France – Day 2: Booze les Beaune

Just outside the town of Beaune – the spiritual capital of Burgundy – is the sleepy hamlet of Bouze-les-Beaune: a collection of old stone dwellings that looks much like every other small village in the area. As you make your way there, through the well-known communes of Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, you see signs pointing the direction to every producer in the area. Burgundy is one of the most highly-regarded wine regions in the world, if not the most. Yet, amidst the rolling hills of chardonnay and pinot noir vines sits one of the most unsuspecting collections of Scottish single malt in existence; a veritable treasure trove of mature whisky aging in top-quality sherry casks. 

Not many Americans have heard of Michel Couvreur, and even fewer know that he passed away last year after more than five decades of whisky production. Within the booze business, however, he's a bit of a legend. A Belgian-born wine lover who moved to Burgundy for the wine trade, yet vacationed in Scotland where he developed a taste for sherry-aged single malt. Believing he could possibly improve upon the quality of his beloved whiskies, he built an expansive cellar beneath his house and travelled through Jerez in search of the finest old sherry butts. He then contracted new-make spirit from his favorite Scottish distilleries and aged the whisky in his own private cave.

Again, there are no signs pointing the way to Michel Couvreur's facility and there are no signs posted upon it when you finally locate it. This is by design. They do not want to be found. With the demand for whisky what it is today and the tourist trade that has developed behind it, the small staff doesn't have the ability to serve as a public relations department. Getting an appointment isn't easy either. There is a series of screening processes guarding that path. Nevertheless, we made a special effort to connect with their cellar master, and an even greater effort (our own version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to get to their cellar. It's a destination we've had great interest in for some time.

Jean-Arnaud Frantzen has been working at Michel Couvreur for sixteen years and he couldn't be happier. He adores single malt whisky and its potential for greatness when you have respect for its process. He's carried on in Michel's absence and continues to build relationships in Spain where he travels frequently in search of the finest barrels. Unlike Scottish producers, he drives the butts back himself so that they are as fresh as possible, thereby eliminating the need for sulfur and inoculation. Couvreur has always been just as interested in the sherry itself, rather than just the whisky that was aged inside its former receptacle. 

"Every wine has its own story and each cask is different," Jean-Arnaud said. "We prefer to only use old casks, in which the sherry has sat for thirty to forty years."

Because of the Scotch Whisky Association's strict rules about single malt classification and labelling, Couvreur has always had a difficult time calling itself what it is: Scottish single malt whisky (or sometimes blended single malt whisky) aged in France. Today, many of the labels simply say "malt whisky" without any other designation. While the industry has sought to protect itself (and consumers) from imitators and frauds looking to capitalize on Scotch whisky's reputation, Couvreur is not a threat. In fact, his whiskies are so good and so innovative that they serve as inspiration for many of Scotland's best producers. Because the cellar is located in the heart of French wine country, Jean-Arnaud and his team treat whisky like French wine – they're looking for nuance and delicacy, not big alcohol and power.

Part of what allows them to achieve this nuance is the condition of their cellar, which is just beyond this unassuming door and down the steps.

Most people, when they think of a wine cellar, imagine a small room under the home where wine is stored that's no bigger than the square foot area of the house itself. Couvreur's cellar is not such a cellar, however. It's built into the side of a mountain and is absolutely gigantic (and full of aging whisky stocks). Imagine one sixty by sixty foot room, and then a hallway leading to another, and another, and another. The conditions are moist, the floors wet with pools of cave secretions, and the temperature is constant. The whisky ages very slowly, but certain parts of the cellar are dryer and warmer, creating the potential for different speeds of maturation. Casks are frequently moved from one part of the cave to another because of this.

There's a lot more to tell you about what we tasted, what we saw, and what we're planning, but that will have to wait until later. There's not enough time at the moment and we're not ready to devulge all our surprises yet.

And if you thought we were coming all the way to Burgundy just to drink whisky, you're crazy. With the rest of the afternoon off we went and got some food, a few bottles, and set out for a roaming picnic through the best Grand Cru vineyard sites. We spent the evening with a producer in Beaujolais and ate Beef Bourgignon with about ten different bottles of gamay.

What a day.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 2: Underground Whisky

There's a lot to talk about from today's events, but right now I've got neither the time nor the bandwidth. Let's just say that we didn't come to France for just brandy. And let's just say that those barrels in this gigantic underground cave aren't full of Cognac.

More soon.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 1: L'Artist de Route

First we boarded the plane, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, moving down the steps of the terminal into what was not a plane, but rather a bus that would take us to the aircraft. In we packed ourselves, like cattle, unwittingly standing in the cold morning air as it whipped across the Edinburgh runway. We waited for a solid ten minutes before the wrangler closed the gate, and sent his herd moving towards the slaughter – us unable to object to our fate.

We stepped into the strangely-shaped CityJet – wings spanning over the top of the fuselage like a T with the cabin hanging underneath it. We sat. We sat some more. We sat until it was clear we would not be leaving for Paris that morning. Mechanical failures abound.

We disembarked. We again boarded the cattle bus. We returned to the terminal chairs in which we had earlier sat. We were tired, maybe frustrated, but not disheartened. Another bizarrely-structured CityJet would be landing shortly and whisk us away to the City of Light. What was another three hours?

Except for the train connection. Dammit! We would miss our reservation from Gard de Lyon to Dijon and leave Charles Neal dangling. Could we make the next one – the last to arrive at a reasonable hour?

We landed in Paris at 2 PM. This would give us enough time to catch the final express, so long as everything fell into perfect order. But when does that ever happen? Especially in France?

We were first off the plane, the first ones through customs, and our bags were first off of the luggage dispenser. These were all important strokes of luck that could not be overlooked. But we still needed to get from CDG into downtown with a bit of Friday afternoon traffic standing between us. Was it possible? Could someone drive us from the airport to the train station in time for our departure?

We approached the taxi stand, but it was surprisingly vacant. Construction at the terminal had thrown everything into disarray, leading to all types of misplaced services and attendants. 

"Taxi, monsieur?" asked a man leaning against the wall, looking at his phone. His eyes dazzled behind his dark features and unshaven face. He was young, mysterious, and he seemed to come out of nowhere.

"Oui," David OG replied. "We're in a hurry. We need to get to Gard de Lyon as soon as possible," he explained in flawless French. "Can you take us?"

"Of course," the man replied, "but we need to hurry so I can get back before the real traffic hits."

It wasn't until we loaded our trunks and fastened our seat belts that we realized we were not in the car with a true taxi driver. 

"You want how much?" David OG exclaimed after asking about the fare. "That's ridiculous."

 But the man softly insisted, explaining that he was not much more expensive than the standard courier. 

"What can we really do?" I said to David from the backseat. "We're already on our way."

The best things in life are rarely free, nor are they cheap, and we soon discovered we weren't simply being taken by a rogue chauffeur skimming customers from the queue. We were in the car with an artist of the automobile – a magician of the road who could maneuver through traffic like a cat traversing the ledge of a building. It was unreal, magical even, and awe-inspiring. Once we had agreed to pay the incredibly high tariff, our driver – l'artiste du route – relaxed his back, composed himself, and began a dance through the Parisian highway that I will never forget.

He weaved in between trucks and trailers like a seamstress leaving perfect stitches in his wake. He shaved the corners of fenders and breezed the back of bumpers as if he knew the precise measurement of each vehicle by heart. Never did l'artiste break a sweat and never did he question his decisions. Each movement was more than an act of faith. Every turn was taken with certainty and never did we fear for our safety or experience any sense of discomfort. Just when I thought he couldn't outdo himself, he would raise the bar, leaving any hope of crescendo to languish further.

"NO!" I screamed from the back, a smile on my face, daring to believe in his abilities.

"Yes," he answered back silently, squeezing himself into a narrow nook or cranny, sending my exhilaration into a frenzy.

When we pulled up to the station, not only were we on schedule for the train, we had extra time to spare (which we spent drinking a beer).

"You see," he told me in English as he handed me my suitcase from the back, "it was expensive, but you are here when you needed to be."

"It was worth every penny," I gushed, barely able to contain my emotion. "You're not a driver. You're an artist – seriously. I've never seen anyone drive like that. Being in the car with you is like watching a master painter create with a canvas. You're incredible."

He smiled politely and waved goodbye. And we made our train.

-David Driscoll


Scotland Knick-Knacks

We got up at four AM to catch the six AM flight to Paris. Our plane, however, did not co-operate (nor operate, in general), so we had to disembark and assemble back in the main termincal for further instructions. Turns out they've got another plane coming to get us in a few hours, so it's not the end of the world. Charles Neal had sent us an email telling us he would be a few hours late picking us up, anyway. I think it said something like:

"Hey jokers, there's a tasting south of Dijon so you're going to have to entertain yourselves in town for a few hours while I attend. Find a seedy bar or something."

As we sit in the airport, reading books and perusing the internet, I've been thinking about a few tidbits I learned this week about the industry. I thought I'd pass some of them along:

- In order to make the big W (whisky), you need three other important W's: wood, warehousing, and water. I already mentioned the shortage of wood and warehouse space a few days ago, but I guess the mild winter didn't leave enough of a snow bank to supply many distilleries with the water they need for increased production.

"Do you remember what it looked like last year when you were here?" George Grant asked us at Glenfarclas yesterday. "It was covered in snow. Look at it now. We're running out of water fast."

"What happens if you run out?" we asked.

"We shut down," he answered.

It must be frustrating to know you need more whisky, but be unable to produce it due to a lack of natural resources.

- Pricing and quality is going to be a big issue this year. We tasted a lot of mediocre samples over the last week and even those weren't cheap. Some bottlers had absolutely nothing to taste, whatsoever. Even though I knew it was coming and expected it, I'm still a bit worried. We've got a few deals locked in that we're very excited about, but there are a lot of casks up in the air until further pricing review. 

Again, the issue isn't whisky in general. Most larger producers and long-standing blenders have plenty of whisky in cask. It's just that, for the single barrel market, they're not all that interesting. There's nothing alluring about a third-fill hogshead of Strathisla so light that it might as well be new make. There's nothing exciting or new about four year old Mortlach with a punch so heavy it could knock you down Mike Tyson-style. There's plenty of that stuff. But bottling single casks as a retailer is about presenting the consumer with options that are better than the standard market selection or are unique and generally unavailable. For us, it's also about providing value. Satisfying both of these criteria is not going to be easy.

- For those hoping for a bubble burst, we're right there with you. Nothing would please us more than a heavy discount on premium single malt whisky and the option to buy better casks at lower prices. We're not in the blended whisky business. We're in the premium single malt trade. Our customers aren't going to stop drinking whisky, in our opinion, because they're not following trends. They're simply people who enjoy drinking good booze. However, if the bubble does burst it's not going to change anything in the near future for the boutique whisky market, anyway. From what I've been able to gather over the past week, the increase in production by producers like Diageo is centered around the idea that India is scheduled to lower their tariffs for alcohol in 2017. That means one of the largest whisky drinking countries in the world is going to have access to Scotch at a much cheaper price than ever before and there will need to be a healthy supply to capitalize on this new demand. However, assuming everything goes as planned, we're talking mostly about blended whisky here: grain whisky with five to six year old single malts from places like Dailuaine, Roseisle, and Clynelish being married in. 

If tariffs aren't lowered and the market does crash under the weight of this expansion, it's still not going to result in a sea of cheap mature whisky for any of us – at least not in cask. Any surplus will come from the resale bottle market (from collectors who bought too much), but it's illegal for private citizens to resell spirits in the United States, so that's not going to help the consumer. A glut will possibly result in a firesale of young casks, as large blenders look to trim the fat and recoup expenses, meaning that independent bottlers will snatch them up, sit on them for another decade, and wait until they've come around before selling them off. Basically, what I'm saying is this: even if there's a crash (which I don't think there will be for some time) we'll still be another ten years away from a healthy supply of mature stocks. 

"You might want to buy two casks of Laphroaig this time," Des told me as we were finishing up at Signatory. "I don't think we'll have any mature Laphroaig available by the end of the year."

"Until when?" I asked.

"Until we get the chance to buy more, which won't be anytime soon," he replied.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 8: The Final Stretch

When you hear people talk about the whisky shortage in Scotland, it's best to specify just exactly what they mean by "shortage". Do they mean actual distilled whisky, or do they mean mature, interesting, tasty whisky that you and I, as rabid whisky fans, actually want to drink? If they mean the former, then there's no reason to panic about the lack of supply. In a few years the results of increased production, distillery expansions, and the rise of new distilleries will solve that problem. However, if they're wondering how the shortage will affect the mature single cask business (for example, the one we run here at K&L), I've got three words: be very afraid.

Two years ago when we visited George Grant at his Glenfarclas distillery, every cask from every vintage was on the table – from 1960 up until 2005. We could sample anything, buy anything, and take as much as we wanted. Today, that's not the case. Like every other distillery and independent bottler in Scotland, George has been visited by Chinese businessmen, by Norwegian businessmen, by German businessmen, by Brazilian businessmen, by Indian businessmen, and thousands of other businessmen from just about any country you can think of. They all want casks and they've all got money. But, like I've said a hundred times on this blog, it's no longer about the money. They don't need our business right now. They can pick and choose their customers as they please. We like working with George and we're glad he likes working with us.

"The first time we launched the Glenfarclas 40 year no one was interested. It took us almost ten years to sell the five hundred bottles we made. Today, I could sell that amount in less than a week," George told us. 

Stocks are low and prices for mature whiskies have doubled. This was the case at Signatory as well. Their supplies are being gobbled up ten times faster than they can replace them. We're at the point where we're considering buying some casks for 2015 as well. We don't know what's going to be here for next year's trip, so it might make sense to secure a bit more than usual. Yikes! It's tough to know how much to buy! What can we do? Let's start by tasting.

One thing I love about the Grant family is their approach to luxury – it's not something to be hoarded or stored away for later. It's something to be used and consumed. You've got good whisky? You should open it and drink it. George gave us a sample of the upcoming 60 year old Glenfarclas release like it was no big deal. George's dad couldn't join us as he was currently travelling in his 1931 Bentley – a car he has shipped all over the world so he can drive it wherever he may be.

"He didn't buy it to look at it," George said. "He bought it so he could drive it!"

We busted into the warehouses in search of some sherry-aged whisky. We found a number of great things and we came up with some great ideas. I think you're all going to be very, very happy when you see what we've come up with. More on that later.

The town of Aberlour is not only home to great whisky, but also to incredible biscuits! Walker's shortbread is made right there in the town center. How could you not stop and take a look?

So many options! How can you choose just one?

"The one in the black tin with the bagpiper on it is a limited edition made specifically for our local rotary club," the lady behind the counter said. "You can only get it here."

"Then that's the one I want!" I said. Limited edition! I was pumped. In fact, I've decided to stop blogging about whisky and switch over to the various tins available from the Walker's shortbread line-up. My first post will be about the all-black, embossed Scottish bagpipe player edition – a small batch of cookies made specifically for the Aberlour Rotary Club. I give it 92 points.

With so much to pack in on our last day, we booked it over to Benriach where we met with Euan to go through samples of all three Benriach distilleries: the eponymous Elgin location, along with Glendronach and the newly-acquired Glenglassaugh. We still need to taste through more samples tonight in our hotel room as we didn't have time to get through the lot.

One last trip down through the Cairngorns and one final goodbye from the heavens. A beautiful end to a beautiful trip.

See you tomorrow in Burgundy!

-David Driscoll