Continuing our International Women’s Day coverage, Lauren Eads talks to Allison Parc, the force behind Brenne, a whisky made in the Cognac region of France.
When Allison Parc set about creating her own whisky brand in the early 2010s, she didn’t take the easy road. A former professional ballerina living in New York, you might have thought that an American whisky, perhaps a bourbon, would have been the obvious (geographically convenient) spirit of choice.
Whisky rooted in Cognac
Instead, Parc honed in on a third generation distillery farm in Cognac with a vision to create a French single malt that would place the importance of terroir centre stage. At that time, she was a lone whisky warrior among a sea of Cognac producers. Which did at least help her to stand out, but what she set out to do was far from the norm. “[Cognac] really is an ideal place for making whisky but I was truly shocked to be the first one to do so, and only around the fifth person in all of France to start making whisky back in the early 2000s. Now there are some 120 distilleries producing whisky in France.”
Did her years as a ballerina inform her approach to building a whisky? The two disciplines do have some commonalities, says Parc. “Both whisky and ballet take a great time, and there’s a sort of reverence to the years of work done prior and the end enjoyment. Both are rooted in history and rich with classical elements, ceremonies and respect, and both can take you through a wide variety of moods and expressions,” says Parc. “I love the complexities both worlds can have depending on the artist’s vision.”
Unique production techniques
Parc’s vision resulted in the creation of Brenne, an organic single malt made from two types of heirloom barley, grown, malted and distilled on the same farm in Cognac. The whisky itself is twice distilled in an alembic Charente still and aged in both French Limousin oak and ex-XO Cognac barrels, cut with water from the Charente River.
It’s this double barrel maturation that’s unique to Brenne, which is currently the world’s only single malt to be aged in this way. The result is a whisky with signature notes of banana flambé, crème brûlée and blueberry muffin tops, explains Parc.
Brenne Ten was launched in October 2015 and is a limited edition 10-year-old expression with just 300 cases made available each year. It was only recently released outside of the USA. In many ways Brenne’s darker sister, Brenne Ten offers notes of dark chocolate, dried fruits and warm baking spices, while showcasing some stone fruit and butterscotch notes, says Parc.
Terroir is key to both Brenne and Brenne Ten, with Parc believing deeply that soil, climate and topography can impact the flavour of a whisky, depending on how the barley was affected that season. But while Brenne is a blend of whiskies aged between 6-8 years old, Brenne Ten is a vintage expression, produced from barley grown in a single year and date stamped accordingly. “When you can bring in nature in relation to what is in someone’s glass you can build a deeper appreciation for the craft of making a whisky, focusing on terroir, organics and vintage,” adds Parc.
Not an easy sell
10 years after it was founded, Parc has carved a comfortable niche for Brenne. But she admits that French whisky wasn’t then and still isn’t an easy sell, especially in the US. In the early days Parc had to work twice as hard to get her bottles on retailer’s shelves, delivering them personally via Citi Bike in Manhattan. “It was a ton of work and it was a ton of fun,” says Parc. “The challenge was that I needed to educate every single person – from distributor to bartender, retailer to end consumer – on the category first before I could dive into the education on my brand. I had to help everyone mentally get over the hump that yes, whisky can come from France. In other words, to sell one bottle of Brenne it took four times the amount of communication a fellow bourbon or Scotch brand needed to produce.”
Women in whisky
Parc is just one of a legion of women working in whisky in senior positions, either as a distiller or brand founder. And despite the spirits industry having made progress in relation to gender equality and representation, it’s still important that we continue to highlight the achievements of women working in whisky, says Parc. “Our industry has come a long way in seeing more women working throughout various aspects of our dynamic, global, space, but we have quite a long way to go,” says Parc. “Whisky is a world-wide beverage and having representation from the top down that embodies the wide diversity of our audience is, in my opinion, key to our growth and continued excellence. We still need more positions in the C-suite, VP’s, and director roles occupied by a more balanced representation of the population.”
What words of wisdom does Parc have for aspiring whisky entrepreneurs? Her advice is not gender specific. First off, you’ll need money, patience and an “unshakable belief in oneself”. “You also need to realise you’re creating something that human beings will ingest – so bring a tremendous amount of integrity to your process and when your brand is alive, share it with all the goodness in your heart,” she says. “To me, that’s where the next journey begins and it can be quite magical to open bottles of your creation and share in community around a glass (or two!) of your art.”