Alison Patel of Brenne has confidently entered the giant boys' club of whisky, an industry that has been, at best, dismissive of 50% of the population or, at worst, determinedly misogynistic (also see booth babes, Dewar's "The Drinking Man's Scotch" and "The Baron" campaigns, and a number of contemporary bottle labels with women in states undress and/or riding phalluses). But while I'd love to support independent progressive venture like Brenne, it still needs to put a good product on the shelf. (I feel the same way about the rise of independent "craft" American distillers. While I'd love to support American small businesses, if the whisky isn't good -- and much of it isn't -- then I'm not going to buy it.)
Brenne gets its whisky from a single small distiller in Cognac, France. The barley is from Cognac. The whisky is distilled, matured, and bottled there as well. The distiller does a double distillation on his alembic still, as he does for his cognac. The spirit is then aged in "new Limousin oak barrels before being finished in Cognac casks." Until this year, Brenne had one product, the Estate Cask, which was a series of single barrel releases, bottled at 40%abv and without an age statement (though the website says the casks were seven years on average). Last month, a second product entered the market, Brenne Ten, a ten year old single malt with a different maturation process and bottled at 48%abv. Ms. Patel selects the Estate Casks herself and was responsible for the blending of Brenne Ten.
Full disclosure: I have met Alison Patel and I can tell you that she can out cuss the rest of the room like any self-respecting former Joffrey Ballet dancer can. It was a pleasure talking to her about Brenne and a bunch of non-whisky things. Likely the result of this conversation, her company sent me the samples I am reviewing today. Due to the sample size I'll be using a letter grade range for these two whiskies.
BRENNE ESTATE CASK
Region: Cognac region, France
Grain: Malted Barley
Age: around 7 years
Maturation: first in new Limousin casks, then finished in ex-Cognac casks
Alcohol by volume: 40%
Color -- Light gold
Nose -- Saltwater taffy and circus peanuts, big time. Then there's the white chocolate and orange blossom notes I've previously found in these casks. Here and there arise smaller notes of strawberries, Twizzlers, and burnt grain.
Palate -- A swirl of taffy, caramel, and white chocolate. After a few minutes, it develops a bit of malt and herbal bitterness. Gradually it focuses in on the herbal notes and white chocolate.
Finish -- Sugary. Circus peanuts, white chocolate, and cocoa. It picks up the bitter note after a while.
Region: Cognac region, France
Grain: Malted Barley
Age: around 10 years
Maturation: "a blend of 4 barrels of Brenne. I'm using a combination of virgin French Oak and ex-Cognac casks as I've done for Brenne Estate Cask but choosing this time to have some that have been in both barrels and others that are exclusively aged in either the virgin French Oak or the Cognac barrel for the full 10 years."
Alcohol by volume: 48%
Color -- Amber, lighter than the Estate Cask
The nose is very floral and almost smoky. Notes of pine needles and nectarines merge with just a hint of the Estate's taffy. The occasional whisper of soap shows up. A note of fresh coffee grounds develops after ten minutes.
The palate is darker than the Estate's. Roasted and toasted nuts and grains sit up front. Mocha and a slight menthol nip meet hints of flower blossoms and barrel char.
On the finish, the menthol bit turns into a wormwood bite. There are some caramel chews, limes, and a little bit of oak.
The Estate Cask has tended to be polarizing when I've tried it in groups. Some people like it, some don't. Perhaps it's the floral element or its occasionally cognac-like nature. It's not an overall crowd pleaser, but its uniqueness gives it a spot in the marketplace. The quality or tenor of the Estate Cask varies from cask to cask; though this sample did not have a cask number listed it's pretty representative of the product's general characteristics. If you're interested in the Estate Cask, I'd recommend trying to find a bar that has it and sampling it there. My wife liked it when she tried it a couple years ago. I do like the nose better than the palate, which sometimes seems like a curious liqueur-like blend of Lowland scotch and young cognac [Ed. note: Crap, Sku already said this.]. Grade range: C+/B-
Meanwhile, Brenne Ten is a very different whisky and will appeal more directly to single malt scotch fans. Perhaps it's a combination of the age, the oak, and the strength, but it provides a more familiar experience for some of us. It's less sweet, the floral notes are quieter, the grain itself is louder, as is the good oak. Some will balk at the price, $100, which is a reasonable response. I do like it enough that had it been at the $70ish level, I'd spring for a bottle. Grade range: B