Brenne French Single Malt Whisky 80 proof, 750 ml, $60
About a month ago a friend of mine went on a business trip to Paris. I had asked him to pick up a bottle of French whiskey – anything, as long as it wasn’t available in the States. On the Saturday before he was supposed to return, I got a frantic call: he had found a liquor store with a large selection of French whiskey, in fact he was there at that very moment, but the clerk was refusing to sell it to him. Why not one of our exclusive Scotch bottlings? she said. Or a nice Japanese single malt? French whisky, she told him, was no good. I overheard him say, in French, “But my friend is curious. He doesn’t care about quality.” Still, non. He returned with a nice bottle of Thomas Hine cognac instead.
I tell this story for two reasons. First, simply, what the hell. But more to the point of the post, I’ve had enough French whiskey to know it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Bastille, Amorik, these are nice drinks. Even if the domestic-only products aren’t as good as what we can find here – and that’s usually the case with spirits – I find it hard to believe the difference would be that embarrassingly wide. So yeah, what the hell.
That anecdote is only tangentially related to Brenne, the French single malt under review here. For one thing, Brenne, though made in France, is sold mostly in the American market. It’s also unlike any French whiskey you’ve ever tried – or any whiskey, period. While most French whiskey is made in Breton, with a few distilleries in Alsace and other parts of northern France, Brenne is made in Cognac, a few hundred miles south of Paris. The distiller is a small cognac producer who got into whisky making a few years ago, aging his juice in Limousin oak. Eventually he teamed up with Allison and Nital Patel, who convinced him to finish his whiskey in cognac barrels and began marketing it in the United States under the Brenne label last year.
There’s nothing ordinary about Brenne. The nose is overpoweringly fragrant, redolent of vanilla, cotton candy, licorice, bubble gum and honeysuckle. It’s wonderful to smell, but it doesn’t smell like whiskey – more like a scent you’d use to brighten up a living room. The taste is equally unique and powerful, with a thick and very smooth mouthfeel bringing bubblegum, vanilla, a touch of wood and spearmint on the mid-palate and a soft malty undertone. There’s almost no spice to speak of. The aftertaste is syrupy sweet, like the evanescent remains of a Jolly Rancher just after the last sliver has dissolved in your mouth.
I like Brenne, but I can’t think of an unflavored whiskey that tastes less like whiskey. I’m also not sure I’d drink more than a small pour in a single sitting, for fear of getting sugar blisters on my tongue – it’s that sweet. Some people might like that, and I would love to think that Brenne is pulling away some “whiskey” drinkers who currently gravitate toward whiskey-pops like Red Stag. I just hope that future expressions tone down the floral and sweetness and let the malt and oak play a little, too. Clay Risen