France Day 2 - Alsace to Beaune

I had an exciting day of visits throughout Alsace and further south today. I'd hoped to cement some of the relationships I’d established last year and perhaps find another interesting distillery or two. It began early at the Maison d'hotes Douce Nuit where I'd arrived in Zutendorf late last night. Situated around the area are multiple distilleries, but the one I'm really interested in is Distillerie Bertrand. This tiny little operation has been going strong since the 1800s. When I say tiny, I mean exactly that. There are only four employees total-their office manager Isabelle, the distiller Ben, the warehouse guy Laurent, and the energetic owner Jean Metzger.

Jean is unflappable and direct, but also kind and gracious. He’s a total local, but loves to surfing in Sri Lanka and works as a life guard at the local pool to make ends meet. He's first and foremost a wine lover, wine before whisky without a doubt. It was this passion for wine that ultimately led him to attempt something special in the burgeoning category of Whisky d’Alsace. The AOC classification is finally done after nearly a decade of work (a big deal here in France), but distilling beer is not a new thing here. In fact, the distillery has shared trade mark (with two other local distillers) for an Eau-de-vie of Beer called Fleur de Biere that goes back many. His first distillation of Single Malt (a wort containing no hops and 100% malted barley) was in 2003. 

While it’s was not the first malt whisky distilled in Alsace, Jean figures it was likely the second and he makes a point of the fact that it was the first to be distilled with beer brewed in the same place as distillation. The organic brewery next door is responible for mashing and fermenting. This is why he calls it Uberach, homage to the place he feels is an essential element the spirits character. 

Other than then the sense of terroir that he’s trying to capture, the other element that is essential – as is truth with almost all whisky- is the elevage or aging. That brings us to the barrels. Oh god. The barrels he has are just silly. It’s a veritable rolodex of France’s finest wine producers. It should be noted that while he does make a point of the fact that he works with some of France's most renowned and exciting wine producers, he does not feel that the intensity of the wine influence necessarily means better whisky. Certain casks, like the first fill Banyuls (a fortified wine something akin to Port) turn out these rich inky whiskies that are obviously heavily marked by the flavor of the wine. Jean prefers those same casks on the second or third fill. He's concerned with highlighting the malt and making sure the flavor of the spirit is not completely overshadowed by the cask influence. 

I personally think that his most impressive whiskies are the oldest with the most intense cask influence, but perhaps that will change as the quality of spirit and the average age improve. On that note, did get a chance to taste a two week old spirit peated to 40 ppm that has replaced the less peaty versions from earlier distillations. It’s clear that there’s been a massive improvement in the base spirit over the last 13 years. This new spirit is full of sweet malt and earthy peat played perfectly together. While it doesn’t feel like a young Islay, it is malted on locally sourced peat of course; the closest thing I can compare it to is the wonderful young spirit coming out of Kilchoman. 

Unfortunately, due to many factors the distillery can only produce a few weeks out of the year. With his small stills and bootstrap attitude, he’s filling less than 30 barrels a year. We’ll be lucky if we see any of Mr. Metzger’s exceptional single cask products this year, but in the mean time you can check out his wonderfully unique and utterly quirky assemblage he bottled for us here.

 Before I left Jean insisted that he show me around a bit. We headed up the hill to see a monument to one of the town's "Patron." This Scottish nobleman had travelled to the village several hundred years ago and decided to was wonderful. He was a great contributor to the village's development and is considered a founding father. Jean insists that these sorts of connections are important, "we've always had a connection to the home of Single Malt." Next, it was time for lunch, but first to the family caves. We spent a good half hour debating what we should bring before a light bulb went off, "You must try Overnoy!" If I must Jean, if I must.

After an incredible Alsatian lunch, I headed south toward the Jura. On the way I made a slight detour to one of the better known whisky distillers in France, G. Rozelieurs. Distilled by the Maison de Mirabelle in the town of the same name, Rozelieurs is likely one of the most classically styled single malts being bottled right now in France. The family has purchased vast amounts of land over the last century and along with countless Mirabelle orchards, they've also set up large scale grain production in the region. As you walk into the distillery, you’re ushered into a very well adorned theater to experience a lengthy film about the production Mirabelle Eau-de-vie. Next we’re taken to the distillery where a laser light show explains the distillation process for the company’s three products, eau-de-vie, whisky and perfume. It’s kind of like DistilleryLand and I was shocked not to find a man in a full body plum costume in the distillery shop. Despite the touristy antics, Rozelieurs is doing a lot of things right.

In many ways the elevage is similar to Scottish Single Malt, save the use of cognac style pot stills rather than the Scottish pots we know. Aging is conducted mainly in Sherry, Bourbon, ex-Cognac and Sauterne cask rather than the new French or other wine casks that many others in France are using. Their entry level malts are lightly peated at 80 proof with the range increasing in price, proof and peatiness. Unfortunately, I was unable to taste any single barrels at full strength, but the potential for something very high quality is there. My favorite offerings were the entry level and the heavily peated aged only in bourbon cask. It may take some time to tease out what exactly the potential is here, but it seems like their distilling on a fairly large scale and that could mean good things down the line. 

As I walked out of the Maison de Mirabelle, the skies opened up and suddenly sheets of warm water drenched the picturesque countryside. In the thirty feet it took to get to the car I'd been totally saturated. The subsequent slog down to the Jura seemed less and less likely considering it was already mid-afternoon, so I elected to forgo my appointment (Gentian Eau-de-Vie can wait) and headed straight to Beaune where my good friend Jean-Arnaud from Michel Couvreur Whisky was waiting. 

Indeed, he was prepared for me. We shared a wonderful dinner on the terrace at the Maison Colombier. An excellent Chablis from Pico and discussion of the incredible opportunities that exist in Couvreur's underground cellars were a welcome end to a long day of driving. Much of what we covered is completely off the record, but rest assured this producer will be an important part of the K&L Selection for years to come and continue to astonish us all throughout. Tomorrow, only 7 hours to Gascogne. Wish me Luck.

-David Othenin-Girard

David Othenin-Girard