The New Nobility

I was having a conversation this week with one of the more entrenched brand ambassadors in the Scotch business about the rise of a nobility class in the world of single malt. "Macallan has become something beyond other distilleries at this point," I said while sipping on a sample of the upcoming Edition No. 3 release; "It's like Château Latour or Prada," with a gigantic following outside of the enthusiast world that dwarfs the customer base responsible for its initial success. When you reach those lofty heights as a brand, price no longer becomes a barrier. Luxury brands aren't here to provide value. They exist to provide both inspiration and aspiration. If you told me Prada shoes aren't worth the money, I'd probably respond by saying there are a number of less expensive brands that also provide style and comfort. But...they're not Prada. Just like there are many single malt whiskies out there in the world today, there is only one Macallan.

"I think Balvenie is well on its way into that group," my ambassador friend said. 

"Very good point," I answered, thinking more about the Speyside producer. Balvenie has definitely grown into something of a darling with both staunch enthusiasts who drool over the distillery's Tun series, as well as the general public that endlessly thirsts for the 14 year old Caribbean rum release, as well as the 21 year old Port Wood expression. Both whiskies are big sellers at K&L and for good reason: they're soft, supple, rich, smooth, enticing, unique, and memorable. They're exactly the type of malts that impact casual drinkers, who later ask their friends to remind them, "What was that whisky we had after dinner last weekend?" Balvenie's adherence to both age-stated malts and transparent production details, along with what is clearly a crowd-pleasing style, has put the brand into a unique position: it's equally popular with those in-the-know and those who really don't care about knowing. That's definitely a great place to be in today's market. Plus, they've got Anthony Bourdain on board with the marketing!

That being said, I'm curious to see how the distillery's latest limited release does in the netherworld between hardcore fans and general enthusiasts. The 2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" is the kind of whisky that really excites me personally, but I can see where it might fall between the cracks of these two expanding poles. Do Balvenie fans want peat? I'm not sure. Do peat fans want Balvenie? Again, I don't know. While the whisky is described by Balvenie as "heavily peated," I can assure you after numerous tastes that it is not all that smoky. For Balvenie—yes—it's quite potent, but Islay fans will hardly bat an eye at these peat levels. To make an overtly peaty whisky would be out of character for the brand, so I'm relieved they didn't go that route. Staying true to oneself is more important than ever today. What David Stewart and the gang have produced, however, is a vintage-dated whisky entirely from the initial week of peated whisky distillation at Balvenie back in 2002 (the first peated run in more than fifty years at the distillery) that perfectly expresses the ease, grace, and utter drinkability of the Balvenie house style. After spending more than an hour with my sample, I'm pretty smitten. 

Personally, I'm long over big, bold, full proof, heavy sherry, heavy peat, massive intensity and gung-ho bravado when it comes to Scotch. Maybe it's my age, but I don't drink whiskies like that very often anymore. What attracted me immediately to the 2002 Balvenie was the subtle and haunting nose. Aged entirely in American oak barrels, there's no sherry to be had here. Instead you get a noseful of lush golden grains, honey with sweet barley, peaches in syrup, and vanilla extract. Faintly, underneath all those lovely aromas, is just the tiniest hint of peat. 

The second thing that I loved about the whisky is that it's all finish. The mid-palate flavors are where the peat picks up (30 ppm) and remember we're dealing with Highland peat here, not Islay peat. There's a compositional difference between the two and the resulting flavors are profoundly different (if you remember the old Glenmorangie Finealta). There's no brine or medicinal character here, just soft brush and faint campfire smoke in low levels, hanging onto the underbelly of the malty core. Everything about the drinking experience is understated until you get to the end, and then: whoooooosh! A wave of rich vanilla and sweet smoke comes racing through your nostrils and over the roof of your mouth, lingering for a solid five minutes after lapping up onto the shore of your lips. With the 2002 Peat Week, Balvenie has proven to me yet again that it can excite experienced drinkers while still maintaining a big tent approach. Nothing about this whisky is difficult to understand, but there's so much to unlock for those who enjoy the analysis.

Even ten minutes after finishing my last sip I'm still getting new readings from my taste buds. I can smell and taste fresh peated barley, hints of smoky earth, toasted vanilla, and more. If Balvenie is ready to take its seat in the Pantheon of single malt first growths, this is yet another step on that journey. But will others feel the same way? It's not overtly creamy, or mouthcoating, or sweet and supple like many of the distillery's most popular expressions. Will that still attract the Balvenie masses?

I hope so. Because to miss out on the beauty and nuance of the new 2002 Peat Week would be tragic. We're witnessing the ascension of a great distillery in peak form. 

2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" Vintage Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Non-chillfiltered and bottled at 48.3%

-David Driscoll


The Right Bank in Redwood City

I love Hélène Garcin-Lévêque because no matter where she goes, no matter what's happening, the woman is always ready to party. After vacationing with her family for weeks in California, she and her husband Patrice (with son Louis in tow) rolled into Redwood City and put on a show last night for our customers. This wasn't your stuffy, note-taking, course-pairing Bordeaux dinner. This was just pure fun on a Thursday night.

We had a full house. Fifty people who paid a mere fifty bucks to eat and drink like kings. I'm not showing you these pictures to brag. I'm showing them to you so that next time you'll buy a ticket! Where else are you going to taste more than ten high-end wines and eat like this for that price? It was nice to see a combination of whiskey and wine guys last night. I like seeing spirits drinkers catch the wine bug, especially with Hélène as there are few people more infectious than her. 

We had a serious spread with vintages from 2000 to 2016, showcasing all four of Hélène's properties. At the end of the night she thanked everyone for coming out "even though we were pouring Right Bank Merlot." Merlot is back, people. The Sideways effect is over. Now it's the Pinot Noir market that's getting too saturated because all the growers ripped out their Merlot vines, replanted with Pinot, and tried to capitalize on that fad. See how these cycles work?

Patrice, who is the winemaker for all the estates, was blown away by the event. He kept saying, "C'est pas cher!" because he couldn't believe the service, the room, and the quality of the food could be had for the price of fifty bucks a head. This is how I plan on converting every single K&L customer into a Bordeaux fanatic. With under-priced parties that over-deliver in every way. 

Hopefully next time you'll join us!

-David Driscoll


The Silver Lining of the NAS Trend

You know what happens when you take the age statement off a whisky label, but don't lower the price per bottle as a result?

Well...sometimes nothing happens. In the case of Suntory's Hibiki, which went from a 12 year old to a "Harmony" blend, our sales haven't stalled one bit. It still blows off the shelf just as fast as it did two years ago—business as usual. In many cases, however, whisky fans have responded to NAS (no age statement) editions with a lackluster enthusiasm and a bitter online response. Like I've mentioned before, big whisky executives don't read internet blogs. What they do read, however, are sales reports and when customers vote with their dollars it's a far more effective method of protest than a Twitter rant. Global corporations answer to shareholders and the bottom line, not social media. The thing about about NAS whiskies, however, is that you don't need an iPhone or an Instagram account to notice what's happening. Where there used to be a number there's now a clever name or a description. Tech savvy millenials get that, as do the eighty year old grandpas I see in the store grumbling about the loss of the "12" on the Elijah Craig. When you start pissing off the brand loyalists and the life-long drinkers, to boot—the guys that buy dozens of the same bottle every year—that's when the shit really starts hitting the fan.

Nobody likes it when their favorite brand transitions from an age statement label to an NAS edition—period. That's pretty clear at this point.

I have to say, however, that in my conversations with the higher-ups at Beam-Suntory, Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Remy, LVMH, and Edrington, it seems like that message has finally resonated. Not that it means they're going to put the age statements back on the bottle, mind you, it just means they've realized that customers are not taking whisky for granted anymore. You have to understand: these guys were riding an endless wave of sales, a long and effortless cash cow of a movement that saw bottles depleting at paces never previously seen. They got complacent. They thought they could put anything in a bottle and people would buy it (so did many craft distilleries). What they're learning, however, is that competition is a bitch. There are too many good options still on the market for even the most basic customer to buy a shitty bottle of NAS whisky. That's why a number of brands have been forced to work harder, smarter, and better with their NAS editions. As I've stated before: WORK is what's coming, not winter. And now WORK is here.

From what I've been tasting, many big companies are starting to put in the work. In the past week I've tasted some of the best new NAS whiskies in years: the Ardbeg An Oa, the Beam "Little Book," the Bladnoch "Samsara," the Macallan 3rd Edition, and the new Highland Park "Magnus," a $32 bottle of whisky that is absolutely delightful. In talking with the brand ambassadors and CEOs from these companies, it's clear they knew they needed to up their game. What we're seeing now is whisky that tastes like it's priced, which is ultimately what most people care about. The new Macallan Edition Three tastes like a hundred dollar bottle of whisky. The Ardbeg An Oa tastes like a sixty dollar whisky. The Magnus tastes like a really fucking good thirty dollar bottle of whisky. The question I have is: are we living in a whisky world still built on taste?

The answer will definitely be in those sales reports!

-David Driscoll


Some Fun New Things

We've got some fun new arrivals to add to the whisky shelf today, including the new bargain-priced blended malt from Whyte & Mackay and the two new Bladnoch releases from the most recent regime. If you'll remember, Bladnoch is the former Diageo-owned Lowland distillery that was sold to the Armstrong brothers who promised to turn it into a housing complex (or maybe it was a hotel?). When the bottom fell out of the real estate business, one of the Armstrong brothers and his son decided to reopen the distillery and start making whisky again instead (much to Diageo's chagrin). We did one deal with the Armstrongs back in the day and brought in some Bladnoch single barrels directly, which some of you probably remember. I remember it well because it was a mess. In any case, the Armstrong era has ended and the David Prior era has begun. The Austrailian yogurt tycoon purchased the distillery in 2015 and hired master distiller Ian MacMillan from Bunnahabhain/Tobermory fame to take the reins at the facility. Their two main releases are now available stateside. The Samsara has no age statement, but it's a blend of numerous whiskies, the youngest of which is eight years old, aged in both California red wine casks and ex-Bourbon. Simply put: it's outstanding. It tastes like a richer, creamier version of the Hibiki Harmony with lots of butterscotch and sweet jelly bean fruit. The 15 year old Adela is also outstanding, matured in Oloroso butts and more robust on the palate. 

There's nothing specific to report about the Shackleton release beyond what I stated above, but if you're looking for something delicious and inexpensive, this is a bargain. We all really enjoyed it, especially for the price.

In other exciting news, my friends at Pacific Edge have put together their own blend of white rums to compete with the El Dorado three year at a very attractive sub-$20 price. Made with rums from Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica, it's quite tasty. Then, of course, there's the new American release of the Cadenhead Classic rum, which tastes every bit as good as the Green Label rum we sold a while back when we dug those out of the Preiss warehouse bunker. I'd mark this on your calendar for next week. A blend of number rums of numerous styles from numerous parts of the world, it's quite stunning.

-David Driscoll


California Rye for Texans in Need

While we were able to raise $5000 on the blog earlier this week for the Red Cross Harvey relief fund, watching the continued reports out of Houston are having an impact on all of us. In deciding how we could continue to donate to the efforts along the Gulf Coast, we decided to look at one of our newest incoming single barrel projects from an American distillery and dedicate all of the profits earned to the cause. Since we're mostly a group of Californians (although we're not excluding you out of state shoppers here!), I liked the concept of a California store selling a California-made whiskey to help our fellow Americans in need. With this new single barrel exclusive from Spirit Works, a small distillery in Sonoma County that makes all of its products entirely from scratch (grain to glass), we'll be donating 100% of our profits earned to the hurricane relief efforts. This is as close as it gets to drinking whiskey for charity.

The thing that first impressed me about Spirit Works, run by the husband and wife team of Timo and Ashby Marshall out of Sebastopol, is that they make all of their own grain neutral spirit in-house. It's a little known fact that most gin and vodka producers don't actually distill their own base spirits. They purchase it on the bulk market, then redistill it, flavor it, and water it down. Not at Spirit Works, however. Every spirit made by the company starts with the grain, which gets milled, mashed, fermented, and distilled in Sonoma. In the case of their outstanding rye whiskey, the resulting spirit is matured in traditional, charred, 53 gallon new American White Oak barrels just like it is in Kentucky. There's no quarter cask maturation and no attempt to skirt Father Time with clever ways to add color. It's the best craft whiskey I've tasted out of California that fits into the classic American whiskey idiom. 

Our exclusive cask was aged for two years and five months and proofed down to 45% ABV. On the nose it's a glorious and expansive aroma of caramel, baked apple, and cedar and the palate brings more vanilla, new oak, and subtle baking spices. It's not creamy or light like many of the Indiana-distilled products on the market, nor is it bold and herbaceous like some of the classic Kentucky expressions. It's not grainy or intensely rye dominated like some of the pot-distilled whiskies on the market, nor is it lacking the essence of rye. Spirit Works has managed to create a unique combination of all rye whiskey styles with a mellow textured, yet intensely-flavored addition to the genre, one that's even more concentrated when bottled as a solo act. The finish has notes of coconut from the oak and there's a bit of sweet honeycomb as well.

We should raise about $3000 for the Red Cross with the proceeds from this exclusive barrel, so if you're looking to help the world by drinking more whiskey, now is your chance:

Spirit Works "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel #14-0084 Rye Whiskey $54.99 - Our first ever exclusive project with the Sonoma distillery, renowned for its grain-to-glass spirits.

-David Driscoll