barley is malted off-site and then brought back to the distillery to be turned into whisky. The grains are fermented more slowly at colder temperatures to extract more complexity from their silky profiles.
The wash is then distilled twice in a copper alembic still, which is a traditional still used for the production of Cognac. The onion-shaped dome on the top of the still helps to capture more of the fruit esters, which contribute to one of Brenne’s major distinctions in taste.
"It’s very fruit-forward!," says Allison. "We start the ageing in lightly charred, heavily toasted new French Limousin oak barrels for a minimum of five years. This gives the whisky a lot of its vanilla, cinnamon and clove notes. When I first met my distiller and tried this whisky, it had been sitting in these barrels already between three and four years. There was a lot going on in the glass but I thought it needed to have a bit more structure. We really needed to exaggerate this fruity, creamy aspect and so we started talking about what our options were (which weren’t many!) "The finished product, Brenne Estate Cask, is never vatted and is proofed down to 40% abv for bottling in single-barrel releases. There will be very slight variations between each one and the individual barrel numbers are stamped on the back label, which I did to further emphasise the handcrafted nature of this spirit and frankly, it was just better tasting when sampled individually." Allison says that France's contribution to the world of whisky may well be an emphasis on terroir.
"As in wine, I think there is still so much to be explored with terroir in whisky," she says. "Brenne, to me, is a perfect example of what can happen if you work with the earth and culture around you. The result of which has created a wonderfully smooth, approachable and elegant single malt. I hope that it offers those new to whisky an easy entry point and for those who are experienced, I hope that Brenne gives them a totally new experience and continues to open up their minds to all of the possibilities that this wonderful spirit can offer."
Allison believes her timing is perfect because America, like many other places across the world, is starting to take a serious interest in New World Whisky.
"There are bars in NYC who have started creating World Whisky flights for their clients," she says. "One of the biggest proofs of this is when you see a menu where the 'Single Malt' category is separate from the 'Scotch' category or when the overarching titles of “Scotch” and “Bourbon” have become “Whisky” allowing for more varieties to be offered.
"I find Brenne to be in very good company on the shelves at stores too – no longer is a world whisky an obscurity but rather part of a larger community. Consumers are more educated and well traveled now and they are learning what is out there often before the buyers know and are demanding that these world whiskies get stocked. It’s certainly an exciting time for the industry!"