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Dennis Kelly at The French Laundry [Photographs: Drew Altizer]

For more than 18 years, Thomas Keller's acclaimed French Laundry in Yountville, CA did just fine without a spirits program. (It's hard for people to be disappointed by Champagne in the garden and a cornet of salmon tartare.) But after a quiet launch in February, this May they officially announced their first forays into hard alcohol, focusing on a library of super-rare bottles.

The list includes rare sherry-oak aged Scotch from The Macallan, pre-embargo Cuban rum bottled in 1950, and a 100-year old Cognac from Hennessey. For lovers of amari, there's a rare bottle of high-quinine Cizano "Elixir China' bottled in the 1960s. We chatted with Master Sommelier Dennis Kelly, who put together the list with Chef Keller to find out a bit more about the French Laundry's impressive booze collection.

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What was the guiding force when you were putting together the spirits program at The French Laundry?
Chef Keller's vision was the guiding force of The French Laundry spirits program. His visit to The Macallan distillery helped to finalize his decision to acquire a liquor license for the restaurant after more than 18 years. The Macallan and Pappy Van Winkle have long been the favorite scotch and bourbon of Chef Keller, and we initially built the collection around those two producers.

What are some of the spirit categories you've focused on?
Besides Scotch and Bourbon, we put some emphasis on the Cognac and Chartreuse categories. Produced by Carthusian Monks using a secret formula including 130 medicinal and aromatic plants and flowers, Chartreuse offers incredible complexity with just enough sweetness to make it a wonderful nightcap. [In addition to VEP (extra-aged) Green and Yellow Chartreuse, the French Laundry list includes two extremely rare vintage bottlings from 1940 and 1944.]

Got any personal favorites on the French Laundry list?
Some favorites include the two Hennessy cognacs, one bottled in 1953 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and the other is a 100 year-old Cognac bottled to celebrate her Silver Jubilee.

What is the most expensive spirit you're pouring?
The Macallan "Millenium," a 50 year-old Scotch bottled to commemorate the turn of the century, is offered for $2,500 per pour. The bottle was acquired recently and the seal has not yet been broken.

What is the most rare spirit you're pouring? What does it taste like?
The 1911 Jim Beam, bottled for the historic Pendennis Club and acquired by Soutirage as part of the William A.M. Burden collection, may now be the rarest bottle of the collection. The concentration is mind-blowing and the finish goes on for minutes. Come dine with us at The French Laundry and you can enjoy it with a pre-embargo Cuban cigar in our courtyard after your meal.

What kind of ice are you using?
We create 3-inch ice spheres from 4-inch ice cubes, which fit perfectly into our Baccarat crystal glassware.

What are your personal spirit preferences? What do you drink when you're not working?
Over the years bourbon has been my personal spirit of choice, although recently I have gravitated toward Vieillissement Exceptionnel Prolongé (VEP) Chartreuse. Sometimes I enjoy the hint of sweetness and slightly lower alcohol content of Chartreuse. VEP is aged for an additional 12 years before bottling to add complexity and soften the character of the spirit.

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