Bordeaux to Burgundy



It's never easy leaving Gascogne. When we're in Montreal it feels like home. I'm pretty sure they like us too. Whether its cause we eat and drink like the French, love to laugh and tell jokes or just because we keep showing up with tons of Armagnac to share, there's no question that leaving the Daubin family behind each year is tough. I think our departure really affected them this year and we had a touching moment my last morning. I mean Driscoll had busted his ass for the last several month, taking about every free moment to study, just so that he could communicate with these people. And communicate we did. They promised that they would seriously consider coming to California to bring that Sud-Ouest flair to both San Francisco and Los Angeles. That's right, Bernard was actually ultra excited to bring a bit of "La Vie Gascogne" to the west coast. "To teach us how to live," he said. He even assured me that he'd be in Los Angeles, a destination he had unequivocally ruled out in the past. That's good news for EVERYONE.

After a somber goodbye and a strong coffee, Charles and I headed up to Bordeaux to pick up the rental car. I had a monster car ride planned and wasn't at all looking forward to it. It didn't help that the Eurocar was out of NavSystems when I got there. This inspite of my paying online in advanced for the upgrade. I was told that there was no possible way for them get one until the following week. I kind of spent a few minutes fiddling with my phone pretending to call the Travel Agent, but basically in full panic, when the clerk announced that they had found one at another location. She must have felt pity for me (a rare emotion for middle aged French women) because she offered to show me the way, as of course I had no idea how to get there. Serious life saver.

We'd spent several days in the south west and had found some amazing stuff. It was by far the most beautiful the Gers had ever been, with budding already well advanced in some areas and sunny days well into the high 70s. Now, I planned to traverse France on a much less inviting journey. The seven hour drive would only be marked by a quick stop at a small producer in the center of France.

Hérisson is a medieval town with a thriving theatrical scene. In the summer, thousands of French people from all over the country congregate on this small town for multitude of performances. It's tiny, it’s gorgeous and it's in the middle of nowhere. In 1984, one the towns top actors and directors, Mr. Perrier (known locally as Monsieur Balthazar), had an idea! He wanted to have a local product that he could offer his guests during their visits. Of course, this part of France is not wine growing country. It's the breadbasket and he goal was to cultivate a product of terroir. He found an old perfume still and began his experimentation. Over the course of the next two decades he experimented endlessly. His refusal to visit another whisky distillery of any kind came from a desire to never be "influenced" by outside sources. In 2000, when he retired from the stage, he began production in earnest. He'd bring his wares to the market in Auvergne, labelling it "Hedgehog Straight Whiskey Bourbonnais". Hedgehog for the town Hérisson, which is translated as such, and Bourbonnais for this historical region home to the royal House of Bourbon which corresponds with the modern day department of Allier, where of course Hérisson is located. Don't ask me too much about the word Straight, but they're definitely making whiskey. A few years ago, after finding some initial success, Mr. Perrier enlisted the help of a professional distiller named David Faverot. Approximately two years later, Faverot purchased the distillery, which now sits next to Perrier's personal home in Venas - 5km from Hérisson. Faverot jumped head first into this unusual project and immediately began to expand and experiment further.

The whiskey it's self is unlike any I've ever tasted. Many things about it are atypical and some details were off the table in the name of IP. Nonetheless, I did get some interesting info. Faverot begins with 45% (although the website states the mashbill contains 65%) locally grown organic corn. He then adds 10% rye also grown in the region. Finally, the recipe is completed with a healthy dollop of malted barley, which he buys from a malt house about an hour away. All this goes into the wash back (a Slovenian design) where the enzymes from the malted barley break down the complex carbos in the corn and rye. Fermentation is completed in small drums, which allow for easy experimentation with various yeast strains as well as easy cleaning. Faverot made a point of stating that fermentation was the crucial step in creating the profile of the end product, a fact not often focused by craft distillers stateside. He, however, did not want to divulge the exact details of that process.

After fermentation, into the new 10 hectoliter copper pot still it goes. The alembic, which was constructed by Holstein, is connected to an extra large traditional worm tub, a la Cognac. This he says, is extremely important for capturing and refining the aromatics of the grain. The first distillation is divided three ways - heads, heart and tails and lasts a very long 12 hours. The second distillation lasting 13 hours, in the very same still mind you, is separated into four cuts: heads, tails, hearts and seconds. The second distillation consists of the hearts of the first and the seconds from the previous batch. The wart always contains coarsely milled whole grains and is never filtered before entering the still. Everything is done completely by hand and he uses only his senses and a thermometer to determine the timing of the cuts.

The elevage is absolutely unique and includes some elements from Cognac with subtle similarities to other types of whiskey. Of course, Mr. Faverot has not really changed the original aging scheme created by the founder, so none of those similarities are at all intentional. They begin with locally harvested Troncais oak. It has an extremely tight grain and was traditionally used for the creation of warships, but today is integral in the creation of many great wines and spirits throughout France and beyond. The staves are fashioned into cognac style barrels and heavily toasted, but not charred. The whiskey spends at least 1 year (sometimes more) in these barrels before being transferred into used oak, similar to the to Cognac. Aeration is apparently of the utmost importance and is performed on a regular basis using various tools. The ultimate assemblage is around 4-5 years old, but no particular recipe exists and blends are made to taste. They hold back a small portion of each bottling for further aging as insurance if something isn't tasting right. By using this well aged blend of older whiskey he is able straighten out underperforming assemblages and guarantee consistency. As Faverot begins to make his mark at the distillery, it’s clear that he’s committed to maintaining the original goal of creating something absolutely unique and distinctly local. He reminds me regularly that the goal is  not to make bourbon in France, but instead to capture and refine the unique aromas of these special grains. Nowhere else in the world of whisky is this goal so overtly championed. Of course, in the spirit of experimentation some overlaps with the outside world exist. These barriques from a fourth growth Chateau in Sauterne stood out as particularly special and not altogether unfamiliar – although they're not at all on the table for purchase currently.

In Addition to their whiskey, they offer a grain eau-de-vie called Bordvodeu and an herbal orange liqueur, the Bourbonnais Des Iles. Both were quite unusual and made exclusively with spirit distilled in house. These might very well be the first products we order from David. Needless to say we'll need to change the label on that liqueur!!!

I’m not sure the whisky from The Distillery de Monsieur Balthazar will ever make it stateside, considering he was only able to offer us a handful of bottles, but if it does and you want to try something completely different and utterly unique, I can categorically recommend it. That said, the new still is signicantly larger than before - arriving late in 2014 - so availability will slowly but surely increase. Hopefully under the titulage of Mr. Faverot, the Hedgehog Whiskey of Hérisson will continue to improve and perhaps one day will be available at K&L.

I left the little distillery unsure of the road ahead. It began to drizzle. As I inched toward Burgundy, the drizzle became a torrent. Four hours later I pulled into Beaune almost regretting my decision to strike out on my own. The quaint sunny country side of Gascogne had been replaced by darkness and rain. No longer was the landscaped marked by humble farms and little tractors, but instead regal manors and Maseratis. What bounty would Burgundy hold for us? I was concerned, tired and absolutely famished. Luckily a familiar faced waited for me at the hotel's bistro. Jean-Arnauld from Michel Couvreur was there with his partners. They neglected to tell me prior to my arrival that that bistro is connected to a Michelin starred restaurant. I suddenly remembered why I love Burgundy so goddamned much. 

-David Othenin-Girard


France: Day 9 - Paris in the Spring Time

Due to some unforeseen complications back in the states, I was forced to take a slight detour on my planned adventure. Rather than come home Friday the 24th, I needed to get back by Monday to take care of some important business (the perils of greater responsibility). That meant departing from my friend Charles on Saturday morning and catching a train from Bordeaux to Paris. I got in later that afternoon, booked a room at the Relais Bousquet (they even gave me the same room I had back in February), and tried to enjoy what little time I had in the city. The warm weather in Gascony had definitely carried over to the French capital and people were out and about, soaking up the sun, playing the flâneur in fine fashion. 

There was a 5K run for charity going on along the Seine. The weather was absolutely perfect. When it looks like this in Paris you almost don't know what to do; you just sit there, kind of stupified, wondering if you should get a beer, or go for a walk, or maybe just stand there and take it all in.  

But I'm not over here for my health or to fulfill my own metropolitan needs, so if I was going to spend a day wandering around Paris, I was going to need to do some market research or something. Apparently, when it's warm and sunny in Paris, you can get a deal on Ruinart. There, now that I've done my day's work I can get back to enjoying myself.

I'm all about the 7th arrondissement. It's just the perfect spot for me. Tons of bars, no one under the age of 21, none of that nouveau riche bullshit, but with some super hip cocktail action and a load of good pâtisseries, boulangeries, and cafés. Plus, there's a secret square near the hotel that packs in a fun crowd.

Back to work now. I happened to be near the Maison du Whisky on my big walk Saturday evening, so I had to go in and check it out. I hadn't been in since 2012 and I think I had just simply forgotten about the size and scope of what's going on along the Rue d'Anjou. You might think Scotland is the place to go in search of interesting and rare single malts, but the French drink far more Scotch whisky than the Scottish do. Therefore, it's only logical that they would have the best shops. La Maison du Whisky is, simply put, the best single malt whisky store I've ever been to. They have everything. Anything. All the things you could ever want, and a bunch of stuff you never even knew existed. Not only is the selection completely overwhelming, the store is beautifully curated and—in typical Parisian fashion—it's stylish, clean, and sleek. I tip my hat to retail greatness.

By the time most of you guys read this I'll be on a plane back to the U.S.; another great trip under my belt. Hopefully David OG can find some interesting things in Switzerland and Eastern France to add on to the already huge pile of booty. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going and really become the premier merchant (in the truest sense) of fine spirits in the U.S. Hopefully you had fun reading these posts over the last few weeks!

Hopefully I can make it back into the store next week in one piece. Signing off. Another year in the books.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 8 - Rounding Up the Goods - Part II

Let's keep going, shall we? I need to organize these notes and a blog post is a great way to refresh my memory.

Christelle at Domaine de Maouhum definitely stole our hearts, but were we too blinded by her beauty to properly assess her Armagnacs? I don’t think so. Her stuff is outrageous. Everything we tasted was outstanding. 1983, 1994, VS, XO—load up the truck. We’re taking everything.

There’s definitely business to be done at Sandemagnan. They had plenty of older brandies that showed character, but were refined and restrained. A 1975 vintage was stunning, while another 1980 expression took my breath away. Because they’re a more upscale operation, will that extra attention to detail ultimately raise the sticker price? We’ll have to see where these land before making any decisions.

We were praying for good Armagnac on this trip and the former church at La Grangerie definitely answered all of our prayers. That chai was jam-packed with nothing but winners. The 2001 is going to be the star of this trip—mark my words. It’s like Weller Bourbon, but the label says something in French about a Chateau or something. Do they make wheated Armagnac? I don’t think so. One of the funniest things I heard on this trip was a dig by one of the producers about whiskey: “Why in the hell would I want to drink something made from the shit I feed my chickens?”

There are mountains of old barrels waiting to be claimed at Carpoulat, but have the brandies been inside of them for too long? This will ultimately be a pet project for us, I think. We’ll have to do some serious reworking of these brandies before they’ll be ready to bottle. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible though. It’s definitely a project worth investing in.

Pellehaut is obviously tried, tested, and customer-approved. Definitely expect a new 1986 vintage expression and maybe more from the mid-1990s. 

The property at Papolle has the best of what the Gascogne landscape has to offer: rolling hills, vines, small patches of forest, a small river, and some of the best grapes in the Bas-Armagnac for distillation. This estate really has it all—including loads of fantastic vintage brandies that are just there for the taking. 1973, 1975, 1978, 1987 (what seems to be the one constantly-fantastic at every producer) and the potential for blends like Hor d’Age and XO. Plus, we really, really liked Mr. Piffard.

What are we up to now? Like thirty-something new Armagnacs, right? And a handful of old favorites? Good thing we’re opening a gigantic new store in San Francisco this summer. I’m going to need more space.

Now that I’m done thinking about all this, can someone please pass me that gigantic plate of foie gras?

-David Driscoll


France: Day 8 - Rounding Up the Goods - Part I

Today was a travel day, so I needed to start getting an idea of what we would eventually need to order upon our return. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two straight, non-stop weeks of traveling, tasting, and taking copious amounts of notes—all in the name of better booze retail. Let’s see where we are so far with our French selections.

We began with Mr. Boutinet in the Fins Bois region of Cognac. We were pretty happy with his VSOP and some of the younger vintage selections we tasted there. In a line-up that already consists of Raymond Ragnaud, Ragnaud Sabourin, Dudognon, Giboin, the soon-to-be-arriving Vallein, Thorin, and Forgeron, is there really room for another producer? The pricing will be the big factor here. More value options might be nice, but now that we’re working directly with Hine I think they might be tough to beat on that end. We just got their incredible VSOP in for $46.99—a wicked good price.

Then there’s our friend Beatrice Sourdois in Toujous at Domaine de Jean-Bon. She had some amazing stuff and the pricing looked more than reasonable. We tasted a 1995 vintage that was big, oaky, and full of dried herbs with bits of anise. That, along with an absolutely killer 1987 expression full of sweet vanilla on the entry with loads of power and spice on the finish. I’d expect two or three things from this savvy gal.

Our friend Jacques at Domaine du Miquer is definitely good for another order of 1987. Maybe some 1990 as well since his Armagnac does stand out from the pack. The brandies are woody, but much leaner and full of graphite with pencil shavings.

You know we’re buying more Baraillon from our friend Paul Claverie. We’ll be grabbing some new vintages from them for sure. The 1981 they had was incredible—dark and dusty with brooding power and an explosion of peppery punch on the back end.

Domaine de Charron is definitely a wild card here. Claude Lartigue has some incredibly-powerful stuff, but it might be too oaky for true Armagnac connoisseurs. It’s definitely for our big-boy Bourbon drinkers looking to cross over. That being said, what will they ultimately cost? That is the question. Price will play the biggest role here because for the right retail sticker these are home runs. The 2004 vintage could be the answer to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof at $40.

When I was hanging out at Bernard's restaurant, working on some more photos and writing, I bought a bottle of wine for all the guys hanging out at the main counter. Bernard told them it was on me. They were very thankful, and about twenty minutes later one of the guys came over to my table and asked me to follow him over to another building. I looked at Bernard, who nodded and winked at me, so I followed the man into the other side of the restaurant. The above magnums were pulled out of a secret compartment and I was asked which one I wanted to try first.

Of course, I looked at him and said, "1893? That’s waaaay too young, dude. Pass me that 1831. I only drink Armagnacs distilled at least 184 years ago."

What an amazing experience. They were all so full of fruit and freshness despite their extremely old age. This place is pure magic.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 7 - La Vie de Montreal du Gers

With David OG on the road this morning and Charles on his way to Bordeaux, I was on my own for most of the day in Montreal du Gers. Thank God I've been taking French lessons for the past few months because I was in the thick of la vie de Gascogne—not a scene known for its fluency in English. Last year at this time I was sitting in Charles's mother-in-law's kitchen, doing some laundry, nodding my head and smiling as she talked my ear off. The problem was I didn't understand a thing she was saying. This year, however, I'm much more self-sufficient. After doing some work in my guest room, I checked out, paid the bill, and brought my luggage over to Bernard's restaurant. The plan was to take a walk and get a bit of exercise. What actually happened though was a few glasses of red wine, some local politics, and a few pieces of sausage.

Because we're in the Sud Ouest of France, there's a decent amount of Basque influence and the opinions about government can become quite heated. I was able to understand about 40% of what they were talking about and it was absolutely hilarious. It was just like that scene in Amelie with the old guy who comes into the cafe each day to rant and rave. This is all at 11 AM, mind you, on a weekday no less.

I did sneak out for a bit, however, and was able to catch the action on the streets. There was a farmer's market in the middle of the square and people were out running errands, preparing for the day's numerous meals.

Everything was calm on the Rue Calmette. There was a bit of moisture in the air. It looked as if it might rain, so people were getting their chores done early.

I walked around the edge of town to see the outskirts. It's a pretty amazing little village; very pictureque with an old well, momuments to the many wars, and views of the rolling hills from many different vantage points.

What's funny now is that I'm starting to know the people in town and they all think I'm a journalist because I walk around with my camera taking photos, then I sit in Bernard's restaurant working on the computer. I ran into the innkeeper on my walk, talking to her friend upstairs through the window.

Bernard had begun slicing the chorizo upon my return. He was getting ready for the mid-day lunch crowd. The restaurant started filling up and soon the bar was full of locals, all drinking wine and chatting, asking me what I was doing and looking over my shoulder as I edited my photos. "Les photos sont tres belles." Merci.

And now I have to go walk off all that food I just ate, that I promised myself I wouldn't eat again today. Bernard and Vero made me stay for lunch. Then they made me drink more wine. Then they made me eat dessert. C'est la vie de Montreal.

-David Driscoll