Monday, 17 October 2016

I don't know whether I like this Single Malt - and here's why that's a good thing.

You know the feeling. You’re doing some tasting; maybe you’re cracking a new bottle, or making your way around the tables at a festival. Perhaps it’s a sample at a distillery, or something a generous friend has opened up. Whatever the occasion, something about this particular pour just stops you in your tracks. Stands out from any of the others. ‘Speaks to you’, if you like, above and beyond the norm. And then plays on your mind for hours, even days thereafter, as you contemplate the aromas, the flavours, the experience over and over again. No? Just me? I don’t believe it.

By any measure, I make my way through my fair share of whiskies. In fact I probably make my way through several peoples’ fair shares. And over the years I’ve had several such epiphanies. My first taste of A’Bunadh stands out, of course (can it really be six years ago now?) as does my maiden encounter with Four Roses Single Barrel. I’ll never forget my first taste of Springbank – at the distillery, as it happens – nor my first Westland. Nor a couple of dozen other lightening bolt whiskies which have struck me so memorably in my decade-and-a-bit of aqua vitae.

Just the other day I tasted another whisky which I have been completely unable to stop thinking about since. The difference here is that I’m not sure whether I actually liked it.

The whisky in question is the Brenne Single Malt from France, and it was due to appear in the 50 under £50 before I realised that the Master of Malt price was from a little while back, and that they don’t have a full-sized bottle in stock. My American readers can snap up a bottle for around that price in dollars, but a quick look at the only available European pricings suggested I’d be cheating a little were I to include it. In case you’re interested, the price I found was about €65, which in post-referendum Sterling is roughly £10,000. (Or a twentieth the price of what Booker’s Rye has probably gone up to on the secondary market this afternoon.) Whether you’ll want to invest in a bottle (of Brenne, not Booker’s) following this piece is another question.

As is my wont, I didn’t look up the whisky’s vital statistics prior to sampling. It was on my radar insofar as I’d read an article or two, and a couple of interviews with the apparently charming and clearly very business and marketing-savvy Allison Patel, who created and owns the brand. But these were a little mum as to how the whisky tasted, or why it tasted thus. ‘French’ was about as much description as I’d heard. And I’m not going to speculate on what ‘French’ tastes like, as I’d likely find myself in dangerous territory. 

I’ve crossed paths with about 20-25 French whiskies in my time, so I’m a novice at best, but there are a couple of which I’m very fond indeed. I was particularly enamoured of an Armorik I tried which had been matured in local oak. But whilst I’ve not sipped as many as I’d like, I’ve tried enough to know that Brenne is not typical of the style. Indeed, were Brenne to be the first French whisky you encountered, you’d be forgiven for getting entirely the wrong impression of French whiskies in general, because I can say without hesitation that its aroma and flavour profile is amongst the most striking and unusual which I have ever come across on a whisk(e)y, and that I have never tasted anything like it in my life.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was smelling when I stuck my snout into the glass. Indeed I wondered whether I had somehow ended up with a wrong, or contaminated sample. (Not that I would imagine the fine chaps at Drinks by the Dram making such an error.) So I scribbled my thoughts, and immediately went online to see what others had written.

Straight away, the reviews seemed to confirm my own findings. ‘Bubblegum,’ said one – a note I’d made myself. ‘Slightly confected – almost sweet-shop like,’ wrote another. The general consensus was that here was a very distinctive whisky indeed. And if I’m honest, most of the reviews – particularly those written by primarily scotch-focussed sites – were rather damning in their criticism. A friend turned up as I was spooling through the online verbiage, and had a Glencairn unceremoniously thrust under her nose. ‘What on Earth’s that?’ she asked (actually a PG translation of her exact words.) She too was less than a fan.

For my own part, the jury’s still out. But here’s the thing: none of the aromas or flavours are the result of an obvious ‘fault’. For starters, it isn’t sulphured whatsoever – whether or not you subscribe to the ‘sulphur’s a fault’ school of thought. As far as can be discerned, the cut’s fine too – no feints here. And you certainly can’t accuse the whisky of being in any way light on aroma or flavour, despite the minimum strength 40%ABV. Which means that all these flavours – these bizarre, polarising, unforgettable flavours – are the result of casks and malted barley distillate alone.

Some have suggested that the style of cask is responsible. Post-tasting research reveals it to be matured in oak from nearby Limousin, before being finished in ‘wet’ ex-Cognac barrels. (As an aside, I like that it’s all kept local.) One reviewer suggested that the Limousin oak was behind Brenne’s peculiarity, but that doesn’t seem to stack up. Because I’ve encountered a lot of Limousin oak in my chequered drinking career. It’s widely used in Cognac and wine, for starters, and given the worldwide respect commanded by French oak I’d be very surprised if much of the Scotch we know and love hadn’t done at least some of its time in a butchered Limousin tree. Nor is this whisky especially reminiscent of the flavours of any Cognacs - or Cognac finished whiskies - I've come across.

So is it some kind of grand-scale reaction between the two? Does Limousin + Cognac equal the whisky world’s answer to Potassium + Water? Or are the stills responsible? They’re alembic in style, so I’m imagining something along the same lines as those I saw at Eden Mill – the creators of an equally memorable spirit. But Eden Mill’s kit is nothing like Brenne. I know exactly how much I like Eden Mill; when it comes to Brenne I have no idea where I stand. Every aspect perplexes me, maddens me with curiosity; makes me want – need – answers to the questions branded so strongly upon my palate.   

And that is why Brenne is an unqualified success as a Single Malt whisky.

Contrary to marketing spin and the perception of the non-obsessed public; contrary to what you might be told by old men in kilts, or wielding cigars in gentlemen’s clubs, Single Malt is not about the ultimate age, or the ultimate rarity, or the ultimate flavour, or even the ultimate 'quality'. It’s not inherently about reaching a pinnacle or earning points or tasting like Kiwano Marmalade or sun-dried Sneezewort Yarrow. It is, fairly obviously, about creating singularity. A flavour specific to one place. A flavour created – and creatable – nowhere else. About expressing that place through liquid crafted in copper stills and oak casks. Whether you want to call that terroir or not is another question. (I don’t, on the whole, but have no issue with those who do.) What is certain is that Single Malt only truly succeeds if it has a flavour like nothing made anywhere else. Whether that flavour is to your personal taste is virtually immaterial. 

So thank you, Brenne, for reminding me of that. In a sense, for helping me remember what Single Malt actually is. For what it’s worth, although I’m still in two minds whether I’m a fan, I’ll be trying another glass as soon as I come across it. And I recommend, for the expansion of their whisk(e)y universe, that other malt fans do the same. (Though, as I must have made clear by now, it will definitely polarise. I’m not sure many Scotch purists will put a bottle on their Christmas list.) 

And if Allison, or anyone else from Brenne, has time to get in touch – please do. I’d absolutely love a chat. My curiosity is 100% piqued. Single Malt Mission Accomplished.

I never usually attach tasting notes to these pieces, but in this instance I felt compelled to, and they are below.

Cheers! (Or, more appropriately - Santé!)

Brenne Single Malt – Now there’s a nose to conjure with. Jumps out of the glass very gamely, and not like any whisky I’ve ever had before. Very distinctive. There’s a kind of ginger spice and then a real sweet strawberry character. Almost confected. Almost like bubblegum. Bizarrely – and I can’t believe I’m writing this of a whisky – there’s a definite whiff of Jäger bomb!* Certain to polarise – but keeps the attention. Flavours exactly – exactly – identical. Where has this come from? How have they made this? I have never tasted or smelled these flavours on a whisky before, and for that reason alone I’d recommend giving this a whirl (by the glass). Also very clean, and for 40% there’s a big intensity of flavour, though it’s medium bodied. Insane. 40%ABV

*This was also the first thing my friend smelled, completely unprompted. And believe me, she knows a Jäger bomb when she smells one. So it's not just me.

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