The Tenets of Nationalism

What does a term like "Irish whiskey" mean beyond the technical and regulatory definitions? Does any whiskey made in Ireland that abides by the standards and practices of the category qualify, or is there something beyond that—something rooted in the national spirit? If it's merely the former, then—yes—whiskey made at the big three all constitute as "Irish whiskey"—and by the "big three," I mean Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley. Located in the town of Midleton inside of County Cork, Midleton's whisky complex has been in the hands of the Irish Distillers company since 1966 when Jameson, Powers, and the Cork Distilleries Company merged to form the whiskey megapower. Jameson had been made in Dublin prior to that at the old John Jameson distillery originally established in 1780. Powers had also been centered in the Irish capital, but subsequently moved its operations to Cork, following suit. Since then both brands, as well as Paddy's, Redbreast, and Midleton Rare, have been made at Midleton. In 1988, however, Irish Distillers merged with Pernod-Ricard and continues to be owned by the French spirits giant based out of Paris.

The old Bushmills distillery dates back to 1784 in the eponymous village of Northern Ireland. Its spirit is sometimes referred to as "Protestant whisky" by the predominantly Catholic mainland. Bushmills, too, joined the Irish Distillers group in 1972 and fell into French hands after the Pernod-Ricard takeover in 1988, but the distillery was sold out of the portfolio in 2005 when Diageo made an offer for the brand. For nine years Bushmills was owned by the London-based corporation, but in 2014 Diageo traded the distillery to Jose Cuervo in exchange for full ownership of Don Julio. Today Bushmills remains in Northern Ireland, but it's owned by the Mexican Tequila conglomerate. 

Cooley distillery is much younger than its older brothers. Founded in 1987 in County Louth by Irish businessman John Teeling, the site was formerly used to make potato-based alcohol. Converted into a whiskey distillery with the addition of proper whisky stills, within ten years Cooley was turning heads as an up-and-coming independent producer. Its core expressions—Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan, and Connemara—were being sought out by fans of the genre who were seeking something different, outside the normal scope of Jameson and Bushmills. In 2011, however, Teeling sold the distillery to Jim Beam, which as we know was purchased by Suntory in 2014. What was once the only Irish-owned distillery went quickly from American hands into Japanese stewardship. 

That brings us to West Cork, the only Irish-owned Irish whiskey we sell at K&L and one of the best bang-for-your-buck products in the business. The West Cork distillery started as a pet project by John O’ Connell, Denis McCarthy and Ger McCarthy in 2003 in Union Hall, West Cork. In 2013 after much expansion WCD moved to a larger distillery in Skibbereen, West Cork where it now resides. Not only are they the only Irish-owned whiskey at K&L, they're also the only producer in Ireland to actually malt their own barley and use Irish spring water for the production process, resulting in a softer, more delicate spirit. They also only distill indigenously-grown Irish barley and wheat. Yet, somehow their prices are cheaper than the standard brands, despite the disproportionate cash investments and the supremely diminished size of scale. In a move reminiscent of the Warriors signing Jerry West as an advisor, West Cork snagged Frank McHardy last year, the former master distiller for Springbank who has a penchant for making great stuff. 2016 might be their real break out year, however, as the company just unleashed a 62% cask strength edition with plans for a double black, charred cask release later in the month. 

I had a lady in the store yesterday who asked me for an Irish whiskey recommendation. She had no idea what Irish whiskey was or what made it different from Scotch whisky. "There's not that big of a difference," I told her with a laugh, "except that one is made in Ireland and the other is made in Scotland." She frowned. "But," I added, "Irish whiskey is typically lighter, softer, easier to drink and it rarely has peat or sherry-maturation, so it tends to taste rather similar unlike Scotch which can vary widely in its flavor profile." She perked back up. "Plus," I continued, "it tends to have more of a blue collar, working class, everyman reputation; you might typically get a shot and a beer down at the local pub while chatting with the boys after work." 

"That sounds like my kind of whiskey," she said with a smile. I gave her a bottle of West Cork ten year old. 

Why did I choose the West Cork? I'm not sure. Maybe because after thinking about my characterization of Irish whiskey my mind just unconsciously went with the Irish-owned distillery. Does the geographic location of ownership really matter in today's corporate-dominated environment? Is Four Roses any less American because it's owned by Kirin in Japan? Are Ardbeg and Bruichladdich less authentically Islay because they're owned by the French? I don't know. I think it depends on the drinker, but I know that there's a certain pride in a product being American made. Does it make a difference if that same product isn't American owned?

Whiskey that's made domestically, but owned by foreign investors. That's so often the case these days I'm not quite used to the anomaly: Irish-made, Irish-owned. It does have a nice ring to it.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2016 Set to Begin

As many of you long-time K&L single malt customers know, we refer to the annual arrival of K&L single casks as "Whisky Season" and for many of us (me included) it's the most exciting time of the retail year. This season's crop is not only one of the most intriguing ever, it's also going to be the most affordable. Why is that the case? How is it that during a period when single malt prices are at some of their highest ever, we've managed to reduce the costs? I can't give away all our secrets, but I will say that, unlike some of our other campaigns where we simply went in search of the best possible casks, I went in this time around with a plan and a mission. As some of you know, I've been trying to buy some property in the Bay Area for the last few years and I've found that process to be one of the most disheartening and depressing possible. Everything is outrageously expensive and the quality is often questionable. I channeled all of the emotions I experienced looking at homes and condos into my whisky quest this year, looking to bring at least some relief to others who—be it with whisky or with the housing market—have come to expect disappointment in all transactions. 

Since I'm not a contractor or a landowner there's little I can do to help those in search of their first home. However, I am a whisky retailer with a few good connections, so there's quite a lot I can do to bring relief to the single malt Scotch market. I'm hoping to start this week with a few 18+ year old, single barrel, cask strength whiskies that bring serious bang for the buck. This will be a process, however. The whiskies will be released slowly and over time, allowing us to focus on the moment and make careful decisions, rather than scramble to grab everything all at once. I think you're all going to be very happy, even if you don't buy a thing! Just knowing that Scotch of this age and quality is available again for prices this good should put a smile on your face no matter where you are or who you shop with.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


So Cute

I'm generally not a fan of gift sets, gift packaging, or any sort of holiday-oriented VAP pack that results in a bulky, oversized product that takes up too much shelf space and is a pain in the ass to ship. Call me old fashioned or practical. In cases where a producer has three products, however, all of which are fantastic, I am a big believer in the 200ml three pack and will make an exception in the store for these scenarios. St. George is a great example of this phenomenon. They have three delicious gins and choosing one is sometimes difficult for curious customers. Why not then buy the three pack and experiment with each one? We sell those St. George three packs like they're made out of crack cocaine because people love having little samples of multiple products. Now Westland is joining the fold and the timing couldn't have been better.

I've been telling people about Westland's whiskey for years now, but most guys don't want to blow $60-$70 to try a full bottle from each of the three mainstay expressions. Now for the low price of $59.99 you can try the American single malt, the peated edition, and the sherry aged whiskey in one fantastic set. With the Garryana release set for later this month, I'm expecting renewed interest in the distillery and this is a great way to indoctrinate new whiskey fans into the fold. The bad news is we can't ship them, so they're only for local customers. The good news is they're on the shelf right now!

-David Driscoll


Invecchiato Per 24 Anni

I've been waiting a long time for this day; the moment when we could start talking about Italy's potential as a serious source of distilled spirits beyond the ubiquitous vermouth, amaro, and herbal liqueur selections that are sweeping the cocktail culture. Distillation has been practiced in Italy since the early days of grappa and medicinal remedies. Unlike what's happening with the craft distillation scene in America, many of the "new" labels we're seeing from Italy come from companies established in the 1800s. In many cases these producers have not only generations of knowledge as it pertains to spirits, but also plenty of back inventory. Take the case of Guido Zarri as an example, the man behind the Villa Zarri brand. In addition to his fantastic amaro, his delicious nocino, and his dangerously drinkable ciliegia, Guido has mature stocks of Cognac-style brandy (distilled from trebbiano, basically ugni blanc grown in Italy) dating back to the late 1980s. As if his incredibly well-priced ten and twenty-one year old brandies weren't enough to persuade you of his prowess, I decided to dig a little deeper into his cellars.

"I want to do a single barrel and I want to do it at full proof. Is that OK with you?" I asked Guido during a phone conversation earlier this year.

"Yes, I actually think it tastes better that way," he replied, almost as if he was embarrassed by that admission.

I laughed and reassured him: "So do a lot of other people."

Last month I decided to do a little survey with some of my most knowledgeable whisky customers. At a private dinner event, I poured each person a small glass of the 1991 Villa Zarri K&L single cask from an advance sample I had received from Guido, then I bid everyone adieu. The next morning I had multiple emails from these guys asking me just what in the hell they had tasted that evening. Most of them were shocked to discover it was brandy. All of them were stunned that it had been distilled in Italy. It was when I told them the potential price that the excitement really got going; I was hoping to sell it for just under a hundred bucks.

Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful place. Located just north of Bologna, the Villa Zarri estate is set in between rolling hills of green. The property itself dates back to 1578 and has hosted scores of parties, concerts, exhibits, and events over those many centuries, but distillation at the site is a rather recent development in context. Everything Guido Zarri does in the distillery is exactly as is done in the Charentes: the grapes are same varietal, the stills are the same shape and size, the proof of the spirit comes off just over seventy as it does in Cognac. It's in the barrel room, however, that Guido changes direction. Rather than age his brandies in used Limosin oak, he starts each distillate off in new oak casks to impart color and intensity before transferring them into refill barrels over time. He also does not top up the barrels to prevent evaporation, instead choosing to transfer the brandies into fewer and fewer barrels as they begin to lose volume. The result is a richer, darker, and more oak influenced spirit; one that does not require coloring agents or added sugar to soften the mouthfeel. The brandies are impressive and all encompassing from the very first sip. But, if you're a whisky fan, wait until you taste that concentrated flavor at 59.7%

Back in April, I wrote an article about three upcoming spirits I was very excited about: Four Pillars gin, a new cask of Caol Ila, and this cask of Villa Zarri. So far I haven't met one person who hasn't fallen completely in love with the Four Pillars gin. I expect the reactions to this single cask of Villa Zarri 24 year old brandy to be similar. On the nose, the aromas meander between stewed fruits, oak spice, burnt vanilla. On the palate, the flavors continue to evolve along the same track, but what shocks you is the richness and the power. I have to imagine that Bourbon fans will be drawn to that sheer strength and Scotch fans to the maturity and the concentration.

Again, my favorite part about this whole deal is the price. Our very, very best Cognacs typically retail in the $90 to $150 range and that's at the watered-down 40% ABV. Here we've got single barrel, unadulterated brandy at full proof with twenty four years of age at $99.99. It doesn't matter what you like to drink: Scotch, Bourbon, or Cognac. If you're a fan of brown spirits, you're going to love this. The proof? Our owner just bought a bottle and he drinks about one glass of brown spirits per year. Looks like we know what this year's selection will be. Don't wait for a better Armagnac or Cognac to come later in the year. There's nothing better than this bottle on the horizon.

Villa Zarri 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Italian Brandy 99.99- Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still by from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the ten and twenty-one year old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. At nearly 60% ABV, there's a lot of heat so a drop or two of water really helps open up the fruit. Underneath all that power is plenty of rich vanilla, sweet oak, lush stonefruit, and Cognac-like finesse, but without all the sticky additives. What you get here is almost like a Glenmorangie version of brandy.

-David Driscoll


Ickle Me, Pickle Me....

....Dickel me, too! Anyone else remember that poem and song by Shel Silverstein? I think about it every time someone says the name "Dickel." I think I have both Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic completely memorized still to this day from non-stop elementary school listening, so it's almost like second nature to start spouting off that classic intro. I'm constantly referencing pop culture when I work at the store, replacing the words in famous movie lines or hit singles with names of booze brands. When the Dickel rye whiskey came out and it tasted a bit like dill, you can bet the Dickel and pickle rhymes began flying around the sales floor. 

In any case, enough of my silliness. We've got three new K&L exclusive casks of George Dickel 9 year old 51.5% Tennessee whiskey to talk about! Single cask selections from George Dickel have become some of the most coveted bottles among K&L's American whiskey customers, mainly because the sweetness and the richness of the Tennessee whiskey seems to come through like a laser beam at the higher proof; taking what is normally a mellow, creamy, and drinkable sour mash whiskey and dialing the intensity up to full speed. We're also not able to secure K&L single cask selections with the frequency that we're able to choose barrels from other distilleries, making the Dickel releases that much rarer in the eyes of our customers. People tend to load up when we get them, securing reserves for later on down the road.

Here's the latest (also to note: Diageo does not put cask number indicators on the label, only on the case boxes that the bottles come in. Therefore we've added the bottle ID code in the description of each whiskey, which is lasered on to the glass just underneath the barcode on the back):

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #04L28N54410 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #04L28N54410 begins with hints of dark cocoa and rich wood flavor, but quickly brings in the baking spices and the charred oak goodness. The finish is a Bourbon-esque explosion of pencil shavings, baking spice, and sweet vanilla. A triumph of pure Tennessee whiskey heaven! (Bottle ID code is L6169K1003)

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #04L30N55310 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #04L30N55310 is all oak right off the bat and that oak turns into richer, stewier notes of candy corn and charred oak before finishing with a mix of savory and sweet spices. This is like a more friend Four Roses single cask for about $20 less per bottle. A hot deal! (Bottle ID code is L6168K1001)

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #05A04B1212 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #05A04B1212 has the most sweet corn flavor on the entry, starting with that classic Dickel mellowness that quickly dials into bold spices, pepper, creme brulee, and charred oak. It continues to crescendo long on the finish with more sweet oak flavors coming through minutes after the last sip. (Bottle ID code is L6169K1001)

Now it's time to ickle me, pickle me, tickle me, and Dickel me, too! May the late, great Shel Silverstein rest in peace!

-David Driscoll