Just a few hours’ drive north of Lyon, nestled in rows of Pinot Noir and Gamay, is the small French village of Bouze-lès-Beaune.
There’s lots to take in for a foreign tourist: stop at Veuve Ambal and sample their cremant, enjoy the delicious Burgundian cuisine served by the lone but incredibly cozy restaurant in the town, briefly trespass on the wine terraces after taking a wrong turn.
More importantly: in Bouze-lès-Beaune, there are caves to explore. Just outside of the city center, among a row of unassuming, ivy-covered row houses, is the former office and tasting room for Michel Couvreur. Hidden down a winding stone staircase exist the cellars of Michel Couvreur. These caves, dug out by Mr. Couvrer himself, once held (and in some areas still hold) Burgundy wine, but have now been repurposed for the maturation of distillate in the most carefully selected barrels, and in one of the most unique environments in the industry.
Opposite the former headquarters is a larger, modern building emblazoned with the Michel Couvreur logo and it is this building where I met Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, curator and master blender. Not open to the public and with no official touring program, Jean-Arnaud was gracious enough to spare some of his time to let me, a fan of the label, take in some of the company’s history, ask my own questions and better understand their philosophy going into the future.
Michel Couvreur, until recently, was one of France’s few – if not only – Independent Bottlers and blenders. They occupy a similar niche to bottlers like Compass Box, but whereas Compass Box blends already aged and barreled whisky sourced from all over Scotland, Jean-Arnaud has much finer control over the life of the product. Borrowing from their history in the world of wine, Michel Covreur has access to one of whisky’s most coveted commodities: real, incredibly high quality, and very old sherry casks from Spain. They start by directly sourcing distillate from Scotland, bringing it home, and then placing it into various appropriately-chosen barrels, before laying them to rest in the caves of Bouze-lès-Beaune.
I knew he could not and would not tell me the answer but I asked Jean-Arnaud anyway: Who do you source your whisky from? It’s a secret partially to avoid unnecessary association with Scotch distilleries, but it is also because Michel Couvreur is very much its own product. The aforementioned control over the life span of the product results in a consistent and very distinct flavor profile that is particular to this label. Jean-Arnaud and team import new-make whisky directly from Scotland, select and import casks directly from Spain by truck, often still very wet, but most importantly: absent of any sulphur, a by-product of the sherry industry that can drastically affect a whisky’s character and their blending process.
These casks, which Jean-Arnaud quoted as 50 years old, are subjected to a modern practice in the industry: shaving. Barrels are carefully arranged in their incredibly humid and cold cellars, where they are rotated depending on need and profile. The attention to detail doesn’t end in barrel management, and – as we stood over their bottling line – Jean-Arnaud even described their quality control over their corks: wine corks which are locked in the bottle under hard waxes such as you find in the wine world.
Jean-Arnaud is very much aware of the problems his industry faces. The availability of casks, Scotch distillers increasingly keeping their products home, the cost of shipping, the cost of barley… When you’re as involved in the minutiae of your product, you’re aware of what additional controls to place on which parts of your product. For Michel Couvreur their next step is two-fold: First, Michel Couvreur is investing in local barley for their own in-house distillation, which began in January 2022. “Terroir” being an important quality already in the world of wine, it is increasingly becoming a distinguishable part of a whisky’s flavor profile.
Citing Epernay’s champagne house Henri Giraud, who’s focus on terroir has resulted in sourcing new French oak made from local forests, I asked if something similar was in store as the operation expands. Currently available is a bottling matured in barrels that held vin jaune, a white wine from Eastern France, just a few hours’ drive from Bouze-lès-Beaune.
Along with making their own whisky is an even larger change to their product offering. The spirit and liquor market is swiftly growing in France, and one of the largest increases is in rum. Michel Couvreur has a rhum line debuting soon, with a product similarly aged to their exact standards.
With my time in their new offices and bottling line spent, Jean-Arnaud handed me off to a young man wearing muddy leather gaiters named Alberic (Michel Couvreur’s grandson) who looks to be primed to take a major role within the company. I thanked Jean-Arnaud for his time, and Alberic took me over to the former headquarters.
We crossed the street and through an ivy adorned doorway, into a dining and living space converted into a tasting room. In the front is a China cabinet filled with long discontinued MC expressions, at the back a bar loaded with similar Couvreur bottlings, as well as some choice releases from Scotland’s best, all located in a room that looks as if it hasn’t been touched in 50 years.
Off to the side is a stone spiral staircase; we descend into their cellars and are met with the cool, humid and pungently sweet smell of sherried whiskies, very old musky oak, and the earth itself. These are caves; this is raw. The unpaved walkway is slightly muddied by condensation, the walls damp to the touch. You can hear the slow, rhythmic dripping echo through the halls. The barrels down here reflect that “terroir” we were speaking of earlier.
Alberic shows us around and explains how they move barrels from the front of the cave to the back – the most humid location – which dramatically reduces a whiskies proof over a very short time. We navigate the corridors, pass by shelves stocked with dust-covered wine bottles with fading labels that look to be older than me.
Our guide points out what he believes to be some of the oldest casks in the cellar and briefly disappears to fetch glasses and a whisky thief. What I tasted was phenomenal. Michel Couvreur, straight from the barrel, even at cask strength this stuff was pure velvet; full-bodied and full of character with notes of walnut, leather, cigars… but that wasn’t all. Being able to indulge in very aged, straight from the barrel Michel Couvreur was a rare treat, but we sampled some of their sherry aged rhums as well as a few “experiments,” one specifically with whiskies finished in clay amphora jars. How’s that for terroir?
We conclude our day at the distillery itself, taking a look at their stills, and finish up back at HQ with some tastings. Their own distillate? Fantastic. Even at a new-make proof it was not boozy, little ethanol, good fruity character. Foral. “Well Rounded.” Perfect for their house style. Their house bar was stocked with everything they currently have available, and then some and I’m offered to open and taste whatever I’d like.
I started with “Intravagan’za”, a “grain spirit,” too young to be whisky, the result of an experiment (I’m told): the marriage of select new make distillate with some of the best casks they had in stock. Some of their flagship Alba bottles are there along with some early bottlings obsessively rewaxed to draw them out to enjoy for as long as possible; something new for me to try, as well. I’m a fan of their Over Aged Malt, and they had a “natural strength” bottle available, whose proof showcases that blend’s profile well. Then: Blossoming Auld Sherried, the embodiment of their blending efforts. I left with a bottle of the latter two.
I really appreciated my time at Michel Couvreur and am incredibly grateful for their hospitality. The village that hosts them is beautiful, and it was a nice detour and diversion from the typical European trip. I think they’re in an advantageous position as well. Michel Couvreur’s discipline, willingness to experiment, and unique-to-them maturation process allow their whiskies to stand out in a very large crowd.