Elephant Walls And French Whisky
Review of Or Haganuz, Amuka Series, Idra Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and Brenne Estate Single Malt French Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week October 8, 2014
One of the first things we are traditionally “required” to do after breaking our Yom Kippur fast is to begin building our sukkah. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the rabbinic discussions about the details on how we are supposed to fulfill the commandment to “dwell in booths” are long, complicated and occasionally bizarre to modern sensibilities.
An example of the seemingly odd is the Talmudic discussion (Bavli Sukkah 23a-b) that relates a dispute concerning whether it is permissible to use a live elephant as one of the sukkah’s walls. Whether this ever became an actual issue is anyone’s guess, but it does seem a very odd choice (just thinking about this aesthetically and, well, malodorously). But for those so inclined, it is permissible as long as the elephant is securely bound in position. Definitely one to double check by your local rabbinic authority—even if for no other reason than that they will thank you for bringing the Talmudic discussion to life for them. We prefer our sukkahs to be less zoologically inclined…something a bit more modern, but something requiring as few “building” skills as possible, like the various pre-fab kits out there.
Another holiday “requirement”, one that is a little more our speed, is the standing order to invite guests to join us in our Sukkahs for meals and libations. Since the evenings are now getting cooler we prefer to open wines with a bit more body and depth such as the Or Haganuz, Amuka Series, Idra Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($ 14), an easy drinking straightforward wine with red cherry and berry aromas along with dark fruit flavors and a nice finish.
Spirits-wise, what better way to both relax and rejoice in the festivities than to lightly lubricate the post-prandial banter with some fine hooch! We know what you’re thinking: “here comes another single malt whisky.” Well, yes, but probably not what you think. With hopes for the sweetness of this new year to linger a while, we thought we’d consider the fine single malt whisky of Brenne, from the Cognac region of France. That’s right, a French single malt.
This is the whisky brand founded, owned, produced and brought to us by whisky blogger turned whisky entrepreneur Allison Patel.
Once of us had the good fortune to meet and taste whisky with Allison at the Jewish Whisky Company’s annual Whisky Jewbilee tasting in New York (these are the same folks who bring us the consistently great Single Cask Nation label of whiskies).
Aliison and her husband, Nital, are foodies with a real passion for foreign food and drink, and especially whisky. As Allison notes, “Brenne came about because of my love of whiskies from non-traditional countries.”
As most of these non-traditional or “world whiskies” were not readily available back here in the US, Allison began establishing an import/export company to focus on this “category” of distilled spirits. In this mode, while exploring for “new” finds, she came across a “third generation cognac producer who had started distilling single malt whisky at his farm distillery in Cognac.” This grower had planted barley in between his grapevines. “They had no intention of bottling it, selling it, labeling it, or anything like that—it was their home spirit. When I discovered it, the oldest whisky was around three or four years old and it had already been maturing in new French Limousin oak barrels.”
As she sampled this non-commercial production, Allison quickly realized her great find and the tremendous potential. She talked this small cognac producer and farmer into a contract. Then she and the distiller collaborated over a three and a half year period to refine maturing whisky, and to annually lay down additional stock with each barley harvest.
This new French whisky wasn’t, however, really ready to bring to market. As Allison explains, “It is distilled in a traditional cognac still, and that gives it a lot of fruit-forward notes, and the new French Limousin barrels gives it a lot of vanilla, clove, and cinnamon…but I didn’t want it to get only that, and I wanted it to have a nice balance of fruit. So it was my decision to finish the whisky in XO cognac barrels after five or six years of ageing in the Limousin oak. I wanted a truly well balanced, well rounded spirit, I didn’t want it to be too linear or one dimensional. I wanted it to really sing in your glass. If I pulled it out of those barrels too soon, it would be too harsh.”
Refreshingly, this isn’t just some contract distilling to hit a particular taste profile, but a genuine expression of cognac region produced whisky. As Allison put it, “It was from the oak and from the barley, the seed if you will, that defined what the flavor profile was going to be.”
As she elaborated, “This is a single malt whisky crafted entirely—from seed to spirit—in the heart of Cognac, France. The malt is all estate grown barley; grown in that chalky-rich soil, and that micro-climate. I believe in terroir and this is really all about the Cognac region—the barley is grown there, the water is from the [local] Charante [river], they [the cognac producer] use the same proprietary yeast strain for the barley fermentation that they use in their cognac, it is distilled in the same alembic stills they use for their cognac, and then aged first in new French oak and then in XO cognac barrels—wood indigenous to the region and to cognac production. And they age it in the same rickhouse [warehouse] as the cognac…so this is really all about the cognac terroir, and the traditions of cognac region distillation that this small 3rd generation of distillers brings to it. I just felt it was really my job to develop that and bring it into fruition.”
“I wasn’t looking for ‘different,’” she explained. “I don’t ever want anything that’s different for the sake of being different because that’s when you’re just a marketing company. But I think if you can be different for the sake of artistry and terroir, for passion and the love for the spirit and for the idea that you can actually bring innovation into it…Because…well, who’s ever heard of French whisky? There is no definition of what that is or should be—so the sky is the limit. My goal was to have something that was smooth, that was approachable, and that really was beautiful.”
While “beautiful” is not the most common descriptor in the world of whisky, she’s actually not so far off the mark. Without further ado:
Brenne Estate Single Cask Single Malt Whisky (40 percent abv; $55-67 so shop around): this most unusual whisky begins with sweet toffee aromas, joined by strawberry and strawberry shortcake notes, apple, perhaps a touch of orange peel, vanilla, butterscotch, some clove, and then something distinctly like banana cream pie, with additional vague fruitiness in the background; on the palate the flavors follow very much in line the not nearly so sweet, and now the banana cream pie is dominating center stage, supported by tropical fruits, apricots and spice, with a mild, sweet and warm alcoholic tingle that mellows nicely. With time, the whisky grows more complex and sultry, and the banana cream pie turns more towards bananas foster with a hint of dark chocolate syrup. The finish is mild but wonderfully satisfying. Overall a lovely, creamy, absorbing, refreshing, and, well, yes, a beautiful whisky. L’Chaim!