You might have been surprised to learn that a Belgium man was making Scotch Whisky in the heart of Burgundy! The man in question is Michel Couvreur who was a passionate perfectionist when it comes to Scotch Whisky. Back in January 2006, we were warmly greeted by Michel, at his old timbered home in the heart of Burgundy at Bouze-Les-Beaune, and he led us on a tour of his labyrinth of cellars. He was an amiable and extremely articulate man with a shock of white hair giving him a "mad Professor" look.
Michel Couvreur in his Cellar in Bouze-les-Beaune in January 2006 during our visit
Michel's handcrafted whiskies are recognized as the epitome of excellence despite the challenges created by the general automation of production. In 1988, the Danish media called him "The Last of the Mohicans"... He was indeed one of the last of the artisanal producers of Scotch Whisky in the world.
Michel Couvreur has been sharing a lot of his secrets with his Wife Marthe, with his long-time employee and confident, Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, as well with his Daughter Alexandra and his son-in law (Alexandra's husband) Cyril. Since Michel passed away, in August 2013, Jean Arnaud and Cyril have ben working very hard to continue on the tradition, the work and the life of Michel Couvreur.
Jean-Arnaud Frantzen (left), Cyril Deschamps (middle) and Michel Couvreur (in front of the 2 apprentices)
Owner: Cyril Deschamps (Michel Couvreur's son in law)
In the 1950's Michel Couvreur, originally from Belgium, landed in Burgundy and made and marketed wine there. He took frequent trips to England and Scotland where he sold his wine, but was particularly drawn to Scotland for the fabulous fishing and hunting. Eventually he moved to England in 1956, then to Scotland in 1964 where he became involved in the production process of whisky - from the selection of the most ancient strains of cereals to employing extremely rare sherry casks. It became his dream to pursue the passion he had for making a unique Scotch Whisky. Unfortunately times were changing in the whisky production and the old methods were being replaced by new cheaper ones. The old sherry casks traditionally used were replaced by steel or plastic. Michel decided to return to France in the 70's to be nearer to where the sherry casks originate and he dug his own cellar in the hillsides of Bouze-les-Beaune. Here, about midway between the Andalusian vineyards and the Scottish Highlands, Michel Couvreur matures his Whiskies in these rare sherry casks (Pedro Ximenez and/or Palomino) to produce an exceptional whisky.
Michel Couvreur: The Last of the Mohicans
What makes Michel Couvreur's Whiskies so special is not the distilled base product, it only represents 10% of the final quality. According to Cyril Deschamps and Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, what makes their Whiskies so special is the choice of barrels they have been selecting and that they continue to hunt down all over Europe.
As a matter of fact, they keep a very special attention to the choice of barrel, spending a lot of time and money looking for the most unique barrels.
What matter the most, as it represents 90% of the final quality, is what WAS in the barrel before and how much (meaning how long) it has impregnated the wood.
The ageing of the whiskey in barrel is all about trying to get these impregnated flavors from the core of the barrel. The longer the PX or Vin Jaune has been in the barrel, the more intense and complex the whiskey will be. Of course it is requiring more barrel ageing for the whiskey as well to get to the center of the wood plank where the flavors might be hidden after 10-15 or more years of wine ageing.
According to Couvreur, it is one of the reason why their whiskey is so attractive to many wine drinkers as well.
The distilled spirit is only here to carry and enhance the flavors of the barrel, meaning the flavors of what WAS in the barrel before.
The glass on the left shows what the distilled base looks like upon arrival from Scotland. The glass in the middle show the exact same base after 6 or 7 years in a PX barrel. Inside that third glass (the one on the right) we start to have what makes Couvreur Whiskeies so special, the color, but more importantly, the aromas of the wine that was previously hiden inside the oak of the barrel from the wine ageing, that start to be very intense after 12 years of maturation, sometimes even more, much more.
This large and humid cellar leads to a 500-foot tunnel with galleries full of natural springs, surrounded by rows of barrels. The barrels have been impregnated for decades by the powerful and voluptuous Jerez (Sherry) and here the germinated barley (or malted barley) mixed with water he brings from Scotland slowly becomes whisky.
The main Cellar, leading to galleries and tunnels
A small room far from any light called "the paradise" shelters some rare, old and elegant nectar, carefully kept in sealed demijohns.
The whiskies are sealed into glass containers (demijohns or giant bottles)
Underground galleries full of natural springs, in the Burgundian rocks (Bouze-les-Beaune)