Michel Couvreur or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love French Whisky

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A preliminary disclaimer:  This is an anecdote, not an endorsement.

I owe my discovery of Michel Couvreur’s sherry cask-aged whiskies to an all-too-short drinking session with an Aussie bartender, a French rum ambassador and an uncharacteristically (by his own standards) sober Irishman. It went a little something like this:

Having selflessly liberated our rum ambassador of his array of unaged, golden and single cane agricoles, we find ourselves in a local whisk(e)y den in search of more fitting libations. Cradled in one hand is a healthy slug of American rye; my go-to when I’m looking to make an impression on myself.

Even by my own standards this is an anachronism, I admit to myself. The city rediscovered gin a few years ago and hasn’t looked back once, its collective gaze lost in a myriad of fishbowl-friendly iterations of the juniper vodka, each one unquestioningly, unrelentingly, unapologetically adorned with an ornamental armada of dried berries, spent rinds and dehydrated garden weeds.

I’m getting grumpy and stuck-up again, I think. The next one should be a beer.

The Irishman, attempting to reclaim a hard-earned reputation for flawless and efficient obnoxication, turns his attention to my half-empty dram (let’s not kid ourselves) now being nursed in both hands.

You’re still drinking that stuff? He quips. You know, you’re going to need more than whisky and a beard if you’re going to fool people into thinking you’re interesting.

I like this just fine, I reply. And I don’t need it to be interesting. I just need it to keep you interesting.

All the same, I assure him I’m open to alternatives. And just like that, he gives me the straight dope on Michel Couvreur’s repertoire of French, ex-sherry cask malt whiskies.

He weaves me this tale of the late Michel Couvreur, a once young French heir to a small fortune who decides, one day, to up-sticks and pursue a life of whisky production. He tells me about these caves in Burgundy where he takes various single malts – originally distilled over in Old Meldrum, Scotland – and matures them in ex-sherry oak casks. He tells me that, thanks to Monsieur Couvreur’s obsession with these processes of malt vatting and sherry cask maturation (or ennoblement, as he calls it), his French whiskies are on par with the best of what the Scots have to offer. He tells me that, if I can find a bottle, and if I can manage to open it (corked and waxed, à la française, voyons!) I should give it a shot.

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He tells me a lot of things in the time it takes me to finish both the second rye and the beer chaser I’d prescribed myself in an attempt to lighten my mood.

In truth it was an easy sell. The French penchant for scotch wasn’t news to me. The French know Scotch, and they drink it well. Hell, by all accounts, they drink it better than I do.  In my younger years I lodged with the veritable poster-boys of the bourgeoisie bordelaise; a middle-aged, well-educated, and beautifully happy French couple that would toast to their day’s respective successes over a dram of Lagavulin 16 or Laphroaig 10. I would partake when offered, and for all my adolescent posturing I could never mask the fire in my lungs nor the inferno in my throat for which those single malts were entirely responsible. Practise makes perfect, they would often assure me.

It was, perhaps, out of a sense of nostalgia and a desire to perfect my practise, as it were, that the Irishman’s story of a French malt whisky struck such a chord with me.

A week or so goes by and I manage to get a hold of a bottle of Michel Couvreur Overaged Malt Whisky. Admittedly, I’m playing shamelessly fast and loose with the specifics here; I didn’t ‘get a hold of a bottle’ so much as I politely suggested that we order it in for the good folks that frequent our bar. That doesn’t matter so much. The bottom line is that the Irishman’s story checks out, provided we don’t split too many hairs.

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Michel Couvreur was, in fact, a Belgian-born whisky radical well-known for taking Spanish sherry casks, filling them with Scottish malts and leaving them to mature in his purpose-built, Burgundian cellars.

As it turns out, these Andalusian casks aren’t as easy to come by as their bourbon counterparts, nor are they as cheap.  But its a price that the late Michel Couvreur was willing to pay. Indeed, one of Monsieur Couvreur’s many idiosyncrasies lies in his unwavering belief that distillation should always ride shotgun to the ageing process. To this end, his whiskies are left to rest in propitiatory maturation cellars in Bouze-lès-Beaune, Burgundy. In this sense, I suppose, Michel Couvreur’s estate is more indicative of a finishing house than a distillery per se. But like I said, we’ll get nowhere splitting hairs.

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Vatted from various single malts and aged in ex-sherry casks, the result of Michel Couvreur’s sherry oak cask maturation is a politely bold, confident yet entirely approachable entry into the world of sherried whiskies. The nose is an enticing yet duplicitous affair; all cherry and smoke at first, with the vague promise of a delicate yet ashen softness later. It does not break this promise on the tongue. It’s a sweet sip, no doubt; far more subtle than the rye to which I’ve grown accustomed. This particular vat of 12 year malts boasts a singular soft spice upfront that quickly – almost too quickly – gives way to a silky, decadent flourish. The lingering dark, dried-fruit and oaken, cinnamon-spice finish is unmistakable; the sherry ageing has certainly made its mark on the malts.

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An easy sell indeed. Entertaining as the Irishman’s tale was, Michel Couvreur’s Overaged 12 year is a sherried whisky blend that speaks for itself. At once a solid after-dinner, one-for-the-road tipple and stoic winter-warmer, it carves out its own niche as a robust yet inviting dram that will surely shine in the colder months.

And the moral of this anecdote? Well, as the song goes: Be careful who’s advice you take, but be patient with those who supply it. Particular patience is required if the supplier in question happens to be a half-cut Irishman trying to sell you on his whisky portfolio. But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. The story of Michel Couvreur, like the whisky itself, is both an intriguing and enticing one. His fusion of single malt distillation and French, wine-forward sensibilities reveals an uncompromising labour of love whose proof is very much in the pudding. It’s not quite bold enough to warrant forsaking my rye dependency entirely, but if there was ever an excuse to get your head out of that preposterously over-diluted gin goblet in favour of pastures new, exciting and palatable this autumn, Michel Couvreur’s various expressions might just be the ticket.

My apologies.  Do I sound grumpy and stuck-up again?  My next one will be a beer, I promise.


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