Its Wednesday once again, which means I’ve been plying the nearby pubs and bars for their collections of esoteric and eccentric whiskies from around the globe. The world of whisky is tumultuous; while Scotch has long held the spotlight, it wavers every now and then as a new country comes into play. Japan still leaps out with new expressions to steal heart, America is of course still doing what they’ve done for years, Taiwan holds a fond place in many hearts and most recently a slew of expressions, distilleries and brands have erupted from Ireland.
On mainland Europe, however, many countries have been producing whisky for some time and it looks as though one of them will soon break the mould: and it looks like that country will be France. Though the whisky has been known for some years, I spied a blue bottle I’ve not tried sticking out on the bar recently, so I borrowed the bottle for a few photos.
Today we look at a French whisky, the Brenne Single Malt.
From a drinker’s perspective, whisky is not what you think of when you imagine France. Actually, its not what you think of when you think of spirits either; wine, cognac, Armagnac, calvados and brandy leap to mind when you think of France in the same way that beer and whisky leap to mind when you think of the UK and Ireland, though they are startlingly similar products.
Simply, whisky is essentially distilled and aged beer. Brandy itself is distilled and matured wine, and the terms ‘Cognac’ and ‘Armagnac’ are both protected spirits that must be distilled in certain places. You can only produce Cognac within the French region of Cognac, as Armagnac can only be produced in the French region of Armagnac – both essentially brandies themselves. Calvados, on the other hand, while also a protected name (to make Calvados you must make it within the Calvados region of Normandy, Northern France), is instead an aged distilliate of apples or pears.
French whisky though, that’s another story.
France has been quietly distilling whisky for some time now, often those whiskies evolving from ex-cognac house employees (the distillation of spirits should really be attempted by a trained professional). Having centuries of Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados production has really helped hone the distillation skills of the French, but though Cognac sales are quite large, particularly through Asia, the French have been happier to import whisky as opposed to making it themselves; the French are the world’s largest consumers of Scotch whisky per capita.
It could be said that French whisky has been on the rise over the last 20 years or so with dozens of distilleries scattered through the country although the total production of the country is quite small. Whisky Advocate reported that the total whisky production was close to 2,000,000 litres in 2018, the rough equivalent of one Ben Nevis’ annual production in Scotland. This does not deter the French from enjoying their own liquid however, and on a recent trip to Bordeaux my forays into whisky bars found that Scotch, Irish, American and Japanese whiskies are being heavily replaced by local made whiskies.
I sampled a few French whiskies then, though curiously not the whisky I’m talking about today: Brenne.
Brenne is the brainchild of Allison Parc, previously a professional ballerina, who found she enjoyed the luxuries in life including whisky (don’t we all?). Originally launched in 2012, Parc coupled with an un-named third generation farm distillery in Cognac, France, though they did stipulate that the distillery has been producing eau-de-vie (water of life, cognacs equivalent of new make spirit) since the 1920s.
Parc has been happy to state on various websites, and in articles and books that the dream behind Brenne is her dream to showcase terroir in whisky.
For those unaware, ‘terroir’ is a French term, loosely translated to mean ‘sense of place in the smell and taste’. While wine and cognac have often spoken of terroir, there has been some… unfortunate pushback in the whisky world when folk have announced a project to show terroir in whisky, though that’s really another article.
It’s when we look into the production that we note some key factors that do set the whisky apart. Firstly, Brenne are keen to inform us that they use two strains of heirloom barley, grown on the Cognac estate. After malting, the yeast used for fermentation is a proprietary strain that has been used by the distilling family for generations. When regarding single malts, through out the world, the majority of distillers will use double or triple distillation through copper pot stills,
Copper pot stills, photo from De Molenburg Distillery
generally regarded to be the go to stills for single malt production. As Brenne is distilled at a Cognac distillery, however, the stills are instead alembic charente stills which are normally used for cognac production.
Charente Stills, from the Cognac Encyclopedia
After said distillation, the spirit is matured within new French limousine oak barrels for an unspecified number of years before a finish in cognac casks. No age statement was available on the bottle I tasted for this review, though apparently its seven years old: five within the limousine casks and then a two-year finish within the ex-cognac casks. Then it’s just a simple matter of taking the whisky down to 40%, bottling and selling.
As with all whiskies I look at here, while a story is good, you ultimately have to judge a whisky by its taste, so let’s stick a nose in...
The nose opens with sweet fruit juice of grapes, cranberries, lime and raspberry. Before long it changes tactics and moves into the world of confectionary, bringing forth light milk chocolate, musk sticks and bubble gum ice cream, and then its onto some final touches of heather, lavender and frangipani, all closing with hints of honey and a bit of cognac rancio rising through the heavy floral mix.
A sip see’s many similar flavours, alongside almonds and marzipan, then some watermelon and stone fruits of mango and nectarines with a hit of passionfruit is the palate and the mouthfeel itself; slightly acidic with fizz. It closes with grape, raspberry, red liquorice, honey, hay and a hint of fresh crunchy snow peas.
On the finish its somewhat lacking, though still sweet its glace cherries and flying saucers all the way. I can’t help but picture dinking it in the summertime, maybe with a touch of apple juice but its definitely more suited to warmer months.
I can’t really put my finger on why, but the whisky seems to be lacking that ‘je ne sais quoi.’
It’s not a bad whisky, not at all, but its not making my list of desert island drams. It’s sweet when it needs to be, fruity when it feels like it, but doesn’t do much else. The intensity and length is good, but the balance and complexity are all too short.
The French have been distilling in general for centuries, and, though whisky is somewhat new to them you would think that this history of distillation would work in their favour. However, Brenne Single Malt falls short of the mark of being thought-provoking. It falls back on a story that is interesting, but an interesting story is not all there is to a whisky. It sits in the same category as the La Rouget BM Signature, interesting though lacklustre.
I’ll take my Eddu over either any day of the week, or come to think, I’ll take an Armagnac.