The answer, it turned out, was whisky. A longtime whisky lover, Allison officially launched her own brand, Brenne, in 2012. In true artistic form, it’s not your typical whisky. Instead of turning to the usual suspects (Scotland, United States, looking at you), Allison founded Brenne in Cognac, France, where she met a small-scale producer who was distilling single malt from heirloom estate-grown barley and maturing it in French oak and eventually, with Allison’s coaxing, Cognac casks. Voilá.
Taking terroir seriously is the French way, and Brenne brings the unmistakable flavor and style of France to the whisky cabinet. We caught up with Allison to learn more about what made her fall in love with spirits, how she picked her production partner, and why she finds world whisky so exciting.
How did you first get into whisky?
I loved the taste! And I loved the slow-sipping culture of whisky and what it was doing for me as I was shifting out of the ballet world and trying to integrate into regular society. As a ballerina, you’re almost a different species. I remember being at a cousin’s weddings and when I was talking to some of my family members with a glass of whiskey in my hand, I felt like they saw me differently, like they saw me as ME and that was really powerful.
Then I had a glass of Yamazaki 18, and I thought, “That’s really delicious. I need to understand how that is so incredible!” At the time, I didn’t understand whisky the way I do now. Most of what I’d tasted up to that point was Dewar’s and ginger ale. So I thought, oh, it must be so different because it’s made in Japan and they’re using local indigenous ingredients to give it a sense of taste and place. That’s really not what Yamazaki stands on as a product ethos, but it was enough to get me really excited and nerdy about diving into the vast world whisky space.
Tell us about making the leap from whisky fan to whisky brand owner.
My first idea was to start an import company importing single malt from non-traditional countries that are focused on terroir. As a consumer, I wanted to experience those whiskies, and they just weren’t here at the time. When I went out and started meeting a lot of distillers and educating myself on all aspects of whisky, I realized people weren’t focusing on terroir as a method of production and innovation as I thought it possible. Then I thought, if no one is doing it the way I believe possible, let’s scratch the idea of an import company and start a whisky using all the techniques I see possible and see if we can get a sense of place in the taste.
Why did you look to France for your partner?
When you look at France, so many of the consumable goods there are very regionalized. Wines have a real focus on terroir. They also have a rich distillation history, with calvados, Armagnac, and Cognac. For a very long time, they were also the largest per capita consumers of Scotch in the world. So it seemed like the perfect trifecta for me.
Tell us about your production partner?
It’s a super small family farm distillery. This family has been operating on this land since 1920, so I work with the third generation distiller. He had started making a single malt whisky that was never bottled, and was really just designed as their “house spirit” for them to drink at home because all their Cognac was under contract.
When we met, that whiskey was about four years old. We worked together another three to four years, so we were bottling between six and eight-year-old whisky for that first release that went out in 2012. We’re the perfect partners for each other. He’d already started in on that whisky terroir journey without realizing what he’d done. He grows two heirloom varieties of barley, all organic, all out the back door of the distillery and Brenne is made with that barley! He uses local water, uses a proprietary strain of yeast used for Cognac, and distills on a Cognac still.
What kinds of barrels do you use?
Most single malts are aged in bourbon or sherry barrels, and 60-70% of the flavor of any whisky is going to come from the barrels in which it is aged. So if that much comes from the barrels and the majority of single malts are aged in bourbon and or sherry, just by changing our oak profile, we’ve radically altered how our whisky will taste.
Our barrels are new French Limousin oak, and also Cognac barrels. So you get this whisky that has an incredible bouquet of fruit, floral, and creamy notes. To me, it’s incredibly evocative of the south of France. Brenne is elegant, approachable and different all while respecting tradition, just using ingredients that are local and mean something to this special little place on the planet. When you pour a glass of Brenne, you just want to be with this whisky, to hang out with it and let it tell you a story as it opens up in your glass over time.
Do people scratch their heads when you tell them Brenne is from France?
Brenne launched on October 1, 2012. From 2012 until probably the beginning of 2016, it was definitely a narrative I had to bridge. Yes, the French can make whisky! Now, that question barely comes up any more. That’s a really exciting change, and anecdotally, I sense that has come from the expansion and success of other world whisky brands. Seeing Kavalan, Paul John, Amrut, Mackmyra, the success of all the Japanese brands, I think it has been this rising tide that raises all ships.
What’s your favorite way to drink Brenne?
Brenne is such a beautiful, unique, fruit-forward, floral, creamy single malt. I think it’s important to try it neat first so you can get to know it. In summer, I love sipping Brenne Estate Cask on the rocks with an orange or grapefruit peel. It’s such a refreshing experience! If I’m in a cocktail mood, I love Brenne in classic cocktails like a Manhattan, Sidecar, or Old Fashioned.