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Wednesday
Apr182018

Whisky Windfall

I talk a lot about how the whisky well is drying up. I’m constantly reminding everyone how hard it is to find great casks and how astounding the relentless increase in prices has been. It's not because I like to brag about our ability to source awesome whisky, but because I'm legitimately concerned that one day we might not have the same access we once had. Yesterday I tasted through a line of new and very attractive independently bottled single malts. This is a brand developed by a medium sized drinks company who is a relatively large player in the European market. The whiskies are all between 9 and 10 years old and from very respectable distilleries. Nothing rare or unusual, but good workhorse malts like Linkwood and Miltonduff. I was super psyched to have a new partner to deal with, a potential source for single casks in the future, not to mention the rare bonus that their packaging was great.

The whiskies were all solid, not single casks, but small batches of a few thousand cases. That means these guys are buying enough to be get bulk pricing either direct from distillery or from the next tier down - the very secretive broker market. Most likely they're buying this stuff when it's really young and hanging onto it for a few years before bottling. They likely pay a few pounds per pure liter or alcohol plus another pound or so per year. That's how bulk commodity pricing works in Scotch. If you're willing to commit to a lot of volume the raw cost is not VERY high. It's all the other stuff that starts to make it expensive –taxes, time, angels, logistics, marketing, packaging, etc. Of course, we'd love to be able to purchase at that level, but it's not that simple. It doesn't make economical sense for us to buy quantities like this. It’s not the worst investment, you're by no means guaranteed the top quality whisky we require. That demands additional investment in quality casks, the know how and logistics to fill and warehouse your own product, not to mention bottling and whatnot. So I'm excited when I see someone new who can operate on that level. There's so much potential for exciting products, but executing a viable brand launch takes much more than just potential.  

After walking myself through the various marks, some cask strength and others at 92 proof, I was feeling good about the prospects. Each whisky was a great example of the specific distillery and all had uniqueness despite their similarity on paper. When we came around to discussing price, my excitement turned to utter disbelief. The look on my face must have made it obvious.  9 and 10 year old Single Malt for $80-100? Who is going to buy this stuff? If it was Lagavulin, Ardbeg, sherried Macallan or Glenfarclas, maybe this might just maybe make sense. I broached the subject with caution. They insisted the prices seemed right in line with the market. They'd done the research on comparable products and priced them accordingly. The brands were doing great in Europe!

Ultimately they might be right - tons of young whisky is being marketed and sold by independents at wildly inflated prices. But I cannot stock products just because they exist. I often find myself defending our stocking choices to geeks who ask why we don't have more independent bottlers on the shelf. They remember a time when the independent bottler was providing so much value that to consider buying a distillery brand seemed ridiculous. Now it seems the opposite is true. The simple answer for these folks is that if the suppliers can't provide value for my customers, there's no point in buying them no matter how cool or rare they are. When we find a product that delivers real value, we'll buy them. A pretty bottle and romantic story only go so far. In the end, we can sell you one bottle of nearly ANYTHING, but if you don't go home crack ‘er open and immediately start think about buying a second then we're not doing our job well enough.

Today I'm not going to sell you 10 year old whisky in third fill casks for $100+, but instead old delicious rare single malt for not much more at all. These are the types of barrels that make me question the business model of some many people in this industry. Luckily, they reaffirm everything we’ve tried to prove over the last ten years. These are the final two single malts from Old Particular until the summer. We may have saved the best for last...

Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $159.99

This 25 year Bunnahabhain isn't just from a "refill hogshead" barrel, it's from a sherry hogshead and the dark, rich color of the malt lets you know at first glance that this is going to be one supple dram. Bunnahabhain, unpeated in its classic expression, takes on a completely different character in sherry than its Islay counterparts. While sherried Bowmore tends toward savory campfire notes and sherried Kilchoman towards sweet peat, sherried Bunnahabhain is like pure salted caramel, combining the sea elements of island maturation with the mouthcoating texture of a textbook Speyside malt. After 25 years in the barrel, this incredible specimen came out at 49.5% cask strength with an absolutely incredible color. Sweet sherry dances with caramelized apples and pears, lots of Oloroso rancio, and loads of oak spice on the finish. You'll be thinking more along the lines of Macallan and Glenfarclas than Islay at the end of this one. This is a MUST for sherry heads.

Bowmore 20 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $149.99

Another classic 20 year old Bowmore beauty from our friends at Old Particular has landed to make 2018 another banner year for our whisky import program. This 52.7% ABV stunner packs a healthy dollop of smoke along with tropical fruits and notes of citrus with plenty of length through the finish. The peat isn't nearly as pronounced in this expression as it was in the previous edition, so fans of Talisker or other mildly peated malts might want to take a look at this one. The finish is sweetly smoked with a coastal sea air element, notes of vanilla, and lots of spice. It's hard to go wrong with classic Bowmore at full proof, especially at this age.

Two Islay whiskies that couldn't be more different, but both stunning examples of what each distillery has to offer. We going to keep the exceptional whiskies flowing for as long as we can. When we get stupendous casks like this it feels like the party might never end. For those paying attention, the Faultline casks were delayed along with the IRS filing deadline. They should be in the main warehouse and ready to go in the next few hours. You'll have a few more days to take a first crack at those before the rest of the world catches on. 

-David Othenin-Girard

 

Tuesday
Apr172018

The New MGP Whiskeys

Five years ago, the trend was for companies selling MGP to pretend it was anything but whiskey made in a giant factory in Indiana.  Now, there's a new trend, bottles that proudly proclaim their MGP status and sell for a premium. I'm thinking of Mic Drop, Joseph Magnus and more. So what gives?  Here's a little history of how we got here. 


Seagram's to LDI to MGP 

The Lawrenceburg Indiana distillery was once part of the Seagram's empire, which also included Four Roses. In 2000, when Seagram's broke up, the Lawrenceburg Indiana distillery was sold to Pernod Ricard who then sold it to CL Financial in 2006. Back then it was known as Lawrenceburg DIstillers Indiana (LDI) and produced only three whiskeys – two bourbons and a rye.  CL Financial, the Trinidad based parent company to Angostura, fell on hard times, and in 2011, it sold the distillery to Midwest Grain Products (MGP), a large industrial distiller based in Kansas. In 2013, MGP began introducing new mashbills.  Currently, they make 12 different whiskeys including five bourbons, three ryes, a wheat whiskey, a corn whiskey, a malt whiskey and a light whiskey.  

 

A Mystery Whiskey 

LDI first came to attention in the whiskey world around ten years ago when companies like Templeton and High West started selling rye whiskey with an unusual mashbill – 95% rye and 5% barley.  This was quite mysterious to those of us who were used to the ryes on the market, nearly all from Kentucky.  Kentucky ryes were mostly around 51% rye with a large amount of corn in the mashbill (this was in the days before Whistlepig and others brought us bottles of Canadian 100% rye).  Eventually, intrepid whiskey writers like Chuck Cowdery and Mark Gillespie were able to discover that these came from what was then LDI. Why were they holding onto well aged 95% rye?  Most of it was likely made to go into Seagram's 7 blended whiskey.  

The major thing that separated LDI/MGP from every other major whiskey distillery in the US is that they didn't have any of their own brands. In fact, when MGP purchased the distillery, they didn't even buy the bottling plant; that went to Proximo, so MGP doesn't even have the ability to bottle their own whiskey at the plant. Eventually, MGP would release some house brands under the Metze's and George Remus labels, but the vast majority of their business is still in sales to other companies.  

 

The First Wave 

Once the rye was out of the bag, all kinds of companies started buying it – many marketed it as if they had made it themselves. This caused a scandal after a Daily Beast expose in 2014 that led to numerous lawsuits. Most of them were unsuccessful, a few settled, but the whole episode did much to make consumers aware that not all whiskey was what it claimed to be.  

 

A New Wave 

A few companies like High West and Redemption were always honest about their use of LDI/MGP whiskey, and Smooth Ambler and Willett started selling single barrel, cask strength Indiana whiskey. These bottlings became highly sought after – partly because of the general bourbon craze, but also because MGP makes good whiskey and both Willett and Smooth Ambler were picking good casks (as did Nelson's Green Brier for their Belle Meade Bourbon). Others took note and "Distilled in Indiana" started to appear in bigger letters on some labels, with some even using "MGP" on the label, including the boutique bottlings from Single Cask Nation and PM Spirits' Mic Drop.  

 

The Price Factor 

 

One issue with MGP bourbons is that they tend to be more expensive than similarly situated Kentucky bourbons.  Why?  Some of it is probably your typical effort to make big bucks off of the bourbon craze, but Non Distiller Producer whiskey also has more mark ups attached to it than distiller produced whiskey. 

Every time a cask of whiskey changes hands, there's a mark-up so that whoever it changes hand with can make a profit.  When Heaven Hill makes a bottle of Elijah Craig, it distills the whiskey, ages it, bottles it and then sells it to a distributor that sells it to a retailer.  That's two mark-ups from distillery to retailer.   

When a whiskey is sold by someone other than the distiller, it's more complicated. There's at least one additional step involved and often more.  In some cases, there are as many as three transactions before an MGP whiskey even gets to the distributor, and each transaction includes a mark-up that's passed on to the consumer.  

 

What Comes Next? 

The trend toward honesty and transparency among MGP bottlers is definitely a positive, the trend of higher prices not so much. That being said, MGP is making excellent whiskey, and it will be interesting to taste their newer recipes when they get some age on them.  Those include some pretty unusual mashbills; there's one 99% corn bourbon and another that's 51% corn/49% barley (would we call that a "Barleyer"?). Those will likely make for some interesting drinking in another four or five years, so stay tuned.  

 

- Sku

Friday
Apr132018

Tax Prep Day

 

Like many people I’m a total wreck as we get toward tax day. I push my calculations to the very last minute. It’s not because I owe anything, I’m pretty sure they owe me. I’m not confident enough in my ability to save money to avoid withholding plenty during the year. The dread comes simply from the looming knowledge that I have to go through all my expenses and see how I’ve wasted my money all year. My bank makes it surprisingly difficult to download more than five months of financial transactions, so that means I have to pour over terribly formatted PDFs and find various expenses  to write off for whatever reason. It’s not really all that difficult, just time consuming and monotonous. Beyond the simple annoying facts that it must be done and the realization that I've spent several thousand on coffee this year, there’s always that sinking feeling that you've screwed up and the government will say, “WRONG! Give us more money!”

The savvy tax payer isn’t doing any of that. It’s apparently in poor financial taste to lend money to the government interest free. Instead, simply pay what you owe when you owe it. Better yet extend the deadlines. Stress free. Seems simple enough, but all that money you’ve saved throughout the year is just sitting in a savings account? What kind of sense is that? Even the most lucrative FDIC Insured savings accounts only yield a tiny return. Why not invest your future tax dollars in something useful? Whisky? Sure it’s illegal to sell without a license, but it’s tangible and delicious. You can feel the bottle in your hand and hear the clink of the lip to your glass. It’s visceral, pleasurable, and social. A physical commodity like whisky is always handy if the financial system collapses or the world descends into some sort of zombie apocalypse. Not only can you drink and enjoy it, but it’s useful for barter when roving bands of nomadic cyberpunks threaten your lands. It can be used to disinfect wounds and start fires!

Don't divert your tax money to buy whisky, but you may want to consider setting a little aside now while you're preparing to pay the man. Deals like these are going to be a distant memory soon. This new batch of Faultline, the first single malt in years, represents some of the best value we’ve ever offered. Build just a little extra into the budget for these special whiskies and you'll be thank yourself this time next year. These should drop on Tax Day, 2018. 

-David Othenin-Girard

Thursday
Apr122018

Back Shelf Treasures: Golden Devil Dark Overproof Rum 

One of the things I told K&L I wanted to write about was some of their stuff that I love but that seems to fly under the radar. In a world where everyone seems to be angling for hard to get items, there is a surprising amount of great booze that's there for the taking.

Golden Devil

One of my favorite things to drink lately is the Golden Devil Dark Overproof Rum. When this came out last year, they underplayed it as a tiki drink ingredient and put it at the bottom of their list of new rums. At the time, I grabbed one almost as an afterthought, then I got home and was pretty damn surprised when I tasted it. Maybe it is good in tiki drinks; I don't know โ€“ I just drink it neat.

Golden Devil Dark Overproof Rum, 57% abv ($19.99)

This is a blend of rums from Jamaica and Guyana. The Guyana rum is obviously from DDL since it's the only distillery there, but the company won't disclose the Jamaican.

The funky Jamaican rum is apparent on the nose which also has brown sugar and Valencia oranges. The palate has a light funk with sweet vanilla and burnt sugar โ€“ a nice balance between Guyanese and Jamaican styles. On the finish it has a nice tangy note โ€“ maybe lemon rind, along with some underlying sweetness. This stuff doesn't have the aggressive funk of a Hampden, but it's got great balance and feeds both my cravings for funky and sweeter rums. It's great stuff, and at $20 (cheaper than frickin' Bulleit), this stuff is a no-brainer for me.

- Sku

From the Author...

Hello K&L Spirits Journal readers. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Sku. I used to be a whiskey blogger, but I retired. Well, it turns out that the blogger retirement benefits are much less generous than I had been led to believe, so when the good people of K&L asked if they could pay me for something I did for free for ten years, I sold out faster than a bottle of Kentucky Owl (and with just as much integrity).

In all seriousness though, K&L has long been my go-to liquor store, and I'm thrilled to be able to write for them. I've been a customer since they opened the Hollywood store which is an unhealthily short drive from my house, and I've long counted a number of the staff as friends.

Of course, my writing here will be different from my old blog. I'm a guest here, and while I have no intention of going full Driscoll (I don't know any famous people and have really uncool taste in music), this is a liquor store blog, and what I write about will reflect that to some extent (sorry, no dim sum reviews). That being said, the folks who gave me this gig didn't tell me what they wanted me to write about, so my intention is to write about what I want to in a way that I hope will be interesting to the K&L readership, and they can publish it or not.

So let's give this a try and see how it goes.

Saturday
Apr072018

K&L Maker's Mark Barrel is BACK

 

Maker's Mark "K&L Exclusive" Private Select Kentucky Bourbon (750ml)

Our first three barrels of Maker's Private Select blew up in a big way. We still have people coming back looking for those special bottles. Luckily, we were able to secure another at the end of last year. It's just arrived and is as delicious as expected!

Maker's Mark "K&L Exclusive" Private Select Kentucky Bourbon (750ml) $69.99

While selecting single barrels is good fun, it can also bit nerve racking. You open a cask and stick your nose in the glass and often have to make a decision relatively quickly on the quality of the juice. After 10 years tasting I'm pretty confident in my palate, but there's still a feeling that each barrel is a bit of a referendum on my palate. Of course, I don't make the whiskey that we sell, I just buy it! That's what makes these Maker's Mark Private Selects so interesting. This is the first time, outside of blending in Scotland, that I've truly had a hand at whiskey creation. I took my time with it.

The whole operation is kind of outrageous. Maker's Mark has even built a custom warehouse into the side of the hill behind the distillery. They had actually planned to build out the warehouse underground, but an esoteric Kentucky law prohibits the aging of bourbon below ground. So instead this massive warehouse is build against the hill, the coolest -in temperature and style- I've ever experienced. Right in the center of this heavily traffic tourist attraction is a private tasting area enclosed in glass. There they've got samples of the five stave types aged and ready to be blended along with expressions of EVERY barrel bottled to date. You sit down in this extremely well appointed room at the Maker's Distillery in Loretto and sip as tourists gawk behind thick glass walls. It's all a bit over the top, these random people examining you as you blend the various flavors. That of course didn't detract from the exciting task at hand.

The key to building a great whiskey in this program is to influence and enhance without masking the inherent deliciousness of the Maker's itself. I tried every possibility, equal parts of each expression? Nope, it felt muddled and unbalanced. Tiny bits of each with a high level of American. Definitely not, even the smallest addition of the Mocha stave and you start to get a bitter note that is very UN-maker's in my opinion. In an effort to be innovative and not rehash recipes we'd already  proven (Thank you Mr. Driscoll), I started to toy with different proportions of the three staves that I felt actually enhanced the whiskey drinking experience. The Baked American Pure #2, The Seared French Cuvee and the classic Maker's 46, each offered a subtle, but distinct addition to the potpourri of delicious sweet flavors that make Maker's one of the world's best bourbons. I ultimately settled on something that I felt was going to retain the balance and sweetness of Maker's, but enhance and add additional complexity.

We waited nearly 6 months to find out how the experiment developed. On first nosing, I was astonished by how prominently the woodsy staves appeared. I honestly thought I'd missed the mark completely. But I set my glass down and returned in 15 minutes to a totally different whiskey. The nose is a constantly morphing beast, bold and full of spice, but tempered with gorgeous sweet peach tea, caramel and fresh vanilla. I knew this whiskey would be rich, but it's absolutely thick on the palate. Creamy and sweet up front with a big bold spice on the back. The finish is all vanilla, roasted coffee beans, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and dark wood. This CERTAINLY is not how I imagined this whiskey to be, but it IS absolutely delicious. Warming rich and overtly pleasurable with tons of nuance and depth. The scariest thing is how good the glass smells when you've finished your pour -that always means I end up pouring another. Dangerous...

-David Othenin-Girard