Stop And Smell The Whisky: The Full Story of How Brenne Came to Be
July 30, 2013 § 17 Comments
The title of this post could go in a few different directions, however, today it encapsulates the reflective feeling I have over these last few years and the birth of Brenne.
Stop and smell the Whisky.
This has been quite a crazy 3+ years of my life. But I could say that about most periods of my life; I’m a very focused, all-in kind of person so there are times (like this “whisky” phase) that feel like I’ve been in it longer then I actually have. 3+ years you say? That’s all? (that’s how I feel when I think about my relatively short time here, I could have sworn I’ve been doing this for at least 7yrs).
Last week I was being interviewed by a talented journalist for a rather impressive piece of press (out this coming Sunday, fingers crossed it’s good!). I’m not a person who gets nervous too often and thus was confused when I struggled though the entire interview to put the words together to properly express myself. And then I realized, he kept asking me “when did it all begin?” and truthfully, there is no actual date on the calendar that I could give anyone as to when “Brenne” started. It “started” many times!
To this day, I can’t remember when & how I was first introduced to my distiller (despite it being probably one of the more important moments of my life!), nor do I even really remember a single moment when I said, “Ok, we’re doing this!” I feel like I woke up one day and was buying glass bottles in 6,000 piece order quantities as if this was a very normal thing to be doing. If you’ve ever heard me tell my story, it probably comes across as me being far focused on this particular outcome then it actually was. That is because there are so many different starting points of Brenne that I have to streamline the story and edit out all of the additional beginnings to spare you a long story full of extraneous tangents (but NOT today!). There are two main narratives here: the story of the whisky itself (where it’s made, what kind of still is used to make it, what barrels are used during the aging, etc) AND THEN there is the story of how I became the captain of this ship (and where the heck did I come from!?). Today I’ll be sharing with you the story of my involvement. If I had to draw it, I think the beginning of Brenne would look like this unraveled piece of rope with lots of “ends” … or in my case, beginnings.
So when I wrote “Stop and Smell the Whisky” – I thought not of smelling an actual glass of whisky (though that would be nice!) but rather because during the course of the interview, I was forced to stop, look at a calendar, and actually take into account certain days/years when this whole thing really began. I feel like I’ve been doing this now for years but the reality set in that I’ve really have only been at this for just a few!
BRENNE BEGINNING(S!); The Very Long Version of How Brenne Came to Be
I was working in an entirely different industry at the time (high-end jewelry) but even when I started there 3.5 years prior, I told my employer that I was going to have my own company one day, probably by the time I was 30 (I was 25 at the time). However, I had no idea what that was going to be, exactly.
Through my time there, I had really fallen in love with selling beautiful jewels to a lot of wonderful women across the US. In that tiny, 3 person company, we moved a LOT of gold and even increased sales 800% while in a recession (true number, it was ridiculous)! But always in the back of my mind was: what was going to be my mark on the world? I want to do this for my own company! … just not with diamonds.
Meanwhile, my husband was traveling the world for work (he is a branding consultant … and yes, this comes in VERY handy later on as we built the framework for Brenne!). While on the road (or rather, the many planes) he was getting himself (and me!) more and more interested in the Japanese whiskies that he was enjoying on frequent trips to Korea. This was just before people in the US started to really talk about Japanese whiskies – and well before Suntory (& eventually Nikka) started expanding their US imports. All the time my husband kept saying, “you should really import this stuff!”
At first I laughed it off – what did I know about importing whisky!? Nothing – actually. But I had started doing international sourcing (of gold & diamonds) in my current job and felt comfortable learning a new industry language after I realized the general framework was similar (except with alcohol, you could tack on about 1000 times more restrictions and legal twists & turns). So there I was, starting to formulate my own ideas on what I enjoyed in a single malt. What, to me, made one more enjoyable over the other? And as soon as I realized that simple question existed, my geek-dome exploded and scientific hunger of finding the answers took over (I blame my family – I was predisposed to being a nerd! Dad is a physicist, Aunts’ a rocket scientist, Uncle’s a nuclear scientist, 2 cousins are chemists,… need I go on?). I was a full blown whisky-geek before my friends even knew I drank whisky.
HELLO WHISKY FREAK!
Things in the company where I was working started to take a turn for the worse (and fast) and soon I realized that my time there had come to an end. Meanwhile, my husband was still a driving force in this whisky import company idea, and for the fun of it, I had started connecting with some of the world whisky distillers and importers out there. At one point we had taken a trip to Asia and scribbled down on a cocktail napkin what eventually morphed into the Local Infusions’ business plan. (In my Lifetime movie, this is where they’d cut to commercial break!) This is definitely one of those rope ends of the true starting points of Brenne! Somewhere in there we were tipped off to the 3rd generation Cognac distiller who was making what has now become Brenne. I never really believed what he was telling me was true (how could someone really be making whisky with no intention to sell it!? That’s so … NOT American!) and thus almost let my disbelief close the door on this forever. But we then started receiving samples from our distiller… and the juice was really promising! What we were trying at that point in time was about 3 & 4+ years old in New French Oak casks. Still – I did nothing with it.
By now, I had quit my job in the jewelry biz and declared a mandatory “2 weeks off” … from what, you ask? Nothing. Because I had no job lined up <-not a typical “Allison” move, but definitely another life-changing moment for from that break, I came out on the other end saying, “Ok, I’m either starting a popcorn company” (yup, no one really knew about that one either) “OR a whisky company!” (also not something my friends & family were expecting). Within a few hours the whisky company idea had won (as if there was ever any real competition!).
FOLLOW YOUR HEART and GUT
It was at that point that we started asking our distiller “friend” if we could try moving this whisky into his ex-Cognac casks. Again, when I tell this story I’m sure I sound very confident in this decision as if this had been our plan all along, but clearly, it hadn’t. And I really don’t know where the idea of ex-Cognac casks came from other than I followed my gut instinct as I was piecing together this crazy story of this near-secret whisky stash in Cognac, France. And it just felt like a really good idea – especially when I thought about how this whisky had been developed right there in Cognac starting with the barley that he grew himself. Funny enough, to this day, he (my distiller) is still far less impressed with how he’s made this then I am. To him, it’s “obvious” that if you want to make a high quality spirit, you must do it from scratch. What other way is there? To him, elegant spirits start with the seeds + the earth. Then you go from there.
While “Brenne” (in quotes because it hadn’t been named at this point) was being moved over into Cognac casks, I spent most of my time in NYC glued to my computer and phone, learning (also from scratch!) how to structurally set up my company within the 1,000’s of complicated layers known as post-prohibition laws. From the Federal level down to all 50 states, there is not one division who makes this easy. You can certainly pay to have a consultant figure this out for you – but if I’m putting my own money into this (let’s be frank: ALL of my own money into this dream), well then you better believe I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and learn everything I can. Otherwise, how else can I properly run this thing once it’s off the ground? It’s like buying a car without knowing how to change a tire or fill a tank of gas. Sure, you can always spend up and have someone else do the work for you, but if you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you can save yourself some big bucks. And at the end of the day, this has to be about the bottom line or else I won’t make it past Day 1.
LOCAL INFUSIONS IS READY
Once I got the import business set up (Local Infusions), then I realized the whisky (Brenne) still wasn’t ready – not to my palate at least (and then also Captin Doubt was still hanging around: did we REALLY want to do this? We could still drop this whole idea and ‘just’ be out some money – but no one would have to know! Me owning and producing a Single Malt Whisky from France still sounded totally foreign to me. Who the heck was I to be doing this?! Why had no one done this before? Because no one thought of it or because they had and realized this was just a terrible idea?). Insomnia and I became very good friends at this point.
In terms of barrel “management” (also known as a glorified taste tester) I spent many Saturday mornings with my nose in about 20 different Glencarin glasses of Brenne (& other assorted Single Malts for comparison) trying to take advantage of that prime-time when your sense of smell is the purest but a bed is nearby should the tasting part get a bit overwhelming pre-coffee! I was all self-taught and completely trusting my senses (as was my husband, Nital Patel, who was the biggest and best supporter behind this little engine!) but I just didn’t think the whisky was “there” yet and couldn’t put my name on something without it being as close to perfect as I could get it. So there I was with a fully set up business and no whisky to bottle (thus, no hope of any income anytime soon!). Cool! So to start somewhere, I now had some really awesome like-minded importer friends around the world who were telling me they were interested in trying some of these new American Craft Whiskies that were getting some buzz. This was early 2011 – Balcones wasn’t even distributed in New York at that point. I told the importers I knew that if they trusted me, I’d find them the best of the best and bring them not only brands who had something good in the bottle, but who were making it themselves and who had aesthetically pleasing packaging.
EXPORTING AMERICAN CRAFT WHISKEY
So began my 1.5 year stint as an American Craft Whiskey exporter. This got to be very expensive for a very little return. Between the cost of translators, international sample shipping costs and travel, I was coming in around $0 balance. But on the plus side, I had made some awesome friends on the American distilling side (finally!) and had launched Balcones in Norway, Sweden & re-lauched them in the UK. I almost got them signed up in France and Japan but at that point, the income didn’t support the work and Brenne was getting ready to be born. Though the funding was slim, at least I had some confidence knowing that I’d had some early wins in this new industry (still ridiculously close-lipped about Brenne).
BRENNE – the brand – COMES TO LIFE
So in January ’12, I shifted gears from exporting to developing the Brenne brand and put on my best creative director hat as I interviewed & eventually worked with designers to bring Brenne to life. After 6+ months of designing, TTB approvals, cork sourcing, bottle making, pallet treating, label material choosing (and of course, one final trip to Cognac before we start bottling …you know, to check on those aging casks!) in June of ’12, I started buying all of the pieces that were needed to pull this dream together so that on September 5, 2012, the first 8 barrels were bottled and Brenne was “born” – officially launching on October 1, 2012 in New York City.
10 months after Brenne’s launch date I sit here totally amused at where life has taken me – from a ballerina to owning a whisky brand (and an import company!). And though I’m not the distiller, I do own 100% of the whisky to come out of that distillery (of which currently only goes into Brenne Estate Cask) and life has truly never been more fun (or scary and demanding…but that much I expected). I definitely don’t choose the easy roads in life, but I follow my heart at each turn.
The rest … well … perhaps we’ll have to save that for another day! Thanks for sticking with me if you made it to the bottom of this post! It’s a lot more wordy than my typical entries but hopefully somewhat entertaining!