Michel Couvreur's Burgundy-Aged Scotch
Whisky for Wine People
Michel Couvreur brought the magic of Burgundy to scotch whisky, but passed away in 2014. His project has been continued by protégé Jean-Arnaud Frantzen and son-in-law Cyril Deschamps. Illustration by Jonathan Kemp
For all the parallels that should exist between wine and distilled spirits, it sometimes feels to me like starkly different worlds. While many people have moved away from big, oaky Chardonnays or jacked-up 100-point Cabs, this mentality of power and big flavor seems to be the dominant theme in the world of bourbon. Don't get me started on the inflated prices of Pappy, Blanton's, and the rest. For me and a lot of my colleagues in the wine world, it's Michel Couvreur that gets our attention, and these are not inflated. The secret, for whatever reason, is still not out, and that's fine with me.
The three Couvreur whiskys we're offering today are the most affordable and approachable, but please inquire if you're interested in some of the other limited offerings from Couvreur.
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. Tracking down barrels like this 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, creating an almost ideal mix of elements.
Though the Burgundy part sounds the most romantic, Couvreur believed the barrels he hunted down in Spain were crucial. He 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. 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.
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.
I remember tasting Burgundies in a serious way for the first time and thinking that my days of drinking big, brooding Robert Parker-endorsed 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.