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Malt, French Style

I’ve been trying to steer clear of the initial rush around new bottles these days. To me there’s a sort of palate/blogger recency effect where everyone ricochets between new releases and really only can contextualize a new bottle in context of the last few sips they’ve had. That’s a big reason why I haven’t been in a rush to be first-to-taste anymore. Plus it’s allowed me to slow down and enjoy what I’ve purchased.

One of the bottles I’ve kind of been on the sidelines of is Brenne. Hang around in whisky circles online and it’s almost unavoidable – among the Twitter whisky people and their related blogs, this one swept through by storm. There was a recent second spasm of coverage following an event in LA. While I love meeting fellow Angelenos, events are just tough for me personally – I really enjoy something a little lower-key. You can call me an antisocial troll; it won’t hurt my feelings. After all, according to Twitter and other retailer blogs, I’m scarcely more than a full-time hater and angry young man.

Being aware of the event, though, I wasn’t surprised to see a bottle at a horrendous, price-gouging, unscrupulous retailer who is really emblematic of all that is Wrong with liquor sALes on the west side of town. SurprisingLY, their uSual staggering markup had been curbed, and this was at market parity. Clearly this means Brenne needs to sling some serious bullshit and perhaps do some artificial special editions; there’s profit being left on the table here. I’d suggest a limited edition trio of bottles – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, with blue/white/red labels – which really need not differ from the main release but could surely suck another $35 from the unwashed masses. Maybe bump the ABV up to 50%?

This is glib and unfair, of course. Brenne is the brainchild of Allison Patel, and there has been plenty written about this whisky both from her own perspective as well as people with better access than I have. Start with her blog and then hit Google.

The long and short of Brenne is that it’s a French single malt whisky finished in cognac casks.

[pandering and mostly unfunny jokes about surrender, cheese, wine, and freedom fries go here]

Cognac cask finishing is the hook on this one for me. While I don’t like cognac or armagnac (leave that to Sku), I can’t deny that as a finish, it has done some really fantastic things to whisky in my opinion. The Parker’s Heritage finished in cognac originally seemed a little too sweet, but really acquitted itself admirably as a “dessert whisky”, if there is such a thing — sweet and just generally agreeable, though not particularly challenging. There was a 43 year old Glenfarclas aged in a cognac cask, but that’s practically cheating: 43 year old Glenfarclas is a staggeringly high bar to begin with in general, and it sat tremendously well with the cognac finish.

With the opportunity to almost pay a reasonable retail price at Westwood’s Wildly overpriced Wine retailer serving as novelty/justification on its own, I picked this bottle up. And then I even paid for it, all by myself.

When I opened it to pour, I was hit by an intense – and I mean intense – fruit aroma. It was kind of a mix of apple and strawberry, but usually I only expect this kind of a kick of scent from an Islay or an early 70s Bruichladdich, which is just apple overload.

Even on subsequent pours, I kept smelling the strong aroma; it doesn’t seem to be one of those first-out-of-the-bottle exaggerated perception things.

In the glass, this has extremely strong fruity notes; it’s got an apple-esque presence up front, but sort of a strawberry-like body behind it. That strawberry vibe is markedly artificial, and I kept thinking “strawberry Twizzlers”. There’s a candy feeling to the whole thing; I smelled Fruit Stripe gum at one point, but then got some real fruit – poached pear and then a pineapple/banana/vanilla thing. (OK, Juicy Fruit gum).

The palate is where things get a bit confused for me. There’s this mixture of grounded, “real” flavors versus artificial flavors – Juicy Fruit comes up first, with pepper right behind. Hmm. There’s a medicinal quality, but it’s not the iodine/menthol that gets that. It’s that flash you get from NyQuil when you try to figure out what it would taste like without the artificial flavor. To be totally honest, it reminds me of Mucinex Severe Congestion and Cough formula, but less overtly “blue raspberry bomb pop” flavored.

The finish races by with the late Mucinex thing from the palate, but it suddenly shows some traditional whisky notes – slight leather, a touch of cinnamon and a faint, faint dash of white pepper. But then it’s all over.

I came back to this a few times thinking my palate was off or hoping to see it oxidize into something a little less punchy — how many times has that happened? (A lot). Unfortunately, it was pretty much on this, delta the usual night-to-night palate variation.

Unfortunately, this is one of those whiskeys that is just a wide shot off my personal preferences and one that’s going to be hard for me to like. It sits in company like Woodford Reserve (Sonoma Cutrer came to mind from a textural and mouthfeel standpoint, though SC is about a trillion times worse than Brenne could ever hope to be) in that regard. I don’t doubt there are people who like — love, even — what Brenne brings to the table. It’s just so candied and gummy and sticky-sweet that it passes over a personal preference for me.

I certainly don’t write this to savage Allison’s effort; hell, it’s more drinkable than other French malts solo. I also don’t write to be contrarian, as there are a lot of people who really like this stuff. I really am posting my less-than-thrilled take on it because there are people who aren’t as keen on the big, sweet profile in bourbon or beyond. For my peeps in the rye society: this isn’t your whiskey, guys.

That said, if the notes I’ve posted sound appealing to you, Brenne is reasonably priced and worth a risk. To me, and to further ground this, this is in the same category as Angel’s Envy Rye – undeniably weird and unlike anything else due to a very heavy finish influence. AE Rye was weird and emphatically did not work for a lot of people, though I really enjoyed it in its glorious one-trick-pony-ness. Brenne is weird and emphatically does not work for me, but it might be just the thing for you. I’m going to pass if you offer it to me, though.

At a glance:

Brenne Whisky, 40% ABV (Barrel 265)
Nose: 
Extremely strong fruity notes; kind of has a mixture of apple cider but then a more strawberry-esque (but not quite) note, a la red Twizzlers. A kind of candy vibe all over; maybe even some Fruit Stripe gum. It’s extremely powerful. A little bit of poached pear and some pineapple/vanilla/light banana – or keeping with the candy theme, we’ll call it Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate:  Kind of a strange clash. The overpowering half-real, half-artificial note, a little more Juicy Fruit than anything else; butting up against a little very light pepper. There’s also this kind of medicinal undertone to it – not the kind of nasty iodiney/menthol thing, but kind of that flash you get from NyQuil where you’re trying to figure out what isn’t blatantly artificial. This reminds me of liquid Mucinex (Severe Congestion and Cough formulation) but less “blue raspberry bomb pop” flavor.
Finish:  Kind of races out with that late Mucinex thing, but then has a slight leather quality; a touch of cinnamon and maybe a faint, faint hit of white pepper.
Comment:  This one really doesn’t have a chance for me; the profile is just wide of the mark. A little too heavy-handed with the fruit, but when it settled, I wondered if the spirit underneath didn’t have a heavy oak kick. Who knows.
Rating: C