That Secret Brand
The warehouse district of Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood poses certain challenges to people who work there. Boutique spirits importing company PM Spirits founder Nicolas Palazzi has found himself facing one of them: the lack of nearby places to eat, a scarcity represented by the disreputable gas station Cobb salad -- suspicious looking lettuce topped with torn up American cheese singles -- at which he's now poking in barely concealed horror. After a few tentative bites, Palazzi offers it around with little success. Surrounding him on the room's floor-to-ceiling racks are substantially more appetizing offerings - Cognac, armagnac, whiskey, amaro. Often they are brand names unfamiliar to even seasoned drinkers, which was sort of the point of PM Spirits when Palazzi started it: to concentrate on high-quality, low-profile spirits largely unknown in the United States, to offer striking and sometimes controversial examples of spirits everyone thought they knew.
Pushing the unfortunate Cobb salad to the side and opening a bottle of 50-year-old Montilla Old Brandy, Palazzi reflected on how a French chemical engineer came to be the man behind a niche spirits importer hidden away in an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood. It all started with a single barrel of Cognac given to his grandfather.
Although he himself studied to be a chemical engineer (a profession that actually turns out a lot of spirits makers and master distillers), Nicolas Palazzi's family was in the winemaking business. His grandfather had a friend who made Cognac and needed financial assistance. When Palazzi lent him money, the man gave them a cask of his Cognac as partial payment. As Nicolas got to know the gentleman, and as he grew to appreciate the Cognac sitting in his father's cellar, he decided to use that single cask as the basis for building his own spirits company. The guiding principle Palazzi adopted for himself and his fledgling company was to set his stuff in opposition to what people expect from a certain type of spirit; to find Cognac that defies the predictable, sometimes cookie-cutter expectation of what, say, Cognac is; to show that a spirit can be much more diverse and surprising than the mainstream representation might suggest. Popularity breeds expectations, and expectations can spawn homogeny. Palazzi hopes the niche character of his company will help them avoid that.
The Montilla Old Brandy, aged for half a century in an Oloroso sherry cask and bottled under the Navazos-Palazzi label (a joint venture with Equipo Navazos), is a perfect example of this passion for unique, niche -- or as Palazzi himself refers to them, "geeky" -- spirits. It certainly contains the defining characteristics of Cognac, but there is also something peculiar (delightfully so). It's big and juicy, with melted brown sugar sweetness and something odd and funky, that earthy characteristic -- rancio -- that begins to assert itself in old, refined Cognac but that is all but unknown in more run-of-the-mill offerings.
That first barrel of Cognac got PM Spirits off the ground. Palazzi hoped to make it into "that secret brand no one knows about," working with small quantities of very high quality product and getting on the radars of personal shoppers, collectors, "high rollers," and services like Soutirage, but not just the "will buy whatever is trendy" set. The peculiar nature and unknown names Palazzi was seeking to add to his arsenal were never going to catch on with the Hamptons party crowd. Trendsetters, yes. Trend followers, probably not. Add to that list, the booze geeks and historians. The sort of people who are keen to discover something new and who probably also own a lot of obscure, bitter European liquors distributed in the US by Haus Alpenz.
Hard work and networking helped Palazzi along the road toward that goal, getting his Cognac noticed and providing Palazzi, as a result, with an increased flow of capital that enabled him to expand his portfolio, adding not just bizarre new brandies but also rum and whiskey. "It seemed to make sense," Palazzi shrugs when explaining why he moved into the highly competitive business of importing Scotch. Most of the money PM Spirits makes goes back into acquiring interesting things for their portfolio, Palazzi explains as he pours a L’Artisan Cognac single cask. Their office is just a single room in an industrial space. The total number of employees that comprise PM Spirits can fit comfortably around a card table. But the austere nature of their home is in sharp contrast to the dizzingly unique and sumptuous products Palazzi has acquired for their portfolio. L’Artisan Cognac, which is the result of a partnership with American jeweler Evan Yurman, is another example of the oddball stuff he turns up. Single cask Cognac is rarely done, and this one is bright and minty on top of the grapiness, very much unlike what one assumes Cognac must be. Grassy, almost. "Farmy," says Palazzi, "made by a gentleman farmer."
Despite the rarity of what they offer, and despite aiming for a small audience, PM Spirits' products aren't looking to break anyone's bank (though a few, by sheer nature of their age and rarity, might). Their rare Spanish single malt whisky is a one-of-a-kind but hovers below the hundred dollar mark. Pricing quirky spirits like the ones PM offers can be tricky. "What did you pay for a cask twenty years ago," he asks, "and what would the same cask cost today?" Additionally, he adds, when you are dealing in brands almost wholly unknown to most American consumers, that are purposely chosen not to be reflective of the generic flavor profile of a spirit, you have to convince people it's worth taking the gamble.
Take Domaine des Hautes Glaces. It's a young, organic French single malt whisky using Alpine barley distilled in a Cognac-style pot still and aged in ex-white wine barrels. It's grassy and bright, and very few people know about it. Even in the PM Spirits whisky portfolio -- which includes a 23-year-old Tamdhu and a 26-year-old Linkwood, both from Blackadder Raw Cask, and Cyrus Noble bourbon -- Domaine des Hautes Glaces is a weird whisky with a difficult to remember name. Looking for French (there are only a few brands, but more and more French distillers seem to be toying with the spirit -- or always have been, after Cognac distilling season, but just for themselves) or Spanish whisky -- is one of the ways Palazzi hopes to avoid being squeezed out of the running during the global whiskey shortage, which has increased the price and competition for increasingly scarce barrels on the secondary market.
The Cobb salad continues to sit untouched in the corner of the room, but is often referred to. It may be there still, achieving through sheer force of persistence its own sort of rancio quality, though it's unlikely it will ever be the match of the Guillon-Painturaud Renaissance, a 40-year-old Cognac made and bottled by a family that did not want to see it in hands of a large distributor that would simply lump it into a catalog beneath more recognizable names. It's tangy, tart, and fruity and first then gives way to mushroomy earthiness.
It's the sort of thing that characterizes what Palazzi wants to do and highlights why small distributors are so important. They're like craft distillers. They can come up with unique, sometimes even shocking interpretations of things that might otherwise become too static, too predictable. They are nimbler than large distributors, and even though a craft importer like PM Spirits doesn't have the bankroll of a big company, they manage to somehow be less beholden to accountants, abler to take a risk on something obscure, something unique, or something that's just plain strange.
Editor's Note: for more on unique offerings from PM Spirits, read about The Eaux de Vie and Liqueurs of Distillerie Laurent Cazottes here.