The True Spirit of France

When you're trying to develop a niche category like grower/producer Cognac or rustic, artisinal Calvados, you start by doing the obvious. You bring in really good stuff that any lover of booze can get behind and you open minds to new possibilities. It's like any indoctrination, really. If you're giving your four year old cheese for the first time, maybe you start with American or a mild cheddar before trying their taste buds with bleu or Camembert. If you're trying to get your friends into Scorsese, I think you start with Goodfellas or Casino before testing their dedication with Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Likewise, if I'm introducing a customer to Cognac I'm not going to begin with something dry or earthy. I'm going to pick the creamiest, roundest, softest, most mouthcoating selection I have. Once I get their attention and their curiosity, however, I'll move on to a more complex option. After five years of traveling to France and bringing in a number of interesting, yet fairly safe brandy selections, I'd like to start pushing the envelope a bit. I'd like to start showcasing a few classically-tailored French spirits that cater more to the experienced palate, rather than the beginner. You see that heavily chalky earth on the left side of the above photo? That's what the Grande Champagne Cognac soil looks like in Dudognon's ugni blanc vineyards. It's the same chalky soil that makes Sancerre, Chablis, and Champagne so piercingly dry and mineral in style. It actually does the same for Grande Champagne Cognac, but you'd never know it because by the time the Cognac gets to your mouth it's been heavily sweetened, colored, and adulterated. What would it taste like if it were allowed to keep its original character in tact, you ask? You're about to find out.

I spent a good amount of time talking about the inherent flavor of fine Cognac with Pierre Buraud, the newest generation to distill at Dudognon along side his mother and father. The brandies from his family's estate have never been the most obvious spirits. They're not the most rich, nor the fullest on the palate. They're not oaky or spicy, or overtly fruity and expressive. What they are, however, is delicate, nuanced, and graceful. They're focused and clean. They express a sense of place and the character of the soil in which the grapes are grown. But what they are not, in any sense of the word, is sweet. There's no supple vanilla or caramel coating your palate and it's a glorious thing. Much like Americans drinkers have spent the last five years getting over their sweet tooth as it pertains to cocktails, I think it's about time we do the same with Cognac. On my last trip to Dudognon I put together a blend with Pierre after tasting a number of different single casks in his family's warehouse. We found one particularly mineral-driven ugni blanc distillate and another brandy made from a grape called montils, which I believe—like folle blanche—is legal to use in the region if planted before the region's insistence that ugni blanc be the official grape of Cognac. On their own they were quite striking, but when blended together they exuded a lovely balance of pure Grande Champagne chalk with just enough fruit to round out the edges. I thought it was fabulous, as did Pierre. But was it too much too soon? Was giving drinkers a taste of what "real" Cognac tasted like going to completely shatter their reality? I was nervous. Almost a year later, I wasn't completely at ease until just a few hours ago when my colleague Gary Westby took a sip and said, "Wow, that's really good." 

This is Jean-François Guillouet, the man who's running the show today at Michel Huard. I'm a big fan of his brandies, especially the blend that my friend Charles Neal has been importing for the last few years. While the Hors de Ages edition that's available at most fine retailers exhibits plenty of fresh apple and sweet fruit, I've found that most Calvados I've tasted abroad tends to be drier and earthier in style. You often get more of the apple skins than the juicy apple itself. I'm not sure how many of you saw or heard this story about heirloom apples on NPR this past week, but it's pretty much the same idea: our selection here in America has been dictated by what's marketable. The farmer they speak with talks about how both he and his pigs no longer eat Honeycrisp apples. "They just have gotten used to more complex flavors," he jokes. "They're interested at first, but then, you know, I can tell in their eyes that they're looking for something more." That's the same way I feel about Calvados. While we're used to sweet apples here in the states, the apples in Normandy are old heirloom varieties that create ciders and brandies with a symphony of flavors rather than just a one-note solo act. That's the way Jean-François likes his Calvados to taste—symphonic—but he's been drinking the stuff since he could walk. He has an experienced palate. Could an unseasoned American palate appreciate the more subtle nuances with the same level of appreciation? We set out to make a blend worthy of both the old world and the new. I let Jean-François lead the way. 

Here's a rare photo of me from the road. Since I'm always the one with the camera, I'm never in the photos. My buddy Michael Housewright had his Canon on hand for the blending sessions, however, and snapped this quick shot of me taking out an insect from close range. You have to do a lot of spitting when you're working out the intricacies of a Calvados blend. I wanted the nose of our "Vieux" edition to invite you in, but the palate to challenge you a bit with more than just sweet apple and oak. I wanted the bitter notes from the skins, the earthy pomace, and the musty notes from the cider to come through. In France, these are considered positive characteristics in a spirit. In America, however, not so much. The question is: can we start to introduce these elements on a level that brings them into focus without bashing people over the head with it? I think we've done it here with his marriage of 7 and 17 year old apple brandies. It won't be for everyone though. If you love the freshness of Camut or the clean and vibrant apple of the Hubert edition we also import, this Huard edition might startle you a bit. It's more about the secondary flavors than the fruit. It's a French Calvados reminiscent of my most memorable experiences in Normandy, a jus du pays edition so to speak, not the more fruit-friendly editions we usually bring home. I hope it ends up being something memorable for you as well.

If you want that sweet, rich, round, and deliciously straight-forward flavor then—never fear!—I've still got you covered. This 15 year old Calvados from Domaine Pacory is distilled 100% from pears! I don't really need to elaborate on this one. It tastes exactly like it sounds. I figured not everyone would want to move outside their comfort zone this time around. I can't imagine anyone not liking this.

So now they're here and now you know what's what. Take a look at the descriptions below and grab what sounds good to you!

Dudognon "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Napoleon II Cognac $49.99 - What we see in the U.S. of Cognac is a dark and supple sipping spirit, but what we don't always understand is that almost all of these brandies have been artificially sweetened & colored. That richness of caramel and oak isn't something that's inherent in most Cognacs, not unless they've been aged for thirty years or more. When we visit small producers who actually grow their own grapes and distill in micro-batches, we get the chance to taste unadulterated brandies of incredible finesse and beauty before they've been shipped off to negociant houses who add their artificial magic. Perhaps the best of these producers is Dudognon, a family run operation in the Grand Champagne region who is not only the best distiller in Cognac in our opinion, but also the purest. This Napoleon II K&L blend we put together is a blend of two different brandies: one distilled from the standard ugni blanc, the other from a local grape called montils, a rarity in the region. The goal was not to showcase weight, texture, or richness, but rather the incredible grace and beauty imparted into the distilled wines by the chalky soil. There's a minerality at play upon the first sip, like a splash of fine Chablis. There's a delicacy of fruit & a subtle hint of oak & spice, but there's a clear chalky and stony note until late on the finish when warm baking spices flicker faintly and gently. This is real Cognac. It's elegant, yet is has drive. It's Cognac for Armagnac drinkers. Are you ready for it, however?

Michel Huard "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Vieux Calvados $52.99 - When you look at what we've imported from Calvados over the last few years, be it Camut or Hubert, you'll notice a thread that runs through all of these expressions: they each taste like a juicy apple. Yet when you travel to Normandy and you taste the huge variety of different apple ciders and brandies, many of them are not so juicy. There are some that taste like brown apple, some that taste like an earthy apple, and many that taste like the skin of an apple. Knowing that the sweetest apple flavors are the most accessible, we've generally gone down that route. With this K&L exclusive blend from Michel Huard, however, we've decided to branch out from the easily marketable. A mix of 7 and 17 year brandies, this is the first Calvados we've imported that focuses more on the apple skin, the peel, the earth, and the complexities underneath the fruit. The nose is entirely contradictory, however. The brandy smells of delicious, juicy, pure apple flavor. The first sip is where the contrast makes itself known. Gone are the sweet apple notes, replaced by unmistakable flavors of bitter apple skin and earthy cider. You can almost taste yourself in a wet orchard just after the rain falls. In a sense, that's where we were when we put together this blend. The December weather was cold, the ground was wet and earthy, and this Calvados was just what we needed to fend off the piercing Norman air. This Vieux is a testament to that day and those influences.

Domaine Pacory 15 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Domfrontais Calvados $59.99 - This is going to be one of the most crowdpleasing spirits we've ever brought in from France: a fifteen year old single barrel exclusive of 100% pear-distilled Calvados from our newest small producer Domaine Pacory. In the Domfrontais region of Normandy, the brandies are generally 60% pear or more. We figured there must be a few people distilling from nothing but pears, so we asked Frédéric if that was the case. He said somewhere in his small shed of casks were indeed a few pear-only distillates. Located on the ferme des Grimaux, the Pacory property has been in the family since 1939, but it wasn't until 1959 that Frédéric's father Claude decided to try and perfect the art of Calvados distillation. The torch was passed to Frédéric in 1986 and he's been carrying the tradition forward ever since. Pacory's orchards are 100% hautes tiges, meaning the trees are higher and older in age (as opposed to bas-tiges orchards that look more like grape vineyards with their tiny trees in vertical rows). The result is a more concentrated fruit that takes longer to grow, but it's worth it. This 15 year old is a sure-fire winner for any lover of fruit spirits. It's equal parts fruit and oak, neither outshining the efforts of the other. The pear flavor also comes to the forefront right off the bat; ripe juicy pears that meld seamlessly with the richness of the wood. You shouldn't be asking us whether you should buy one at this point; you'll be asking us if we can get more once you taste it.

We also have a bit more of the cask strength Pacory from last time around if you enjoyed that!

-David Driscoll


Second Annual K&L Holiday Food Drive

As the holidays approach, our team at K&L Wine Merchants is constantly exploring new opportunities to give back to the community that has now supported us for forty years. In that light, we have paired up with the tremendous team at Second Harvest Food Bank to host our first ever food and fund drive! 

Second Harvest is one of the largest food banks in the nation and has been serving the communities of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties since 1974. The support of organizations like K&L and individuals like you allow them to provide food for a stunning quarter million people every month. To participate in K&L's partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, click on the link below or bring in nutritious, non-perishable food stuffs as detailed below on your next trip to K&L Redwood City in November or December. Your support goes a long way in providing a meaningful meal to those in need throughout or community. We've got donation bins set up in our Redwood City location so the next time you come in to shop for booze, bring a few cans with you!

The Food Bank accepts all non-perishable food donations, but especially needs these nutritious items: 

• Meals in a can (soup, stew, chili) 

• Tuna or canned chicken 

• Peanut butter 

• Canned foods with pop-top lids 

• Canned fruit in its own juice or water 

• Low-sodium canned vegetables 

• Olive or canola oil 

• Spices 

• Low-sugar whole grain cereals 

• Healthy snacks (granola bars, nuts, dried fruit) 

*Please avoid items packed in glass. No wine, candy or soda please. 

We're looking forward to helping our local community this holiday season. Here's to hoping you can help us make a difference! Donate online at our K&L donations page by clicking on the link below! $50 buys 100 meals! Our goal is 500 lbs of food and $5,000 in donations. If you'd like to help by giving directly, please click here to access the Second Harvest website.

-David Driscoll


Les Spiritueux

Last year I spent my birthday at Michel Huard in Normandy eating apple tarts and drinking Calvados next to the wood-burning alembic still in the crisp winter weather. It was idealistic in every way, but I wasn't just there for kicks. I was hoping to put together a few K&L exclusive Calvados expressions, maybe a single barrel or a special cuvée, but there wasn't any one particular barrel that stood out to me. It was only after I started tinkering with blending some of the individual samples together—playing around for fun, nothing serious—that I finally understood the nature of French spirits. When it comes to fruit distillates, I've found over the years that single barrel expressions rarely do justice to the spirit. While whiskey often does just fine as a solo act, I almost never find a sole cask of Cognac or Calvados that exceeds the quality of a finely-balanced marriage of brandies. I realized this past December that if we were going to continue importing interesting and exclusive French spirits from these romantic regions, we were going to have to take our blending skills to the next level. So I sat down with a few different cask samples that day and started a more scientific approach.

Later on during that same trip, I spent yet another wonderful evening at Dugognon in Cognac, going through more single cask samples with Claudine Buraud's son Pierre in the barn next door. The exact same thing happened that night that happens every time we visit the estate: we fall head-over-heels in love with the brandies, but we can't find one single barrel that matches the quality of the standard editions. I told Pierre we were going to have to pull a bunch of different cask samples and try our hand at blending something new. He was game. I ended up toying with a potent barrel of nine year old ugni blanc (the grape varietal used in 99.9% of all Cognac) and trying to merge its richness into a wacky variant they had on hand: a single barrel of brandy distilled from a montils, a varietal I had never heard of until that very moment. 

It's been almost a year since I put together these cuvées, but I got the word from Charles that they just hit the docks. There should be more cask strength Pacory Calvados, as well as that 2001 vintage edition I told you about made entirely from pears (no apple!). Fifteen year old pear brandy? Yum. Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


How to Drink Well

When I was a teenager and a frequent attendee of major rock concerts around California, I got to a point where I honestly thought having witnessed major music performances would constitute the make or break moments in my life. If I missed an important show or didn't score front row seats to the hottest new tour, I was devastated. I was clever, manipulative, and dedicated when it came to buying tickets, so I saw a lot of great acts. I knew how to work the raffle systems, line up at the right time, camp out at the more remote box offices with the smallest customer turnout, and how to butter up the phone reps if an event was actually sold out. Because of my advanced entrepreneurial skills (or my early onset assholery, take your pick), I saw a lot of amazing concerts from seats that no sixteen year old should ever have access to. I saw the Stones at Oakland Coliseum in '94 from the front row. I saw U2 in 1996 from the same seats and slapped hands with Bono. I watched Trent Reznor and David Bowie sing a duet to "Scary Monsters" from about ten feet away at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in 1995. That same year, I hung out with Beck in Fresno before his sold-out show at the Rainbow Room and ended up giving him a prom picture of my girlfriend and me I happened to have in my wallet at the time. I saw Radiohead play "OK Computer" in its entirety at the Warfield on Market a week after the album came out. I was everywhere in the nineties. If it was music-related and cutting edge, I was there. I knew how to work the system and find a way to get the most out of every opportunity. It was my obsession.

The problem with obsessing over any experience is that you begin to lose sight of what drew you to that initial interest in the first place; you start to value the actual logistics and the mechanics of the operation more than you do the art itself. How can I make the next concert even better? More importantly, how can I assure that nothing about this lifestyle ever changes? What if Soundgarden comes through town and I'm not in the front? What if Chris Cornell reunites Temple of the Dog and I don't see it happen in person?! (I did get tickets for that one next month, but I paid the Stubhub premium since I've now shed my former skin). It's that fear and that competitive anxiety that turns an enjoyable hobby into more of an addiction or a burden than an actual pleasure. You begin to think more about what you're missing rather than what you've already experienced. You dwell on the negatives rather than the positives. You become a total jerk, a needy, angst-ridden curmudgeon who ruins everyone else's good time when things don't work out the way you want them to. You start believing that every opportunity defines your value as a person—it's either this, or nothing. To put it into a booze perspective, it's like Pappy chasing. Your life (as far as you see it) becomes defined by the upper limits of hobbyism. I know exactly what that's like. Yet, I also utterly detest those people when I encounter them today. Maybe because I recognize an old, embarrassing trait in my own personality. It makes me cringe. Maybe I really just hate my former self, however. Maybe I'm projecting.

I think it's completely healthy as a somewhat sophisticated drinker to aspire. You're curious. You want to know what's out there. You want context. You want to know if something's worth the money or if it's all just hype, so you start searching for the next level. I've been doing this job for almost ten years now and I still wake up excited about wine and spirits. Now that I'm also working in the Bordeaux and Burgundy departments, I have a completely new fire in my belly here at K&L. At the same time, I'm also tempered and more grounded than I used to be. I'm not jonesing for DRC bottles or 1982 vintage first-growths now that I'm traveling more to France, nor do I lust after underground cellars with racks full of cherry châteaux. I really just want to expand my expertise. That's it. I don't care if I'm drinking a ten dollar bottle or a thousand dollar bottle at this point. I just like drinking, no matter what it is. Working in a fancy liquor store, however, and holding the position that I do comes with its share of obsessives. I get emails, texts, phone calls, and inquiries in the store about rare bottles. Please, please, please, please, please!!!! I'll die if I don't get a bottle. My life is over. There's no point in going forward. I need this whiskey! With social media today I think it's worse. Just like concert goers today spend all their time taking videos of the performance they're actually at rather than taking it in, I feel like the Facebook or Instagram photo is almost more important than the experience of tasting a new wine/whisky/beer at this point. It's more about showing people where you were or who you were with than it is the actual enjoyment. That's been happening for the last few years though. It's not a new phenomenon at this point. It's just our new reality.

When it comes to actually enjoying life, I think about the advice of others quite a bit these days; mostly because of how little of it I tend to follow. I hear it all the time: I should buy a house to secure my future. I should have kids to secure my happiness. I should invest my money here. I should eat there. I should drink this. I should watch that. I should talk to this person. I should carry this whiskey. I should meet this guy. I should try this ab-toning exercise. I should try that wine. I should work less. I should blog less. I should drink less. I should move here. I should vacation there. And so on. Yet, I am where I am today—happy, content, and ultimately fulfilled—because of one thing and one thing only: I didn't listen to any of that advice. It wasn't easy, either. When people tell you to do something with what seems like authority and genuine knowledge, it can be quite moving and/or troubling. You start to doubt yourself. You start second-guessing your gut. You wonder if you actually like what you like. You wonder if you even know what you're talking about. I thought I liked this whiskey, but this guy here said it's terrible. Maybe I don't like it. Maybe I shouldn't like it. Maybe I never liked it in the first place. Yeah.....that's it. 

Drinking well, however, isn't about drinking whatever Robert Parker says is good. It's not about drinking what got a subjective 90 points or better. It's not about owning the bottle that Jim Murray says is the world's best. It's not about anything that anyone thinks, says, or does other than yourself when it comes to drinking well. If you managed to get a bottle of the newly-crowned Booker's Rye, but you hate every sip of it, are you drinking well? If you order that Rhum Agricole cocktail at Smuggler's Cove because some smug hipster said it's cool, yet you can barely choke it down, are you drinking well? If you drink tannic red Bordeaux or tart Bourgogne rouge because it's French, and it's chic, and it's what your boss says he likes, yet your mouth puckers up and your eyes water each time you take a sip, are you drinking well? What's funny to me is that the people I meet today who are the most obsessed with wine and whiskey, and the most concerned with presenting that obsession to the world, seem to be enjoying it the least. They're also coincidentally the most adamant about telling me what's good, what I should be drinking, what I should be talking about, and what I should be doing next, yet I'm completely dismayed by their advice. I don't believe that kind of advice is given out with the happiness of others in mind. It's meant to make the giver look smart. It's selfish advice. Plus, I don't want to spend my free time chasing rare bottles, searching out the impossible, and obsessively locating my next drink. I already spent much of my youth behaving in a similar manor with music and it gave me unbearable anxiety.

If you want to drink well, don't listen to anyone's advice. Listen to their expertise. Heed their knowledge. Learn from their experiences. Listen to their stories. Learn about what's what. Try different things. Keep an open mind. Spend some money and make a mistake. Drink some wine. Drink some beer. Drink some whiskey. Drink a few cocktails. Don't shit on vodka because that's what some asshole bartender in the city did when you went out there and asked for a martini. Don't discount merlot because some asshole in a movie (who is exactly the kind of asshole I'm talking about and is supposed to be a total asshole) said he didn't like it. Keep the opinions of others in mind, but for God's sake just take a chance. Use your taste buds and your heart to form your opinions, not your ego or that chip on your shoulder you developed in grad school. Yes, experiences are great, but I saw every important band in the world between 1993 and 2001 and I can't say I'm any happier for it, nor did I really learn anything about good music. Most of the bands I listen to today on repeat are artists I've never seen, nor will I ever, yet they're what I've come to define as "good" according to my own tastes. I'm fine with that, however, because I don't need that first-hand experience anymore to validate my feelings or my opinions. Unfortunately I'll never see the Cocteau Twins sing "Heaven or Las Vegas." I'll never see the Chameleons rip "Second Skin" in person. I'll never see Christian Death belt out "Romeo's Distress" in a seedy LA club. Does that mean I don't get their music? Does it make me any less of a fan? Does that mean there's a gaping hole in my credibility?

No, it doesn't. 

Drinking well is a lot like living well. It's more about the culmination of your experience than the experiences themselves.

-David Driscoll


Soderbergh's Sneak Preview

I've spent a decent amount of time discussing brand strategies with director Steven Soderbergh over the past few years, but the only advice I've ever really had for him was obvious to anyone: "You're a filmmaker; a storyteller," I said to him once; "Go down to Bolivia, shoot some footage, and tell people the story." Like I needed to tell Steven Soderbergh that. Some advice, huh? Still, media plays a huge role in the way people choose their beverage. It's a powerful motivator. If you can effectively communicate with customers on a visual and emotional level (and on a large scale), you can really make an impact. In the case of Singani 63, Steven already has a great product. I'm a huge fan. After Campari, it's probably the number two most-purchased spirit on my bar (my wife has a lot to do with that as she also loves both). The fact that Steven is a master of media only works to his advantage. "You don't have to pay an ad company, or a film crew, or any of that extra promotional coverage stuff that most booze companies have to shell out for. You can do that all on your own," I added. And so he did.

Earlier this morning, Steven forwarded me his most recent cut of the new Singani short film. "I haven't even posted it on our webpage yet, but you can share it if you like," he wrote to me via email. Here's the link. See what you think. Does it make you thirsty? 

I know what I'm drinking tonight. Singani with ginger beer. Hot damn that sounds good right now.

-David Driscoll