France 2013 - Day 7 - A Tale of Two Cities (Paris)

Ahhh......Paris. What a beautiful place. The buildings are stunningly gorgeous, the atmosphere is vibrant, and the streets are alive with energy.

Mopeds and scooters are constantly zipping in between the cars, the roundabouts are like warzones, and even the bicyclists are well-dressed and full of gusto. We saw a woman peddling her way around a bus with an Yves St. Laurent handbag. That blew my mind.

You may not think of Paris as a whisky capital, but it's home to one of the most impressive collections of single malt we've ever seen: La Maison du Whisky. We headed over to the original store location this morning and met with Salvatore Mannino – the brand ambassador for the company. He explained how their operation worked while David and I sat there with our mouths open, practically drooling over every word.

There's all kinds of shit you can do in Europe that would be completely forbidden in the United States. First off, you can be an importer and a retailer. Basically, you can buy it directly from the producer and sell your product to yourself, along with other retailers. La Maison du Whisky is the importer for Compass Box, Glendronach, Benriach, Gordon & MacPhail, Nikka, and a number of other producers for France. In other words, they make money by selling it directly to you as well as to every restaurant and retailer in the region. It also means they're free to do all kinds of mix and match gift sets like the ones pictured above. You can get a sample pack of ten different whiskies all in little vials for a variety of different flavors. It's absolutely genius.

While we're stuck with the three-tiered system in America, where retailers are beholded to importers and distributors, there is something to be said for both systems. The French market allows retailers to buy directly and sell to restaurants. That's great if you're the one in control. However, if you're a small retailer who wants to get into the business you have to buy your booze from your competitor, La Maison du Whisky. What if Wally's or Beltramos had to buy their booze from K&L every time a customer asked for Kilchoman? They could never advance beyond us or be competitive with pricing because we would determine what they paid. The American system adds extra tiers into the market, but at least we all have to buy from the same people who are not competing with us. Distributors cannot sell directly to the public for that reason.

Quite an interesting education today! We're headed to London in about forty minutes. The next time you're in Paris you should definitely stop by Maison du Whisky and check out their old and rare collection. It's jaw-dropping. They can buy bottles directly from private customers, so they work as high-end whisky pawn shop as well. It's an amazing store and we want to thank Salvadore for taking the time with us.

You should go there. And you should go here:

L'as du Falafel. David OG's favorite restaurant in all of Paris. There's a line to get in all day long, but it's totally worth waiting. The best falafel in the world? Perhaps.

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 6 - Back in Normandy

Today is going to be another day where I let the photos do most of the talking. We're in Paris now, we've been up late because we got here late, we couldn't find a place to stay for about an hour and a half, and we didn't eat dinner until midnight. Now I've gotta pack and check out of the hotel in about twenty minutes and I couldn't find the cord to connect the camera to the computer until now. Jeez! The stress! We've got about five hours here before we catch the train to London, so it should be nice to have a little bit of down time. Here's what happened yesterday in Normandy.

We arrived at the Camut house two days ago for an evening of food and business. These houses always look straight out of fairy tales. This is their grandfather's old home where the estate is today.

You might remember these two brothers that get along extremely well. Jean Gabriel and Emmanual. Two seriously cool dudes who like to cook meat over fire. This time it was a rack of lamb.

Norman cheese goes with 25 year old Camut Calvados. Remember that when you pick up a bottle.

The next day it was off to find some new producers. We started at Pierre Huet, which is one of the larger distillers in the Pays d'Auge. They've got a serious warehouse. Remember that Calvados is often stored in gigantic barrels to minimize the wood influence.

They work with 30-40 varieties of apple, some grown on bastige and some on hautige plantings (low and high - high is better because the trees take longer to grow and the fruit is ultimately better). They purchase some fruit as well from the town nearby.

After Huet it was on to Hubert which has been taken over by the daughter Astrid. Her property is absolutely gorgeous and her booze is good too!

Astrid is also quite a character and a go-getter. She wants to modernize the package of the bottles and make it more elegant. A feminine style, you might say. "After all, I am a woman!" she exclaimed. We plan on buying a few things from her collection of fine booze.

After Hubert we visited a small farmer named Gerard Perigault. "Mr. Driscoll, did you touch any livestock while you were abroad?"

Pierre makes an old and rustic style of Calvados. Very light, very lean, with minimal oak. We thought they were very interesting, but we didn't find anything that fit the bill.

Gotta run! Gotta get my clothes packed!

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 5 - Hennessy

Since we had to pass back through Cognac on the way north to Normandy, we thought we should visit the largest producer in the region seeing we had spent so much time at the smaller ones. At least for the sake of perspective. Hennessy owns 200 hectares of vineyards in the Grand Champagne region alone (pretty much all of it) and they work with another 2500 or so producers from whom they purchase either distillate or the wine from their various grapes. They're owned by LVMH, the same company that owns Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, so we knew we'd get a great response if we asked to stop by. As usual, the people at LVMH set us up with an outstanding tour.

While there is no distillation on site at the Hennessy headquarters in downtown Cognac, there is a fantastic museum. It's great to visit the smaller farms like Jacques Esteve or Bouju, but you're not going to see a whole lot of production happening in late March. The models that are in the Hennessy museum, however, make understanding the entire process – from vineyard to bottle – quite simple and fun. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more because you reall get a grasp of what's happening. Hennessy does do some of their own distillation from three different sites all equipped with ten stills or so like the alambic pictured above.

One of the coolest displays at the museum is the breakdown of soils between the various regions in Cognac. You can see the limestone directly underneath the top soil in Grand Champagne.

Whereas Fin Bois has much more clay, producing wines with lower acidity levels that aren't quite as good for distillation. This all makes a big difference in the flavor of the final eau-de-vie.

Hennessy still has insanely old Cognacs sitting in barrel at their warehouses. They also have a guy whose sole job is the write the name of the distillate and the vintage upon each one. Our guide Fay told us he has a master's degree in calligraphy just to do this one job!

They also have really old Cognac resting in glass demijohns so that they don't mature any further in wood. Two hundred and twelve years in a barrel might be a bit too long for some brandies.

If you really want to get crazy you can purchase one of these super exclusive Cognac packages. This one sells for $100,000 and they only made 100 for the world. Who's in?

The story of Hennessy as a producer is really quite interesting. Richard Hennessy himself was not French, but rather an Irishman who came over to found the company in 1765. You can still see the date scratched on the original warehouse he bought in 1774. Today it's grown into a company that sells 63 million bottles a year worldwide. You can see why they need to work with so many farmers and producers to maintain a solid stock of distillate. They've got 300,000 barrels aging in fifty large warehouses today and all of the expressions are still blended by the Filloux family, who have been doing so for seven generations.

It's crazy to think about how large businesses develop. We were talking about it in the car on the long drive yesterday. You buy some land, make some Cognac, sell it to a few locals, and then you need some more. If you sell more bottles then you can buy some more land in order to make more product, but then you'll have to hire more help. You want to spend some more time with your family, so you need to hire some workers. If you make enough money to hire more help you can spend more time finding new customers. You know how it goes from there. It's amazing to think that Hennessy started that way. Just a guy from Ireland using his successes from the brandy business to expand an empire.

Today the top market for Hennessy is the United States, believe it or not. China and Taiwan are right behind us, but we drink the most VS in America. It's still quite popular with the young club scene and the hip-hop movement, so there's no sign of Hennessy losing business as their customer base matures over the next decade. They're going to have to worry about what most brown booze businesses are currently freaking out over – where are they going to find more product? Unlike single malt, you can't just buy more base ingredient and distill it. It has to come from a specific designated region and there's only so much of it. Crazy!

We spent last night with the Camut brothers and we're all a bit hung at the moment. It was a long and crazy night. Lots of cheese, lots of apple-based products. We're out in Normandy today if we can drag ourselves out of bed and into the car.

More on our adventures later today.

-David Driscoll


Calvados Overload

6 hours in the car and 6 hours of tasting Calvados has left Driscoll asleep at the wheel. I'm taking April, 1st to examine myselves just a little bit and so I'm turning the comments ON just because I can. Got a problem? Have a question? Really feeling like you need to respond to a blog post from six months ago? Waiting to comment on Driscoll's taste in music? Now is your chance. Please feel free to bombard us with your opinions because I don't think you'll have another chance this year. By the way, that 1960 Malt Mill they found tastes terrible...

-David OG

HEY! What the hell is going on? This is crazy! This is anarchy! I'm turning these back off!

(thanks for all the nice words everyone!)

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 4 - Easter in Montreal

No time to type anything right now! We're on the move. As Charles would say, "You don't need to play Erin Brockovich all the time." I'll let these photos speak for themselves.










-David Driscoll