On the Trail

Rare Whisky From Burgundian Cellars

David Driscoll

Just outside the town of Beaune – the spiritual capital of Burgundy – is the sleepy hamlet of Bouze-les-Beaune: a collection of old stone dwellings that looks much like every other small village in the area. As you make your way there, through the well-known communes of Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, you see signs pointing the direction to every producer in the area. Burgundy is one of the most highly-regarded wine regions in the world, if not the most. Yet, amidst the rolling hills of chardonnay and pinot noir vines sits one of the most unsuspecting collections of Scottish single malt in existence; a veritable treasure trove of mature whisky aging in top-quality sherry casks. If you can find the unmarked home, adorned barely with an address, you’ll likely be invited inside. The parlor is very unassuming. It seems like nothing more than a rustic French home—a classic milieu for the many winemakers in the region.

Not many Americans have heard of Michel Couvreur, and even fewer know that he passed away a few years back after more than five decades in the whisky world. Within the booze business, however, he's a bit of a legend. A Belgian-born wine lover who moved to Burgundy for the wine trade, yet vacationed in Scotland where he developed a taste for sherry-aged single malt. Believing he could possibly improve upon the quality of his beloved whiskies, he built an expansive cellar beneath his house and travelled through Jerez in search of the finest old sherry butts. He then contracted new-make spirit from his favorite Scottish distilleries and aged the whisky in his own private cave.

Again, there are no signs pointing the way to Michel Couvreur's facility and there are no signs posted upon it when you finally locate it. This is by design. They do not want to be found. With the demand for whisky what it is today and the tourist trade that has developed behind it, the small staff doesn't have the ability to serve as a public relations department. Getting an appointment isn't easy either. There is a series of screening processes guarding that path. Nevertheless, we made a special effort to connect with their cellar master, and an even greater effort (our own version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to get to their cellar. It's a destination we had been interested in for some time.

Jean-Arnaud Frantzen has been working at Michel Couvreur for eighteen years and he couldn't be happier. He adores single malt whisky and its potential for greatness when you have respect for its process. He's carried on in Michel's absence and continues to build relationships in Spain where he travels frequently in search of the finest barrels. Unlike Scottish producers, he drives the butts back himself so that they are as fresh as possible, thereby eliminating the need for sulfur and inoculation. Couvreur has always been just as interested in the sherry itself, rather than just the whisky that was aged inside its former receptacle. 

"Every wine has its own story and each cask is different," Jean-Arnaud said. "We prefer to only use old casks, in which the sherry has sat for thirty to forty years."

In the single malt whisky world, sherry-aged Scotch is currently king. The richer, darker, and denser the sherry flavor, the more people go crazy for it. Whisky aficionados have become so savvy about sherry they now want to know how many times the sherry barrels have been used—was the barrel a first-fill or second-fill?—as a way to gauge just how intense the flavor might be.

Because of the Scotch Whisky Association's strict rules about single malt classification and labelling, Couvreur has always had a difficult time calling itself what it is: Scottish single malt whisky (or sometimes blended single malt whisky) aged in France. Today, many of the labels simply say "malt whisky" without any other designation. While the industry has sought to protect itself (and consumers) from imitators and frauds looking to capitalize on Scotch whisky's reputation, Couvreur is not a threat. In fact, his whiskies are so good and so innovative that they serve as inspiration for many of Scotland's best producers. Because the cellar is located in the heart of French wine country, Jean-Arnaud and his team treat whisky like French wine—they're looking for nuance and delicacy, not big alcohol and power.

Part of what allows them to achieve this nuance is the condition of their cellar. Where is that cellar, you ask? Why it's just behind that unassuming little parlor, hiding behind what looks like any other door.

Most people, when they think of a wine cellar, imagine a small room under the home where wine is stored that's no bigger than the square foot area of the house itself. Couvreur's cellar is not such a cellar, however. It's built into the side of a mountain and is absolutely gigantic (and full of aging whisky stocks). Imagine one sixty-by-sixty foot room, and then a hallway leading to another, and another, and another. The conditions are moist, the floors wet with pools of cave secretions, and the temperature is constant. The whisky ages very slowly, but certain parts of the cellar are dryer and warmer, creating the potential for different speeds of maturation. Casks are frequently moved from one part of the cave to another because of this. We tasted from a number vessels throughout our visit and were absolutely floored by the quality. The Couvreur whiskies are absolutely saturated with sherry flavor, but they're never out of balance. The richness and concentration is intense, but it's nuanced and balanced like a fine wine, which is fitting considering they're located in Burgundy.

While there we let Jean-Arnaud know we were looking to do a custom cuvée with Michel Couvreur, something rich and supple on the palate, but with peat. Within a few months we had a real winner on our hands: the "Overaged" Peated malt whisky, a marriage of single malts all over the age of twelve. The whisky has been so popular over the last few years that we're now on our third batch and, personally, it's my favorite by far. The sherry flavor is bright and fruity rather than savory, and the peat smoke is oily and phenolic, like something in between Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain. It's simply tremendous stuff. This year we decided to add a customized blend of the decadent "Blossoming Auld Sherried" malt whisky, a a recreation of the legendary malt whiskies of the Victorian Era—a time when Sherry and Scotch were both kept on hand in the cellars of England and Scotland's great estates and drawn for consumption as needed. Matured in one single butt of the freshest possible Montila Morales casks, this whisky is redolant of that great wine of Jerez in a way that's simply not available in modern bottlings. This ultra saturated butt from a solera started in the 1950s at Toro Albala is one of a kind and Couvreur is the only producer allowed to buy from the venerable Bodega.

Getting to work directly now with the estate is a huge win for us and for serious fans of sherry-aged single malt who shop with K&L. Working directly now, we’ve been able to negotiate pricing that makes these whiskies even more attractive to consumers in the know. If you’re a fan of smooth, rich, supple, and complex malt whiskies, then you owe it to yourself to try one of these royal blends. In the world of sherry-aged Scotch, Michel Couvreur is king.

-David Driscoll