Places

Pushing back the frontiers of spirit in France (La Maison du Whisky)

Martine Nouet takes a closer look at near-legendary La Maison du Whisky, the Paris store that's done so much to change the old-fashioned perception of whisky in France
By Martine Nouet
Never challenge Thierry Bénitah with an impossible request like finding a bottle from a long-silent distillery. He will take up the challenge and get that rare bird for you, no matter time and money. For the proprietor of La Maison du Whisky in Paris, there is no such word as ‘can’t’. Pointing out his pioneering enthusiasm for new releases and outstanding bottlings, a
journalist called Thierry Bénitah the ‘Indiana Jones of whisky’. A perfect title for Thierry, 34, and Georges, 72, owners of France’s number one ‘temple of booze’.Father and son share the same adventurous ideal: to keep pushing back the frontiers of spirit. Born in Algeria, Georges Bénitah started trading as a spirit merchant in the early 50s, selling Scotch whisky and classic bourbon to American troops based in Morocco. Under the pressure of events, he had to leave North Africa a few years later and settled in Paris.When Georges Bénitah opened his first shop in 1961, he knew he had to start at square one. At that time, his potential customers hardly knew four or five whisky brands, and they were all blended Scotch whisky. With the patient and
thorough mind of an explorer, he started on a great voyage of discovery, travelling to Scotland, visiting distilleries, meeting distillers and sales managers and coming back with the ultimate drink of the time: Glenfiddich. Single malt was unknown to French whisky drinkers back then. La Maison du Whisky soon was sellimg 40 or so different whiskies. Digging deeper and deeper in search of liquid treasures, La Maison du Whisky made its vocation guiding customers on the malt whisky trail. 40 years later, enthusiasm and efficiency are still the driving force, resulting in an amazing collection of bottles – and the launch of a new shop in Monaco.A paradise for whisky lovers
First to import Islay malt in the 70s, forerunner of cask-strength single mlats and limited bottlings from Gordon & Macphail, pioneer with un-chill filtered single malts and rare rye whiskeys or single barrel bourbons, La Maison du Whisky now offers more than 800 labels to satisfy whisky lovers’ insatiable curiosity. That outstanding range may be related to Thierry’s arrival in the family business in 1995, after he had completed a MBA in the United States – a perfect hunting ground for speciality bourbons. “When I was studying in Philadelphia,” Thierry Bénitah recalls, “I kept phoning my father to tell him about my tasting experiments in the local bars. I just fell in love with Blanton’s and insisted that we import it!”Having begun with four small shops in affluent districts, La Maison du Whisky now concentrates on a single large shop located at La Madeleine, a chic central area next to the Elysée.It’s a real paradise for whisky lovers. Completely refurbished and enlarged last year, the shop combines elegant simplicity and warm atmosphere, with mahogany furniture and canvas panelling featuring giant stills or pagodas. You won’t find flashy decor or agressive promotions in this tranquil whisky shrine. The bottles speak for themselves under the expert guidance of Annick and Jean-Marc, the knowledgeable shop attendants.The shop is the tip of this particular iceberg; the invisible part is in the outskirts of Paris, a huge warehouse and offices to supply 400 retailers, restaurants and bars all over France. The addition of a website, launched in 1997, with an exhaustive database featuring information on each whisky stocked, has extended La Maison du Whisky’s business worldwide.“We mail orders to a good number of countries, especially for collectable bottles. I must admit that most of our old vintages and very expensive bottles are sold to foreign collectors. We sold three bottles of Macallan 1946 last week at the shop, on the same day and to the same person, a regular customer who lives abroad. French whisky lovers are not interested in buying whisky for investment. They prefer immediate dividends through enjoying their drams! However, they have started inquiring about auctions. But again, we are very far from German collectors and light years away from Japanese ones. This search for immediate pleasure probably fits in with our Latin temper and hearty nature!” A club and catalogueto educate La Maison du Whisky customers’ tastebuds are permanently stimulated by new releases and extra-special bottlings. ‘Indiana Jones’ Bénitah and his Raiders of the Lost Ark chase the last drops of the defunct distilleries such as Glen Albyn, Mosstowie, Rosebank or Port Ellen. “That superb single malt is one of the most highly requested. Our customers, and especially the members of our Whisky Club are Islay malt aficionados. It can even be irritating sometimes. I keep trying to take them to Kentucky for our yearly trip. But they demand Islay! We were there the week before the Islay Festival in May. They practically bought out the barely-open shop in Bruichladdich. They all turned out with ‘Bruichladdich is back’ T-shirts. “I have initiated blind tastings at the Club meetings. It is the best way to make them experiment with Irish, bourbon or rye whiskeys. Most of the time they just love them. If knowingly given the same whisky, they tend to have a prejudiced comment.”A workaholic and passionate about his work, Thierry has gathered incredible in-depth knowledge on the cratur wherever it is distilled. He is as fond of single malts (Longmorn is a personal favourite of his) and Irish pot-still whiskey (Redbreast is one of the best-sellers at La Maison du Whisky) as he is of small batch bourbon or single barrel (W L Weller is his favourite). He has gathered 400 tasting notes in Le Whisky, a book published last year.Another fantastic educational tool of La Maison is the catalogue, issued annually every October. Far from being a mere price listing, this creative booklet emphasises a different theme each year: ‘style and still’ last year, ‘the senses of whisky’ this year. They’ve even had an artist draw up chromatic and sensory portraits of whiskies through nosing. Inspired!
Thierry is particularly proud of his exclusive Glenfarclas Manzanilla cask 1988, bottled at 46%, and an exceptional bottling of Bushmills rum cask 1988. “It is not a finish, the whisky has matured in a rum cask for 12 years and you can get that distinctive spiciness and cane sweetness. Even the distillery has only got 10 casks. There will be very few bottles sold in the world. We will be the main seller.” Another exciting new addition this year is the combination with coffee, tea and chocolates. Gourmet chocolate maker Jean-Paul Hévin has selected some of his creations for a refined alliance with a sherried malt, an Islay malt, an Irish pot still whiskey, and a single barrel bourbon. Thierry has worked in the same style with a producer of great coffees and a tea specialist. The descriptive language is not that different. No wonder this whisky expert likes to ride on the gourmet side. He doesn’t hesitate to fly 600 miles south to the Spanish Costa Brava for a single dinner at the El Bulli restaurant, which he believes offers the most artistic and creative cuisine in Europe. This short break is probably his only time off from work, and yet he confesses that chef Ferran Adria is very keen on whisky! Can you guess what they talk about?