Los Don Amados Nuevos

Jake Lustig, the man we all love behind ArteNOM Tequila, has finally brought his expanded portfolio of Don Amado mezcales north of the border! You can revisit part one of my trip to Santa Catarina Minas here, with details of the distillery here if you need production specifics, but know right away that Don Amado is one of my favorite mezcales simply because it isn't all that smoky. It's a flavorful, graceful, nuanced spirit that always places the inherent flavors of the agave above the need for power or vigor. These three higher-end expressions are living proof of that synopsis; they're complex, ethereal, and delicately-detailed spirits that truly encompass what top shelf mezcal has to offer. I first tasted these over a year ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to arrive ever since! Check out the score below:

Don Amado Largo Mezcal $89.99- Originally established in 1700, the distillery that produces Don Amado is renown throughout the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca as one of the finest producers of premium mezcal.  The distillery uses only estate-grown agave to ensure the plant's high sugar levels, and mixes steam into the agave's smoke roasting to smooth out the mezcal's characteristically smoky flavor. "Largo" which means "long" in Spanish is how the folks refer to "Karwinskii" or "cuishe" agave in Santa Catarina Minas, where the distillery is located. Cuishe is known for its exotic and subtle complexity of flavors, a plant-like note bolstered by a nuanced spiciness and mild roasted finish. The finish of the Don Amado Largo is a symphony of sweet agave pulp, baking spices, and mild vegetal goodness. It tastes expensive.

Don Amado Pechuga Mezcal $89.99- Whereas "pechuga" usually refers to the chicken or turkey breast added to the distillation process to provide oils and fats, owner Jake Lustig has never been a fan of decomposing meats. Instead, he uses a combination of locally-sourced wild apples, wild apricots, stubby bananas, along with walnuts, cloves, cinnamon, and market-bought spices, the result is something in between mezcal and gin. The flavor of the agave is never compromised, but rather heightened and brightened by the addition of fruit and spice. Absolutely delcious! It's almost like mezcal gin.

Don Amado Arroqueño Mezcal $89.99- The arroqueño plants are gathered, roasted, and distilled in ceramic and bamboo pot stills, resulting in a slightly smoky and earthy distillate. The aromas are incredibly complex, almost meaty, but the distillate is 100% pure grace; a long and meandering road of picante spice, pepper, and chili. There are few mezcales on the market with this level of depth for under $100.

-David Driscoll 


Time Machine – Part I

The past is the past, they say. We need to move forward; think about the present moment; live in the now! Yes, yes, yes; I know. But I can't help but think about the good old days every now and again. Back when we could actually buy single casks directly from an actual distillery! Back when you could actually go into a major company's warehouses, meet with the blender, and put together something cool and interesting that had yet to be done. Today the demand for this type of bespoke whisky is through the roof, so most distilleries—now completely overrun by requests like these—have backed away from private bottlings. Everyone wants their own exclusive barrel or their own customized blend to distinguish their bottle from the pack. Everyone needs their own special story, their own unique experience. It's too much! System overload! Abort! Let's just go back to selling regular old whisky, they began telling us. We can't manage this type of program fairly or consistently. Shut it down. Shut this all down! Welcome to 2016. 

But let me bring you back to March of 2013; back when whisky kids could still be kids. David and I drove to Glen Garioch to meet Rachel Barrie. We picked out a delicious 15 year old cask from the Morrison-Bowmore stocks. We toasted to a successful journey, placed our order, and left with a smile. Then a funny thing happened in between the time our cask was bottled and the time our cask was due to be received: Suntory and Beam merged, Campari (who was acting as an importer to the U.S. for Suntory) was given the boot, and all hell broke loose. We never got our cask. We never knew what happened to it. After a few years went by, we kinda just forgot about it. 

About a year ago I reached out to Beam to see if maybe they could figure out what had happened. They recommended I ask Campari. Campari recommended I ask Beam. It didn't go much further than that. However, for the past six months I've been working with a new team at Beam-Suntory that is incredibly detail-oriented and proficient. These guys are serious pros and are motivated to make deals happen. I mentioned to them the story about the lost cask of Glen Garioch. "Maybe you guys could track it down?" I asked. Two weeks later they had found it.

Three years and three months in the making, our cask of 1997 Glen Garioch, distillery-direct, cask strength single malt whisky is here. More importantly, it's here for the same price I was quoted in the Spring of 2013: $89.99. I LOVE THIS WHISKY. There's a particular flavor in Glen Garioch that I love that I don't get in any other single malt (kind of like Clynelish) that's inherant rather than the result of specific cask maturation. It's a sweet grainy note, almost like butterscotch and oatmeal, and the whole town of Oldmeldrum (where the distillery is located) smells this way. I remember getting a chicken salad sandwich at a cafe nearby that came with a side of "mealie." Mealie? "What's that?" I asked the woman working behind the counter.

You take a finely-chopped onion, fry it in oil, and then gently add in some oatmeal.  You finish it off in a steamer until the consistency comes together and, voila, you've got mealie.  It has a semi-hard texture, almost like Grape Nuts after they've soaked up a bit of milk. Apparently, it's wonderful with chicken dishes as well as with mince and tatties. That's Oldmeldrum in a nutshell. That's Glen Garioch. That's the flavor in this fifteen year old K&L single barrel selection. Here at last.

-David Driscoll


Unexpected Summer Nostalgia

As I left the Redwood City store last night and officially entered the Fourth of July weekend, I searched for the perfect song on YouTube to blast from my car speakers and cruise to on 101 North. It wasn't hot or balmy on the Peninsula, so I wasn't looking for something too celebratory or rock and roll. There was a slight breeze in the air and the lighting was a tad forlorn beyond the mellowing. There was a hint of sadness in the sky; a tinge of wistfulness. I knew what the melancholy moment called for: Henley. Boys of Summer. No doubt. Let's rock.

I hit play and began to accelerate through the merge lane when I heard the familiar intro of the lone drum beat, the rapping of the electronic hi-hat setting the pace for that timeless, descending three-note synth. And then it hit. But something was off. Or was it?

"This sounds like Double Dragon!" I thought to myself. "Or maybe even Ninja Gaiden." There was no mistaking that classic NES groove as visions of Rygar, Megaman, and Contra flashed through my head. I glanced down quickly at my phone and saw that I had mistakenly selected an 8-bit cover uploaded by a video game fan who specializes in Nintendo-ized versions of popular hits. Suddenly the nostalgia was two-fold. It was a double dose of eighties heartbreak as I sat there reminiscing both the on the haunting melody of my youth and the hours spent trying to master R.C. Pro-Am in my bedroom on a warm summer morning. I think a tear began to form along the edge of my left eye. 

That was some drive home.

-David Driscoll


Precision Engineered

While I was in New York for vacation this past week, I did mix a little business with pleasure (and a little Singani 63 with lemon juice, sugar, and Prosecco). Since meeting director Steven Soderbergh almost two years ago he and I have kept up a correspondence, discussing our thoughts about various business analytics via email, and we’ll usually make plans to have a drink when we’re in close proximity. Because I was on his turf this time around, Steven hosted my wife and me for cocktails at the Brandy Library in Tribeca where we met him Thursday evening. We of course discussed the parallels of the booze and film industry while sharing our sentiments and opinions along the way, but the theme of our conversation was always precision; namely, that talent and ability is a timeless inspiration. “People will always stop to watch others who do something incredibly well and with precision,” Steven said. “It’s why we watch sports.” Yet, ironically, it was my view that as an industry we’re getting into the habit of settling for mere competency rather than real skill. Precision, in my opinion, is exactly what’s lacking from a segment of today’s trendy food and alcohol business. Too many folks have been led to believe their skills are more advanced than they really are and too many consumers are paying for that exercise. No professional basketball fan wants to pay to watch two forty year old lawyers go one-on-one at the local gym after work. Why would serious fans of wine and spirits want to pay for the equivalent?

Why is precision so important? Because it's where quality begins. You’ve surely heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Personally, I know that saying all too well because it encompasses my abilities most accurately. I’ve always done a lot of things decently; to the laymen it might appear I’m more talented than I am. I can speak three foreign languages, play a number of sports, carry my own on the guitar and piano, belt out a few tunes at karaoke night, and I have a few advanced degrees, but I’ll be the first person to tell you: I’m not really, superbly, expertly good at anything. I was never disciplined enough to achieve excellence. Anyone who speaks fluent German, Spanish, or French will instantly recognize my limitations. Anyone who has played serious ball will spot my weaknesses on the basketball court. Any virtuoso of any kind will put me to shame in a duet. Yet, it’s amazing how cultivated those skills look on a CV or resume and that’s exactly the problem: American kids have been told since junior high to sell themselves and cultivate a wide range of activities in order to stand out from the crowd. But by doing so, we’ve spread ourselves too thinly and I think we’ve actually handicapped ourselves against real and proficient experts. For some reason we’ve mistaken versatility for skill. We say things to ourselves like “it can’t be that hard,” but when push comes to shove many of us can’t actually deliver the goods the way a true professional can; our weaknesses will ultimately be exposed in the company of true skill and precision. In the wine and spirits industry there are scores of new faces, many that are good but not great, and a large number of which are overpriced for the quality they provide. I think it’s safe to say that a day of reckoning is most definitely coming.

Not everyone I know in the food and wine business has come to that realization, but they will soon enough. It's inevitable. You can’t keep calling yourself a master chef and expect others to go along with it when really all you do is put organic vegetables on a plate. You can’t keep calling yourself a master distiller when what you really do is rectify grain neutral spirit that someone else distilled. You can’t keep calling yourself a food and wine critic when really you’re an amateur hobbyist with a Squarespace blog. You can’t keep calling yourself a sommelier when really what you do is take selfies of your friends drinking wine. You can’t keep calling yourself a mixologist when what you really do is memorize recipes out of the PDT and change one or two ingredients. Eventually precision will win out. But that doesn’t stop people from playing expert, convinced of their own significance at this point. I see it every single day. People do it to my face and I smile and nod; my silence an apparent recognition that I’m participating in the façade when in reality I’m suffocating inside my brain. In the new world of young and high-achieving metropolitans we’re all instant professionals with loads of experience. We don’t know the meaning of “I don’t know.” Everyone’s an expert at every single thing they do. Until, of course, you realize they’re not. Precision isn’t something that can be faked, unfortunately; the end result reveals all. There are humble guys in Scotland and France who have been picking grapes and distilling alcohol since they were fifteen, while here in California I’m meeting “master” brewers who took a fifteen day online course on fermentation basics.

It’s because so many of us (myself included) lack a world class talent that we are fascinated by the precision of true professionals—we live out our own fantasies through them—but those with real talent and ability are often equally captivated. Steven just returned from a trip to Bolivia where he spent time with the distillers from Casa Real, the producer that makes his delicious Singani 63. “These guys are incredibly serious,” Steven said to me. “You can’t help but be fascinated by their commitment.” This admiration meant that much more because it was coming from an artist of true precision himself; from one incredibly talented person towards another. You can tell Steven genuinely appreciates the fine mechanics of what it takes to create Singani—from the vineyards to the still room. That’s what I love about his brand: that it isn’t just another celebrity-endorsed exploitation in a bottle. It’s a spirit of real character and heritage that’s being financed 100% by Steven himself, simply because he loves it. And it’s exactly because Steven understands and respects true precision that he isn’t out there trying to convince anyone he’s a distillation expert, which—let me tell you—is incredibly refreshing these days. It’s part of why I enjoy talking with him so much; he’s got nothing to prove.

As we left the Brandy Library and said our goodbyes, I was struck by some of the newer skyscrapers gracing New York’s downtown vista. These towering buildings are just incredible and they force you to stop and wonder at the engineering. I thought instantly of one of my favorite novels: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I loved that book when I first read it and I still relate to a lot of the frustrations experienced by Howard Roark; many of which are similar to the ones I’ve laid out above. What I never liked about Rand, however, was that she seemed to look down on those without talent or precision as less than; as if the world was annoying because it didn’t understand or appreciate her genius. But I still enjoyed her books. I think ability and talent will always be appreciated as long as there’s an appreciation for precision, even if you don’t like the people themselves. Howard Roark was cold and egotistical, but at least he was committed and as a reader you had to admire that. Like Steven said to me at one point, “When you watch Day of the Jackal, you can’t help but root for the Jackal even though he’s the bad guy, simply because he’s so good at what he does.” As a society we have a long history of tolerating and supporting bad behavior so long as the perpetrator is incredibly gifted in some way; talented athletes, movie stars, musicians, and politicians alike have often received a pass from those who admired them for their skills rather than their controversial personalities. That respect is a testament to their abilities.

Instead of celebrating and recognizing that same level of precision when it comes to food and booze, our boutique industry is handing out medals like youth league soccer trophies. We’re literally kidding ourselves.

-David Driscoll


A Short Break

I travel for all of the same reasons I drink: to get away; to relax; to visit new cultures and learn more about them; to create new experiences; to meet people and understand how they live; to have fun. Travel and booze (and food) go hand in hand. You’re waiting at the airport; why not have a drink? You’re on the plane; why not have another one? You’ve landed and arrived at your hotel; time to hit the bar! You’re making dinner plans; let’s check the wine list. Drinking in foreign destinations is more anthropological than it is alcoholic in my opinion (unless you spend all that canteen time staring at your iPhone). You learn about about local customs, preferences, habits, styles, and nuances when you sit at the bar. You can watch the bartender work and see what people there are ordering, what they’re wearing, and hear what they’re talking about. You won’t learn anything nearly that humanistic in the souvenir shop or at the hotel lobby Starbucks. To me, wine is travel. Drinking on the road is education. My life at this point is a tapestry made up of those memories—the more I travel, the more I drink, the more I know who I am. Or maybe, who I want to be.

See you all in a bit.

-David Driscoll