women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Buvez-vous [du whisky] Français?
Spotlight on Allison Parc, Brenne Whisky
Last month we explored the familiar whiskey terrains of Kentucky Bourbon and Scotch from, well, Scotland. This month, our Women in Whisk(e)y journey delves into the idea of “terroir,” specifically that of France.
Mention the words “French” and “alcohol” to most Americans and the usual responses are wine, Champagne, or Cognac. Occasionally you may even get vodka (for the “Grey Goose” fans). Dare to put the words “French” and “whisky” together and often there is a pause followed by a look of either confusion or disbelief. Even a few hardcore Francophiles I know may go into pearl clutching mode upon hearing “French whisky.”
You may say to yourself: “French whisky? Is this really a thing?” Actually yes, it is.
This month we profile Allison Parc, an American that asked herself, “Why is French whiskey NOT a thing?” and founded Brenne Whisky, produced in the Cognac region of France. I was fortunate enough to chat with her over the phone as we quarantined in our respective homes.
As the youngest of three sisters, Allison’s entrepreneurial streak was honed early. We had a quick chuckle when I told her that while researching her background, I found out that as a child, she had set up a homemade craft stand in order to get herself a bunny. Allison channeled her discipline into professional ballet and fulfilled a dream to live in New York City. She then pivoted from ballet and was able to finally indulge in her love for food and drink, mostly wine with a growing appreciation for whisky.
After a brief stint in fine jewelry, her original intention had been to start an import/export company to bring new whiskeys into the U.S. She chronicled her moves through whisky circles in her blog, ‘The Whisky Woman’ that included interviews and reviews. It was during this that Allison discovered a statistic often cited in industry but not well known to consumers: that France holds the record of the highest consumption of whisky per capita worldwide: 2.15 liters per person per year, as reported by Forbes in 2019. A consistent statistic for at least the last 5 years, they drink more whisky than they do Champagne or Cognac.
So yes, why NOT a French Whisky?
As the daughter of a physicist father and an artist mother, Allison told me that she learned to think of everything in life as an experiment and to have no shame in trying something new.
She wanted to create a terroir focused single malt whisky and Allison knew that France would be the perfect place to achieve this goal. While Allison admired the strict production standards required of Scotch to preserve quality, that did not yet exist for whiskeys produced in France and she didn’t want to make a French “copycat” of Scotch.
Through her global whisky community, previously built when she thought she would do import/export, Allison was connected to a third-generation farmer and distiller whose main product was Cognac. It turned out he also distilled whisky on the side using grain from his own farm, aged in New French Limousin oak casks.
Allison came up with the idea of finishing the whisky in his ex-Cognac casks, making it the first single malt French whisky to be finished in this fashion.
about a barrel: french oak
Wood is often cited as being responsible for 60 to 70% of a whisky’s flavor. Whisky is mostly aged in oak (scientific name Quercus) barrels, although there exist whiskies rumored to use other wood such as maple, hickory, or chestnut. France has two types of oak trees: Quercus robur and Quercus sessiliflora. Quercus robur (also known as pedunculata) grows in Limousin and accounts for 20% of the trees in France. The forest soil is similar to that in the Cognac region and the trees chosen are generally 125-200 years old using wood from only the first few meters of the tree. Limousin has medium and large grain that makes it more porous and imparts a French vanilla flavor rich in tannin used to age cognacs such as Rémy Martin French oak barrels are the most expensive on the market, retailing between $1,000 to $1,400 USD.
As the inaugural batch for distribution matured, Allison spent many days and nights wading through the legalities of setting up the ability to produce the whisky in France, import it to the United States, and distribute it. It should also be noted that she did this while travelling and continued her blog to promote fellow bloggers and small business owners she met along the way.
In early 2012, Allison focused on brand development (design, TTB approvals, cork sourcing, bottle making, pallet treating, etc.). If you’re curious about the brand name (which sounds and looks like it could be the name of a small French town), it turns out that the origin is more bittersweet. She divulged that the “Brenne” brand name was an homage to when she first met her distiller and not being fluent in French, initially tripped on pronunciation.
But she didn’t hesitate when it came time to go all in, wiring her entire life savings to France to get Brenne going. Listening to her enthusiastically describe the early days, you sense the strong relationship Allison established with her distiller, who continues to lead a discrete life on the estate with his family.
It would be the fall of 2012 that Allison’s “take a deep breath and learn to fly” moment would occur. Her launch date was set for October 1, 2012. She cold-called Park Avenue Liquors and gave them a taste of Brenne; they ordered three cases.
Allison was on the phone with her mom when Park Avenue Liquors called and was convinced that they were cancelling the order…. Instead they wanted to change the order to 10 cases! She spent the first year delivering Brenne personally in NYC on a Citibike and her first shipment sold out within two months. In 2015, she added Brenne Ten Year with a limited run of 300 cases.
Brenne Whisky: from Barley to Bottle
Two types of heirloom barley grown on-site are malted with the distiller’s proprietary strain of yeast in the Cognac region of France.
The mash is twice distilled in an alembic Charente still, which is generally used for Cognac
Matured in both new French Limousin Oak barrels and ex-Cognac casks
Proofed with water from the Charente River
Tasting Notes from their site:
Brenne Estate Cask (Aged 6 - 8 years, ABV 40%): Perfumed fruit and French patisserie aromas with creamy and complex sugar notes of rich creme brûlée and burnt caramel. On the palate: notes of banana, tropical fruits, and warm spices like cinnamon and clove.
Brenne Ten 2008 Vintage (Aged 10 years, ABV 49%): Brenne Ten shares the Estate Cask’s DNA but features a deeper, striking richness. On the palate: a creamy fruit-forward taste with notes of dried fruits, chili spice, and dark chocolate.
Since Brenne’s debut, in 2019 Forbes reported the number of French whisky distillers went from few to 45. Unlike Cognac or Scotch whisky, it is mostly consumed domestically with less than 10% exported and as an industry average whisky production in 2018 was 2,000,000 liters (the equivalent of the annual production of one medium-sized Scotch whisky distillery). A newly created trade association, Federation du Whisky de France, emerged last year dedicated to legally define “French whisky” which remains largely unknown to consumers and Francophiles alike.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in a crowd of “Whisk(e)y”-philes, the words “French whisky” are generally met with confusion, initially, followed by an inquisitive, “I wonder what that tastes like?”which is how I personally shared my discovery of Brenne at Analogue, a West Village craft cocktail bar in NYC with my Whisky + Books book club (we paired it with Jean Echenoz’s Ravel). Everyone found the spirit to be unique and as did fellow whiskey enthusiasts at last year’s Whiskey Extravaganza and Indie Spirits Expo.
Today, Brenne is now available in major markets and in top bars throughout the United States, France, United Kingdom, Holland, Taiwan, and India. Both whiskeys are recipients of numerous awards, in addition to Allison herself - she was named World Whiskey Brand Ambassador, USA, at Whiskey Magazine’s Icons of Whiskey (2017, 2018) and the only woman to have ever received this recognition.
Having received these accolades and on a steady expansion, Allison remains humble about her accomplishments and mindful of her beginnings. At the end of our chat I asked her if there was anything else she’d like me to include and it was twofold. First, a “thank you” to everyone that supported her from the beginning and continues to do so. Second, a simple ask for people in quarantine to try to support small businesses where possible.
Santé until next month’s Women in Whiskey!
Editor's Note: The author has had the pleasure of pouring Brenne at tasting events through an association with Samson & Surrey. She was neither approached nor compensated for this piece; the only influence Allison had was creating a delicious whisky.