At around 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, the interior of the New York City bar Employees Only lives up to its name. In the dim speak-easy style space, a barback slices limes and a waiter wipes down glasses. Head bartender Dev Johnson, in a pork pie hat and waxed mustache, considers a new whiskey for his shelves.
"So this is Brenne," says Allison Patel, motioning toward a bottle on the bar. Patel is petite, with tall wedge ankle boots, fitted black pants, a draped black leather jacket and long thick brown hair. If you didn't know better, you'd think her a particularly chic sales rep.
But you know better.
“This is a whiskey that I produce,” she tells Johnson. “We just launched October 1. It's a single malt whiskey from Cognac, France.” She continues, diving into details on the farm distillery, fermentation methods, yeast strands, and how she finishes the stuff in cognac barrels.
Johnson swirls the whiskey in his glass. He sniffs the pale gold liquid and his eyes move upward in contemplation. He takes a sip, washes it in his mouth for a few moments, nods, and spits into a bucket behind the counter.
“Tons of fruit,” he tells her. “Lots of orange. Lots of fruit in there. It's interesting.”
Patel begins to suggest the addition of orange zest, but Johnson interrupts.
“You get lots of vanilla, caramel in there too...it's definitely different,” he says, drawing his eyebrows together. “There's a lot of heat though, a lot of burn on the tongue. It's really staying with me.” He shakes his head slightly. “That's one of the things that I try to stay away from. It's kind of killing the other flavors that you get from it, a little bit.”
Patel purses her lips. Johnson's reaction to her whiskey is a first. After spending 25 days offering samples of Brenne at upscale bars and liquor stores around Manhattan, Patel's one-woman startup has already received orders from 39 different establishments. To most buyers, her whisky's appeal lies in its palatability. In reviews, a bottle of Brenne was described as "silky," "rich" and "sweet."
But not this time. Patel makes no attempt to refute Johnson's reproach, taking the criticism in stride.
“That's so interesting,” she tells him. “I'm always a student. It's really cool to hear how someone else reacts to it, to hear how you're analyzing it and what you're thinking about.”
Patel first moved to New York City as a twenty-one-year-old ballet dancer with dreams of performing on Broadway. To support herself, she worked at a day spa on the side. Her manager there quickly recognized her knack for making sales and encouraged her to pursue the path further. Eventually, Patel left the world of dance for the world of fashion.
“Yes, that was also filled with anorexics and gay men,” she acknowledges with a laugh.
She moved from fine clothing to fine jewelry. As Patel continued to help other businesses grow, she began craving the chance to launch one of her own.
“All the while, I kept saying, 'By the time I hit 30, I'm going to start my own business,' " she said.
To her surprise, it took an unlikely hobby to make that wish come true.
“My husband got me a single malt by a company called Suntory, which is a Japanese whiskey brand," she said. "I had their Yamazaki 18 year. I'll never forget the moment, because I drank that and I never looked back. I loved whiskey from that moment on. And I read everything I could about it.”
When Patel's husband traveled abroad for work, he'd bring back more whiskeys for her to try. She discovered that many of her favorite brands were unavailable in the U.S.
So she decided to import them herself. Sensing an opportunity for entrepreneurship, Patel founded Local Infusions in February 2011. The young company imports whiskey to the U.S. from non-traditional places -- generally nations that aren't named Scotland or Ireland -- and exports American craft whiskey.
Her efforts have been well received.
“It is a really amazing and nurturing group of people from all around the world,” she says of her industry peers. “Even though you can look and say, 'Oh wow, we're essentially competitors,' everyone is so supportive.”
In her new role, Patel looks all over the world for quality whiskey, importing from unlikely places such as Tasmania. But she was looking for something really special, something that could make a name for her startup company.
“I was really looking for a specific profile of whiskey,” she explains. “I wanted something that was different. I wanted to bring something to the U.S. that's never been here, that is approachable, and elegant, and brings a new profile to the whiskey scene.”
That's when a friend suggested she visit a small cognac distillery in Cognac, France. A third-generation cognac maker was also distilling single malt whiskey for his own personal consumption, making it by using the same techniques as for cognac, but with organic barley instead of grapes.
“I said, 'Look, I think it's beautiful, this is exactly what I've been looking for. Can I buy this from you, and can we do something with it?'” Patel recalls. “And he said, 'No problem! I hate sales, I hate marketing, I don't want to be involved in that way.' And I said, 'Perfect!'”
It would be the first single malt French whiskey to be imported to the U.S.
Before she gave the whiskey the Brenne label it now holds, she sought to further refine its aging process. At the time, the whiskey finished aging in Limousin oak barrels. Patel suggested an additional step.
“He was producing all this cognac, and I said, 'Why don't we transfer the whiskey to the casks that had the cognac in them?'" she said. "And it just put the finish on the whiskey that we were really looking for.”
It was good enough, in fact, to introduce to the New York City market this year -- with other large cities planned in 2013.
Back at Employees Only, Patel and bartender Dev Johnson have begun discussing their mutual acquaintances in the whiskey industry. Johnson glances toward his sink, then pauses a moment. He takes his glass of whiskey and adds a splash of water.
Swirl, sniff, sip. This time, he doesn't spit.
"It's nice with water," he says. "It cools that burn and keeps the flavors nice and strong."
Johnson turns away from Patel. Following her earlier suggestion, he brings out an orange peel, adds it to the glass, and tastes again.
“Interesting,” he remarks.
“Isn't that interesting?” Patel says, smiling.
“It's nice," Johnson says, nodding. "It definitely accentuates the flavors in it."
Then he utters the words Patel has spent the last 15 minutes waiting for.
“How much is it per bottle?”
Photo: Allison Patel