Updates from Scotland's Future Distilleries

I woke up this morning to a lovely panorama of the future Ardnahoe distillery site on Islay. Stewart Laing emailed me to say hello and to let me know they were getting ready to pour concrete for the foundation. You can see the peaks of Jura out there in the distance. I'm really excited for this distillery to break ground. It's very exciting.

Not to be outdone by an exciting new distillery photo, the Morrisons sent me this awesome shot of their pot stills being brought in by crane at the new Clydeside distillery in Glasgow. I'm just as pumped up for a real single malt distillery in downtown Glasgow as I am a new face on the holy ground of Islay.

-David Driscoll


Drink & Watch: Mildred Pierce

How about a drink? Let's have a drink first. Have a drink and we'll talk about it. Who wants a drink? 

Those are all lines you'll hear repeatedly throughout the Academy Award-winning classic Mildred Pierce, an almost noir-ish account of a determined single mother raising a millennial daughter more than sixty years before we even knew what millennials were. Joan Crawford, in true Mommy Dearest form, drinks like a fish throughout the film. She drinks so much Bourbon in her role as restaurateur that it probably impressed the hell out of the judges who eventually gave her the Oscar for best actress. Of course, with classic liter-sized bottles of "Kentucky Hill" like the one pictured above, who could lay off the stuff? 

Once you get past the first twenty minutes, there's hardly a moment where Joanie isn't slamming down glasses of brown water with various eager gentlemen. At one point my wife said to me: "Jesus, is that all they did back then? Drink and look glamorous?"

Yes, and that's why we loved them.

That is until we found out they were also drunken lunatics who were secretly abusing their adopted children by whipping them with wire hangers, but that was real life Joan Crawford. I much prefer the fantasy version of Mildred Pierce on the silver screen. I broke out my 1.75 liter of Very Old Barton (an annual Walgreen's of downtown Louisville purchase) and went to town along with her yesterday afternoon. 

"I drink it straight now," Crawford says at one point in the film to the surprise of her suitor. Yes, you most definitely do, Joan. You most definitely do.

-David Driscoll


The Volume Game

I got a surprising amount of emails yesterday about volume and how it affects spirits (based off the previous post), so I figured I'd go over a few examples here today. Let's talk about single malt Scotch whisky and Cognac, since both are pot-distilled and are therefore more difficult to produce in volume than say Bourbon because you have to distill in batches versus a continuous column. I'm also going to throw in Champagne because they're all technically related.

Perhaps you've heard of the term "house" (or "maison") when it comes to alcohol. Remy is a Cognac "house." Louis Roederer is a Champagne "house." Chivas Regal is a Scotch blending "house." When a producer is referred to as a "house" it usually implies that they're purchasing and collecting stocks, rather than producing their own supply (although they may do both). A "house" is simply a brand or a company that cannot create enough volume on its own to supply its demand, hence the need to contract (in that vein, we could call new-wave American whiskey producers like High West or Whistle Pig "houses" because they're doing the same thing with Bourbon and rye). Usually a "house" specializes in blending and creating what's known as a "house style." Blending (as you know) is an art, but it's also a strategy. The goal is consistency. When you're not in control of your entire production, you're at the mercy of your contracted components. You can only work with the base materials at your disposal. In order to successfully sell a global brand, you need both volume and consistency. Veuve Clicquot needs to taste the same every time, even though the wines will be different each year from vintage to vintage. That's why they make it big.

In the case of Cognac and Champagne, both are made from grapes that have to be grown within a very specific geographical area. Vineyards not planted in either designated zone cannot legally produce grapes for Cognac or Champagne production. In the case of Champagne (I'm not quite as certain in Cognac), the zone is fully planted. There's no more room for expansion. It's maxed out. If you need more juice as a producer, you have only one option: buy grapes from another landowner. That's how labels like Dom Perignon and Perrier Jouët are able to make enough Champagne to sell to every store and restaurant around the world. They contract as much extra fruit as they possibly can. In order to maneuver around the inconsistencies in flavor, style, and quality from these sources, they blend. That's why most Champagnes don't have a vintage date. You'll never know exactly what's in them. What you will come to understand is the house style—the flavor that remains consistent even when the components vary. Cognac works in the exact same way. Sometimes houses like Hennessy and Courvoisier buy grapes, or sometimes they buy distillates. Either way, when you visit their production centers you'll find cellars with stocks that are labeled by producer. An example is the Hennessy warehouse below:

If you can see those little chalkboards that are leaning up against the demijohns in the background, each has the name of the property and the vintage on it. When Hennessy makes a blend, they do so from hundreds of different Cognacs from hundreds of different properties, some of which they own and many of which they do not. Scotch blending houses used to be no different. Before every distillery in Scotland became corporate-owned, blending houses would contract what they needed as they needed it. You could call up Caol Ila and get fifty barrels filled, or phone over to Glenlivet and see if they could get you a hundred hogsheads. While I've heard some of the old contracts are still being honored here and there, most of the people I work with are facing reality. That era is dead. Today Johnnie Walker owns all of its distilleries outright. So does Chivas. So does Famous Grouse. When we go to Scotland and purchase casks, we're usually working with older blending houses that are selling off their stocks and getting out of the business (or building their own distilleries). They had originally contracted those barrels to make blends, but today those casks are more valuable as single entities. 

Our niche at K&L over the years has been to find products produced in smaller volumes and bring them to our market. We look for suppliers who maybe don't have enough volume for the world, but they at least have enough for us. If you click over to On the Trail this week, you'll see that our Champagne buyer Gary Westby is currently in the region visiting producers like this. In both Champagne and Cognac, much like in Scotland, growers often sell their stocks to the bigger houses in conjunction with their own production. To use Caol Ila as an example again, the overwhelming majority of the distillery's production goes into Johnnie Walker, but there's still enough leftover to make the 12 year old edition. The farmers that Gary is visiting are known as grower/producers because they also do both. They might sell 30-60% of their grapes to a large house, but make a small amount of bottles to sell on their own as well. Those are the wines we've come to specialize in: boutique, tightly-controlled, quality-oriented Champagnes from the small producers who use only their own grapes. It's that same model that we took to Cognac where we began working directly with Dudognon, Ragnaud-Sabourin, Bouju, Jacques Esteve, and others. All of these producers sell stock to Hennessy, but they keep enough back to make their own brandy as well. 

Is smaller production inherently better? God, no. Haven't we learned anything from the craft spirits boom of the last few years? Small production doesn't mean anything. What you need is high-quality production of any size combined with careful curation. What usually affects concentration of flavor is the size and volume of the blend (and sometimes even that doesn't matter!). The bigger you are, the less detail-oriented you can be about what you're blending. Remember that when it comes to Scotch, Cognac, and Champagne, there's a limited amount that can be produced. Big companies can't afford to be choosy when they're looking for growth. They're buying anything that can legally be called Scotch, Cognac, or Champagne and hoping to blend away any flaws. The trade off, however, is the price. The larger the scale, the more competitive your costs. The goal for these "houses" is to make the best product they can make, as consistently as possible, for the best possible price. They're looking for the happy medium. When demand goes up, however, these gigantic money-making companies have to choose between running out of supply or selling a lesser product. You can guess which one they usually opt for. What's interesting about Champagne, however, is that unlike with spirits it's actually cheaper to buy stuff from the smaller guys. That's why we have all kinds of Champagnes at K&L that sell for $25-$35 and absolutely destroy things like Veuve Clicquot at $45 (which is why Gary is putting together an order in France right now—we literally sell boat loads of Champagne). 

Our goal has always been to locate and work directly with people who don't care about scaling up their production. That's where the ultimate quality can ultimately be controlled. The blend isn't what matters. Even single malts are blends of numerous barrels. The size of that blend and the commitment to quality over volume is what matters most.

-David Driscoll


Return to Regionality

As many of you know, we’ve been working directly with Douglas Laing for many years now to do our independently-bottled Old Particular casks. What you may not have known is that Douglas Laing was and has always been primarily a blending house and Fred Laing one hell of a blender. In Compass Box style, Fred has put together a series of artisinal blended malts that showcase the regional styles of Scotland. Not only are the whiskies seriously tasty, they’re indicative of an era that is beginning to fade in Scotch whisky. Because Scotland’s focus with modern connoisseurs has shifted to single malts over the last decade and because each producer is now its own brand, the distilleries are less motivated to create one singular style anymore. The corporations have decided they must offer everything to every customer, so as not to lose a sale elsewhere. At this point there are dozens of distilleries that make both light and heavy whiskies, peated and unpeated whiskies, and both sherried and unsherried malts. There was a time, however, when Scotland’s main regions were very specific. Highland’s were lithe and elegant, Speysides were sherried and rich, Lowlands were light and fruity, Islands were salty, and Islay malts were peaty. Back when blending houses were still contracting their whiskies (today they outright own their means of production), they would put together recipes for blends based on these styles. You still find old recipes that say things like: two parts Speyside, one part Lowland, one part Islay, like the one pictured above from Alfred Barnard's old book. It’s from Scotch whisky’s history of blending and from the lessons taught to Fred by his father Douglas that the DL regional malts were born. 

I have to say there is one saving grace for me in the new age of NAS single malt whisky: the recent drop in quality will serve as an important lesson. When I was in the Paris duty free this past week, I just sat there stupified looking at all the junk that's piling up there—five different versions of Talisker that aren't even close to as good as the ten year, eight different Highland Parks that have no explanation other than some mythical Viking nonsense, that type of stuff. There's a reason K&L switched over to a single malt specialty store about fifteen years ago. It WASN'T because single malts are inherently better than blends, but rather because the blends had become too big for their own good. Single malts aren't better whiskies than blended whiskies, in my opinion; it's just that for years they were made in smaller batches. Quality with anything comes from tight-knit control. The more you expand, the less you can provide that same level of attention. I'm prime example number one. When my job at K&L was solely to buy spirits, I was putting on tastings, dinners, and educational events non-stop and I was in the store all the time talking to people about booze. Now that I'm managing ten different buyers, putting together marketing emails, working on outside projects, and working heavily with Bordeaux/Burgundy, I no longer am capable of giving whisky customers the same level of attention as previously. That's a fact.

It's the volume game that put blended Scotch in the toilet, not something inherent in the whiskies themselves. The same phenomena is going to happen to a number of fine single malt brands very soon and then the proof will be in the pudding. If you're someone who thinks that blends are inferior to straight single malts because there's something purer or higher in quality about one whisky from one distillery, I present to you the whiskies below. Not only are they better than many of the fifty to sixty dollar single malts we currently carry, they're a lot more fun. I really have to hand it to Fred and the team over at Douglas Laing. This is exactly what Scotch whisky needs right now: small batch, meticulously-blended expressions that prove to the public Scotch whisky is more like Voltron than the Transformers (Google it if that reference is lost on you). The Epicurean, for me, was like a potent blast of fresh Scotch fruitiness of a style I haven't tasted in years. Bravo.

Douglas Laing's Epicurean Lowland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $46.99 - Our friends at Douglas Laing in Glasgow, with whom we do the Old Particular bottlings, have put together a series of regional malt blends that wonderfully showcase the stylistic flavor profiles of Scotlands main whisky producing sectors. Not only are the whiskies accurate reflections of a dying era in Scotch whisky production, they're some of the tastiest and most enjoyable whiskies we've discovered in ages. The Epicurean is the "Lowland" expression that absolutely brims with fresh fruit, sweet barley, and hard candy. It's a barley-rich malt that is likely a mix of Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie (or maybe even Bladnoch), but while we can't say for sure, we can say with absolute certainty that this is a must try whisky for those looking for something fun and delicious.

Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster Island Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Rock Oyster is an Island blend that uses whisky from the Arran and Jura distilleries, along with other malts from the islands of Islay and Orkney. The whisky is an explosion of sea salt, wave soaked rocks, smoke, honey, peat, ash, and pepper. It's a textural malt as well, one that envelops the palate under all that potent island flavor.

Douglas Laing's Scallywag Speyside Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Scallywag is the Speyside entry in the series and uses whiskies from Macallan, Mortlach, and Glenrothes to create a sherry-matured delight. It's full of rich vanilla, chocolate, fudge, and orange zest with a bit of tobacco and fruit cake on the finish. A classic Speyside malt if there ever was one!

Douglas Laing's Timorous Beastie Highland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Timorous Beastie is the Highland edition that uses whiskies from Blair Athol, Glen Garioch, Dalmore, and Glengoyne to compose an elegant and finely-tuned Highland expressions. There are flavors of sweet barley, honey, sweet fruit, and cereal grains on both the palate and finish. The texture is also as soft as silk.

This one we all know already as it's been available in the U.S. for years: 

Douglas Laing's Big Peat Islay Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Big Peat is a blend of Islay's finest distilleries: Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and the rare Port Ellen, it is exactly what you expect when you taste it. The aromas are of smoke, and salty seaweed with a slight medicinal note, and the palate shows more campfire smoke with a saline and herbal character. The finish is rockin' and the length on it is incredible. It lingers in your mouth for minutes as hints of fresh chopped spearmint and pepper start to appear. This is an aptly named whisky that is very much a big and peaty drink.

-David Driscoll


Self-Induced Coma

Bear with me here on the spirits blog over the next few days. I've got one of the worst colds I've had in decades and the virus is currently ravaging our entire Redwood City store. All I can do to alleviate the symptoms thus far is to sleep, so I've been going to bed around 7 PM for the last few days and trying to stay in bed for as long as possible. The crazy thing is that each time I wake up I feel exactly as terrible. Normally resting for ten to twelve hours at a time results in some progress, but this is the damnedest bug I've gone up against in some time. It's a serious son of a bitch. If you start to feel sick this week, I highly advise you to prepare for war.

In the meantime, we'll have some fun things coming this weekend and early next week. A new batch of peated Couvreur (our heavily sherried and smoky malt), the regional blends from Douglas Laing, Wyoming whiskey, and more.

Hang with me! I'm going down for the count again today, hoping to return in better spirits tomorrow.

-David Driscoll