For all the parallels that should exist between wine and distilled spirits, it often feels to me like starkly different worlds. While our palates have moved away from big, oaky Chardonnays and jacked-up Cabs, it seems as though bourbon simply moved in to fill the gap. I recently poured myself some Weller 12-year bourbon (I paid about $30 for this bottle six years ago -- it's now upwards of $180) and was kind of shocked by how rich and sappy it was, an almost cloying display of concentration and power -- not unlike a 100-point Robert Parker wine. So, what if you're looking for the anti-Parker whisky? Michel Couvreur is your man.
The short version of the Couvreur story is that he was a Belgian-born whisky broker who worked in Scotland in the 1960s. Determined to fight against modernization and cost-cutting the in scotch industry, he went about saving details of traditional scotch production that were going by the wayside. He became an expert on cereals, heirloom grains, and tracking down old, rare, expensive sherry butts in Spain that took immeasurable amounts of time and significant money. In the 1970s he started to dig the beginnings of a labyrinthine cellar in the hills of Burgundy. He aged whisky from Scotland in hard-to-find barrels from the Sherry region of Spain.
The barrels were worth the hunt because Courvreur believed that the quality of what had been in the barrel -- usually sherry but even Vin Jaune -- was responsible for 90% of the success of a whisky later aged in that same barrel. So it's no wonder most of the people I've run across who know Couvreur work in the wine industry. On top of what I described above, there's the long-term aging, obsessively tasting and blending before bottling, so that each whisky has a sense of balance and elegance that is superior to anything I've come across. The layers unfold slowly and express a deep range of flavors, though none of them ever seem to dominate and disrupt the harmony.
For many years, the Couvreur whiskies have been difficult to find. I heard Couvreur had died and assumed his unique approach was a gone forever. This was luckily not true, though Couvreur passed away in 2014. Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, Couvreur's assistant since 1997, is continuing this ambitious project, while Michel's years of experience have been passed down not just to Frantzen but to Couvreur's wife, daughter, and son-in-law, who all continue to be active.
Couvreur has recently been picked up in New York by a distributor who imports many small-production wines we work with. We are hoping the new importer will help get these once-scarce whiskies more notice, but we're also not taking any chances to miss out when more people discover them. I remember tasting Burgundies in a serious way for the first time and thinking that my days of drinking big, brooding Cabs were ending. That was over a decade ago, and I'm still in love with Burgundy. So be careful, this may be the beginning of something you can't stop.
A blended whisky, malted and un-malted barley, aged four years in older whisky casks. Even this younger blended bottling shows off the clean, elegant balance that Couvreur pulls off so well. Surprisingly soft and fruity, with a touch of grainy edge that never feels hot.
This was my first introduction to Couvreur's whisky and it made me a convert immediately. Deep and rich aromas from extended aging in casks originally used for Pedro-Ximenez. Very pleasurable and viscous, with a Tootsie-Pop center of toffee and caramel. Yet somehow it never loses a feeling of smooth, delicious harmony. Aged for a minimum of 12 years.
Michel Couvreur "Candid" Malt Whisky NV - $105 / btl
Peated whisky that gets the Couvreur treatment. This is not your smoldering bonfire monster a la Laphroaig but a slow-burn: haunting, complex, layers unfolding slowly. The peat is finely complemented by notes of cumin, toffee, and smoky umami. All the charm of the classic 'Overaged' just turned up a few delicious clicks. Aged 8-9 years in 250L PX Sherry half-butts. *Limited*
This is a single cask bottling of whisky aged in an ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry butt for 14-15 years. It's a distinctive mix of fruity and savory elements, with a strong nutty, bright complexity. Marzipan, saline, and a bouncy lift give it a very different feel than the darker, haunting tones of the Overaged and Candid. Unique and exciting. *Limited*
An extremely limited cask-strength bottling made to mark the 30th anniversary of Couvreur whiskies. A blend of three malt whiskies: one a lendary heirloom called 'bere barley' aged 16 years; the other two malts are aged 25 and 29 years in PX sherry butts. A heady sweetness and depth on the nose. Fruit leather, grainy Life cereal and sumptuous caramel. The long, savory finish brightens with a sweet-cream-butter-tang. It is somehow hedonistic and satisfying to-the-max but never feels showy or cloying. Truly special whisky.
*Extremely limited* ONE BOTTLE AVAILABLE.