Brenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky – Review

*Thank you to Allison Patel and Brenne Whisky for the sample. 

brenne-estate-caskBrenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky was first launched in the fall of 2012. This whisky was the brainchild of whisky connoisseur turned astute whisky-making pro, Allison Patel. In a market where the more novel whiskies are often a relegated, small minority, Brenne has succeeded with its terroir-driven ingredients and its decidedly non-traditional whisky making process. While reading up on what makes this whisky rather unique, I realized that I knew very little about the booze that it has roots in. So while it may not be the most exciting thing to read, here’s what I hope is an adequately accurate glimpse into the process which makes Brenne stand out.

In searching for a producer to help realize her vision, Patel looked to France, specifically the Charente region which is of course the home of France’s most famous homegrown spirit, Cognac. Certainly an interesting place to seek out a whisky-maker. While the country is a leading consumer of the stuff, whisky-making has never really been a popular sport there. There are some areas where it’s becoming a bigger deal, mostly in the north where there’s more of an embedded tradition of growing, brewing and distilling grain, but in the Charente, Cognac is still king by a long shot. Nonetheless, Patel found a Cognac producer that had recently begun making a whisky, and working closely with them, carved out a plan for the Brenne brand.

Charentais Alembic Still
Charentais Alembic Still

The Brenne Estate Cask is distilled from two types of organic barley grown on the producer’s estate but milled and malted elsewhere. The rather chalky soil of the region, which helps cultivate the meager grapes that end up producing France’s most famous spirit, also produces a somewhat different grain. Other than the use of barley, Brenne’s whisky has much more in common with Cognac than it does Scotch whisky. Using a yeast more common to Cognac production, the wort undergoes a relatively long fermentation process, and is distilled in traditional Charentais alembic stills. These all-copper pot stills differ from Scottish stills in that there’s established rules dictating the shape and function. Alembics have an onion/bulb-shaped head atop the main boiler, and the condensing arm is much thinner than the Lyne arms on Scottish stills. While I’m not sure the Brenne process includes this, one interesting aspect of the Charentais still setup the “chauffe-vin,” a large, copper, bulb-shaped, energy-saving container that holds the wine prior to it going into the still. The condensing arm from the still passes through the chauffe-vin, and the residual heat from the distillate pre-warms the wine.

Brenne is twice-distilled using this Charentais process, and then heads for the barrels, which also differ from the nearly ubiquitous American white oak (Quercus Alba) casks used pretty much around the world. For cognac to be legally called Cognac, it must be aged a minimum of two years in barrels made from “French oak” that comes from either the Limousin or Tronçais forests. Predominantly, the oak species used from these forests is Quercus Robur and Quercus Petraea. These European white oaks, particularly Quercus Robur, differ from American white oak by having higher amounts of tannins and lignins, which adds a more complex, less vanilla-oriented spice to whatever they are maturing. The cooperage of Cognac casks differs from that of American-made bourbon barrels as well. The wood is “cured” outdoors for up to three years before reaching the cooper’s hands. Instead of the heavy charring done to finished bourbon barrels, Cognac coopering bends the staves by repeated dampening and heating during the construction process. This repeated toasting eventually creates what is more or less a light char, but nowhere near that of bourbon barrels.

So with all that in mind, here’s a look at the brand’s flagship, the Brenne Estate Cask. This one is aged for five years in new French Oak barrels, then finished in ex-Cognac barrels for approximately two to three years. There is no age statement on this expression because the period of the ex-cognac finishing can be variable depending on when Patel feels the whisky is ready to go. Initially, Brenne had very limited distribution, occasionally done by Patel herself via bicycle. These days, Brenne is distributed by Classic Imports and is available in 29 states as well as in its home country of France, and is available through many online retailers.

The Nose:  As whisky goes, this is a fruity, floral, quite sweet, fairly unique nose. Notes of ripe apricot, floral honey, tangerine and bruised apples join candied tones of gummi bears, orange push-ups, and butter mints. Nice grain notes of toasted barley and perhaps even banana bread.  More depth is added with hints of soft white flower petals, the burnt top of crème brûlée, and candied fennel. The wood influence more subtle than expected, a bit of vanilla syrup, cinnamon-candied almonds, a touch of oaked chardonnay, and just a hint of sawn boards.

The Palate:  An almost barely-there, creamy mouthfeel, with that eiswein-like sweetness from the nose carrying right through to the palate. Initially there’s more apricot and orange, more gummi, and more honey. As evidence of the new french oak and cognac finishing slowly creep in, there are notes of butter cookies, marzipan, and cinnamon frosting. Towards the end, more woody spice notes appear: drying clove, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and a tannic bit of polished oak.

The Finish:  On the shorter side with nice touches of sweetness and spice mixing with a mouth-watering, slightly herbaceous dryness.

Thoughts:  A delicate, yet fairly elegant and distinctive whisky. My initial impression of Brenne’s Estate Cask was that its sweetness was too much, but in the span of a single glass, much more was revealed and I found myself enjoying it more than I initially thought I would. This is a sweet, almost ethereal whisky, no doubt about it, but it manages an interesting complexity (the nose, especially) within that sweetness. While palate and finish show more evidence of the unique maturation, and they hold on to enough from the nose to give it some progression and balance, they’re perhaps a little timid and thin compared to the nose. Brenne is nice to sip on its own, and I can imagine it being interesting to use in a wide variety of cocktails and pleasant over ice in the warmer months. As this is a single cask whisky prone to expected variation, I have to say I found this one lacking depth and strength compared to the other two Estate Casks I’ve tried. Still, certainly a creatively different whisky, and perhaps for that reason alone it’s worth trying.

Brenne Estate Cask French Single Malt Whisky, +/~ 2015

40% ABV

Score:  81


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