The Pursuit of Perfection

The new Glenmorangie "Astar" 2017 edition is here and it's quietly selling to those folks in the know, but I'm wondering how much bandwidth a whisky like this has in the current market. Nothing about Dr. Bill Lumsden's new release of Missouri Oak-aged single malt is big or bold (although it is bottled at 52.5%) and the flavors are classically Highland without the addition of sherry, peat, or some crazy cask-finishing that adds color and richness. Simply put, this is straightforward Glenmorangie whisky in its purest form. As the bottle says, it's not about making something new, but rather a pursuit of Scottish single malt perfection. 

It's pretty damn good. As long as you still like regular old Glenmorangie single malt (which I do). It's nice to taste a limited edition whisky that tastes more like a really, really good regular edition!

Glenmorangie "Astar" Single Malt Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll


D2D Interview: Jenny McCarthy

Let me start off this edition of D2D by saying that no guest in the short history of these Drinking to Drink interviews has epitomized the philosophy and the spirit of the series more than Jenny McCarthy. The former model and current Sirius radio host has a no-BS approach to drinking (and the world) that cuts right down to the essence of what alcohol is about: feeling good and having fun. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent on the phone with her this past week and she had me laughing out loud at numerous points during our conversation. But how did all this come about, you ask? I was introduced to Jenny via her new cocktail brand Blondies as her team was looking for advice about getting into the California market. Currently available in only a few states and at her husband's restaurant franchise Wahlburgers, Jenny and Donnie were eyeing the West Coast as the next potential outpost for the brand, but wanted to talk with someone first about the logistics of distribution and retail strategy. I was happy to help, however, I made it clear right off the bat that celebrity endorsements weren't our thing. If Jenny was adamant about promoting her drinks company, then I would need to talk with her personally about why she started the brand and what the messaging would be. Not only did I leave that conversation in stitches, I walked away with a heavy amount of respect for Jenny's fearlessness and the confidence with which she talks about her intentions. I learned quickly that Jenny McCarthy drinks because she likes to get drunk and she created a entire brand around the idea of doing so more effectively and efficiently. As you might guess, I was head over heels within seconds, knowing I had met the purest D2D interviewee yet. Without a doubt, this was the most authentic conversation I'd ever had about drinking with someone of her stature. An excerpt from our dialogue is below:

David: Let’s start off with some basics about what you like to drink, so we can get to know your motivations. 

Jenny: Why? Because I’m an alcoholic? Is this an intervention?!

David: Yes, it’s an intervention. You need to get a grip on yourself, Jenny! In all seriousness, what do you like to drink when you get home? If you’ve been on the air at Sirius all day and it’s finally Friday, what do you pour for yourself?

Jenny: The simple answer is: I’m allergic to the world. I’m allergic to beer. I’m allergic to wine. I’m allergic to most vodkas, so it’s been a real struggle for an Irish girl who knows how to drink. For years I would just drink and suffer. But I feel like everybody needs something to help them unwind or to celebrate with, so I’ve always just fought through it. 

David: Superstar Jenny McCarthy, struggling to drink against the odds! So that lead to experimentation?

Jenny: Well, eventually I had to create my own cocktail, literally at home—I don’t know if this is even legal to say out loud—but it’s what I used to make when I came home from work, or on the weekends, or when I would party my balls off with my friends. This is how Blondies came about. Do you know those Emergen-C packets? 

 Yeah, funny you mention it. I’m like a closet addict. My co-worker Michele keeps a stash in her desk drawer and I blow through them like crack. They’re the ultimate hangover remedy. 

Jenny: Right! So I’d take those Emergen-C packets and put them in a glass, then I’d fill it with water, and of course some vodka, ice, and a little bit of Stevia, then I’d shake it up and pour it in my glass. It was so delicious. It wasn’t long until I realized that I never really got a hangover, I was drinking frickin’ electrolytes at the same time, and it didn’t have a bunch of sugar in it. After about five years of drinking this drink, my friends started coming over and asking for my “no-hangover cocktail.” 

David: Depending on how many you would drink, right? 

Jenny: Of course, that wasn’t a guarantee. That’s just what we called it. I’d make them these drinks based on whatever flavor of Emergen-C I had around. Those were the flavor choices. Finally, I got to the point where I wanted to see if I could find a beverage company that could make this drink for me. Just for myself. Not to go out there and be the next Skinny Girl, but honestly just for my own consumption. I wanted to have a pre-made version that was already done, you know what I mean?

David: Of course. Not everyone wants to play home bartender. Most people just want to come home, relax, pop, and pour.

Jenny: Right, especially girls. We don’t want to have to figure out what mixer to put in which spirit, and in what amount. We already have too much shit going on in our lives. I want something that I can just pour and it’s DONE. And something that gets me drunk quick! My motto is: if I’m going to drink, I’m going to drink to get drunk.

David: I think I just teared up. You’re the first guest on Drinking to Drink that has ever had the guts to say that out loud. I love it. I’m not even going to ask you more questions. Just keep talking about stuff!

 Right, just let me ramble on! Story of my life! But, really, if you’re going to drink, aren’t you doing to drink with a purpose? Not just because it tastes fabulous or it’s a cool thing to do, but rather so that I can get to that fun feeling I want to get to. I used to take the Emergen-C packets with me to bars and order vodka on the rocks with a little water in it. Then I would add the packet, put in a little Stevia, and shake-shake-shake. But eventually I felt I needed to figure out a better way. There are people out there that make shit on their own. I knew I could figure this out somehow. 

 Did you start this in Chicago?

Jenny: Yeah, I moved back here after twenty years in LA. Can you hear my accent?

David: I can, actually, now that you mention it. 

Jenny: I like to support my neighborhood, so I knew there had to be someone here who could help me. It’s a big city, after all. I met with a few different distributors and producers and there was one that stuck out on the South Side. 

David: Why so?

Jenny: Because they were the only ones committed to figuring out exactly what I wanted. Everyone else kept pitching me short cuts and it was pissing me off. There are so many frickin’ additives in alcohol today! I didn’t realize that at first, but after learning more about production methods I knew I would have to be hands-on to make sure it was done correctly. There’s enough toxins and bullshit in the world already. I don’t need it in my drink. I tell my friends: I’m 25% artificial already. 

David: (laughs) You’re cracking me up.

Jenny: I wanted someone who could figure it out, right? So here was my sales pitch: can you make me a drink that has electrolytes in it, no sugar, and real fruit—not fake fruit juice. No artificial coloring. No sugar. Gluten free vodka. And it needs to taste great. Of course, they all laughed at me, except for this one distillery: Mid-Oak in Crestwood, Illinois. They were committed to figuring it out, but they came back to me and said that it’s illegal to put electrolytes in an alcoholic drink.

David: Really?! That’s a new one for me. I’d never really thought about it.

Jenny: Yeah, and I thought: well that’s stupid. It makes perfect sense. If you get a hangover because you’re dehydrated, why wouldn’t you want electrolytes in your cocktail? These guys came up with a solution, however. They told me: since you’re so health conscious we’re gonna use coconut water instead, which has electrolytes already. I said: “Holy shit! That’s brilliant.” 

David: That is brilliant. I went through a rum phase where I was making Daiquiris with coconut water and I woke up fresh as a daisy every morning. 

 Yeah, there was just one problem: I’m probably the only person in the world who doesn’t like the taste of coconut or coconut water. It also doesn’t help that I’m allergic to it.

David: Coconuts, too?!

Jenny: It’s so stupid. I told you I’m allergic to everything. But it was fine. They brought different versions to me and asked me which one had the coconut water. I said: “this one” and they laughed. I was wrong. They did a great job pulling out the flavor of the coconut while leaving in the healthy elements. That’s legal to do, I guess, you’re just not allowed to promote it as “hangover free.” The technical term is clarified coconut water.

David: You must have been super pumped up.

Jenny: Oh yeah, I was also super impatient. I was saying: “Come on, I want to get this done!” That’s when they said: “Jenny, real fruit actually grows on real trees.” I though to myself: “Holy shit, you’re right!” We’re all so used to instant gratification. It’s obviously cheaper and easier to use the fake fruit juice, but I wanted real fruit, so I had to wait a good six months before we finally got the fruit to make the juice. Then we had our first taste test and I literally cried. I took a sip and said: “Oh my God, it’s even better than my homemade one.” They were able to turn it into a light, clean, non-chemical tasting drink. 

David: Right off the bat?

Jenny: Almost. It went through a few iterations. I had them lower the Stevia content as it was a little too Stevia-ish. Then they came back to me with another problem. I had told them I didn’t want preservatives, but they said it might be an issue. I asked them: “Well, what does Skinny Girl do?” And they said they use two chemicals to help preserve it. I was like: God dammit! What’s our way around it? That’s when they said: “You’re going to have to up the alcohol.” I said: “Seriously? That’s the best possible news!” Now you’re going to get what you’re looking for even quicker!

David: You and my wife would really hit it off. That’s her pet peeve when she has to drink excess volume just to get her buzz on. 

Jenny: Totally! I hate it when I go to a bar, spend seventeen dollars on a cocktail, and say to myself: “I don’t feel anything at all.” I should be drunk by now! With Blondies you can have one drink and you’re exactly where a person like myself wants to be. I don’t want to have to show off my skills and prove that I can drink a case of beer in order to feel the effects. So the compromise I had to make was upping to alcohol percentage to 13%, which allowed us to say we use no preservatives. Now I can actually feel good about drinking this, knowing I stood up for all the qualities I set out to achieve in the first place.

David: Everything you’re talking about is so practical. It’s refreshing, to be honest, and it’s fun to hear you talk about this because you keep it completely real. My wife brings this up all the time. When I’m at work I talk about nothing but flavor and the complexities of alcohol, but when I get home it’s all about kicking off my shoes and getting my drink on. As a paid professional, I’m definitely more practical with my drinking these days, especially with my caloric intake. I’ve watched people I know in the industry balloon after a decade in the business. It catches up with you.

Jenny: The calories alone! All the mixers have so much sugar. Fuck that! If I hadn’t come up with this drink, I was going to have to turn into that Tequila girl who orders it from the bar plain on the rocks. But I don’t want that! I want a fun-tasting drink that I can actually drink and not have to sip. Does that make sense?

David: Jenny, everything you’re saying makes so much sense. These are the conversations, however, that no one in the industry ever wants to have on record. I’ve never once talked to a brand owner who made something of quality and that tastes good, but is perfectly straightforward about what it’s for: drinking to drink, to get drunk, to feel good, and to have fun. To create a drink that doesn’t require you personally to change your lifestyle in order to fit alcohol into your schedule. 

Jenny: Or suffer from the consequences of a night out! That’s the bonus. You might wake up the next morning and say: “Holy cow, I don’t know what happened last night, but at least I feel good.” 

David: What was the feedback from your friends and family like? What did Donnie think?

Jenny: Oh my God, Donnie was so cute. He was my little taste tester and he’s very honest and very picky, so I was kind of scared. I set him up with some chilled shot glasses, lined them up, and told him: don’t say anything, just write everything down. He went through each one, then I wanted to discuss them. He said: “First off, I want to tell you, I’m so proud of you, Jenny. This turned out better than I could have ever thought.” So that made me cry, in fact it’s making me cry right now (laughs). He’s not someone who would tell me something like that just to tell me. He knows I don’t like bullshit. 

David: It seems like necessity is the mother of invention here. You’re not the first person to do this, you know? To create an entire brand just so you could have your own personal beverage. It’s neat to see people out there tailoring alcohol for their own specific needs and then sharing that information and availability with others. It all leads to more enjoyable drinking, in my opinion. I love it. 

Jenny: I’m grateful that you’re asking about the story, too. A lot of people seem to think this was just a branding opportunity, that I’m getting paid to put my face on something, but this is all simply for myself. Even if the brand never goes anywhere, it’s fine because I finally have my own perfect drink!

David: Maybe you should let it tank so there’s more left over for you. 

Jenny: This was done out of sheer need and desperation, but I’m super proud of it. If other people like it, that’s a bonus.

After receiving my samples of Blondies this week, I'm proud to say that I'll be helping Jenny and her team launch the brand in California later this Winter. Stay tuned for details if you're interested in delicious, all-natural, pre-bottled cocktails from Mrs. McCarthy!

-David Driscoll


Market Values

I had a number of interesting conversations this week about modern living, but there was one in particular that really had me thinking. It was about selection overkill; namely, what happens to our idea of value when we have too much stuff to choose from? We know what the economics tell us about a saturated market, but I’m more interested in the effect it has on our personal values. For example, I used to think I cared less about music these days simply because I was getting older. Maybe it was just what happened to people as they aged: they got bogged down with work and responsibilities, and they didn’t have the time anymore to keep up. But as I listened to an eighties hair band mix before going to bed last night, it hit me: I don’t listen to less music these days, I’m really just overwhelmed by modern access online and it often paralyzes me. Where do I even start when I can listen to anything I want instantly? Eventually I just shut down because whittling down the world to just a single momentary option is almost impossible. There’s too much to choose from. It’s the same with TV and I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon when it comes to our spirits customers. Some of them are actually put off by all the new whiskey we’re bringing in, not excited by it, and a number of them have simply stopped buying whiskey altogether because they can't keep up. We know that too much of any product devalues its monetary value, but could it also be that simply having access to something, whenever we want, also devalues its meaning and its importance? Maybe having every possible option at your fingertips is actually worse than having a carefully curated few?

Let’s look at free speech as an example, a value that we hold dearly here in America. Free speech is one of the most important aspects of our society, but what about too much free speech? Could too much access to freedom actually result in censorship—the opposite of what was intended? New York Times columnist Tim Wu tackled this subject in yesterday’s op-ed, writing:

The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. 

In the internet age, it turns out the best way to kill something is to completely drown it out rather than eliminate it. Could it be that we eventually kill our own appreciation of art and culture in the same fashion? Do we cheapen the value and the meaning of whiskey by having five thousand new options on the market every year rather than just a hundred good ones? Do we move further and further away from the enjoyment of drinking by convoluting the meaning behind why we do it?

When I was back in Las Vegas a few weeks ago I visited my first marijuana superstore (coming to California this January) to get a first-hand look at how retailers are selling customized pot in the new free market. It’s truly amazing what’s happened to weed since I was a teenager. You can go into one of these stores, tell the clerk exactly what you want to feel, and they can give you precisely what you want. You don’t want to smoke it? Fine, there are topical oils and edibles instead! You don’t want to feel hungry, or paranoid, or anxious? No problem! They’ve found a way to eliminate all of that, giving you the customized experience you’re looking for. What I found refreshing was how everything was centered on the desired feel and state of being rather than the brand. No one was talking about the best marijuana terroir or the most complex highs. It was all so practical. I remember when alcohol used to be the same way. Before going out, we would take shots to get a foundation going, then switch to beer so that we didn’t get drunk too fast. There was a clear strategy involved with how we wanted to feel, not what we wanted to taste. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about booze in that fashion, the various effects of beer versus wine versus liquor. In the end, we’re all drinking to feel something. That's the essence of drinking.

Getting back the basics of alcohol in that sense has been important in maintaining its value for me personally. Why do I like to drink? When does it make me happy? When does it not? It may seem hard to believe, but having access to free booze and a million whisky samples whenever I want them has actually been a curse, not a blessing, in terms of how I value alcohol. However, it’s not just the access; it’s also the intent. In a sense, the constant search for new flavors and new experiences is a part of that problem. When you’re always looking for the next new bottle, how can you focus on and enjoy the ones you already have? The current market only exacerbates that problem for me. I’ve already seen my attention span for music and movies dwindle under the infinite weight of the internet's possibility. I’m taking steps now to make sure my appreciation for alcohol doesn’t follow a similar path. Oversaturating people with information has become a weapon in the modern age — as Tim Wu writes: used as "a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze” — so clearly its having some effect on our psyche. 

-David Driscoll


Scattered Scotch Thoughts

Things can get a little weird when you're staying late at K&L to count bottles for inventory, but as I was going through our Redwood City shelves last night I had a few epiphanies. This is the first time I can remember an age statement on a bottle of Kilchoman. Granted it's not on the bottle, only on the box, but the new 2009 vintage actually says "eight years" on the front. Maybe it's happened before, but I certainly don't remember it. Since I had yet to taste the new vintage-dated release, I decided to pop a bottle and give it a whirl. Let me say: wow, what a difference eight years makes with Kilchoman. This is the roundest, softest, and smoothest Kilchoman I've ever tasted. You still get all the peaty, smoky, earthy, campfire notes, but there's a creamy vanilla viscosity to the whisky that I've never before tasted in a Kilchoman malt. Rather than that burst of of youthful vigor on the finish I'm so used to experiencing, I got a supple, rounded, sweet malty note that lasted for a full minute. That's some good stuff. 

When's the last time you had a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15? I couldn't remember as I marked off the current inventory on my clipboard, so I decided to pop a bottle of that as well. Dalwhinnie is by far the most beautiful distillery in Scotland, but I always remember the whisky being a little pedestrian; a little too everyday, perhaps. Man, was I wrong. You know what it was? It was my youthful taste buds. Back in the day when I last tasted Dalwhinnie 15, I wanted bold, assertive, full throttle whiskies. Today, I really appreciate this style of whisky immensely. Lots of fruit on the nose, sweet, creamy vanilla on the mid-palate, and a pleasant, grainy finish loaded with oily, cereal notes. For fifty bucks, no less! How many other 15 year olds of this quality are fifty bucks? I still hear people complaining about the loss of Glendronach 15 for $100. This is literally half the price.

Speaking of lamenting a loss, I've heard rumblings that the Stronachie 18 year (my only American mainstream source for Benrinnes single malt) might be going away. That's a pity. This is without a doubt the best 18 year old bang-for-your-buck on the market and has been for years (Glenmorangie 18 a close second). My Edrington rep told me today that Macallan 21 and 30 are being discontinued, but I'm not really lamenting a $600 and $4000 bottle being off the market. I'm really going to miss the Stronachie, however, if we lose access to that Benrinnes stock. Benrinnes is pretty much my favorite distillery in Scotland. 

And then it was back to counting bottles. 

-David Driscoll


Gerald Casale in the RC Store - Weds, Nov 1st @ 5 PM

I've got an uncontrollable urge! To drink Pinot Noir with Devo's Gerald Casale, that is. If you come by the Redwood City store this Wednesday at 5 PM you can drink Pinot Noir and rosé with us for a small five dollar fee. Bring your Devo records if you want. Wear your Devo hat. He'll sign whatever you want him to! Just don't sleep on his 50 by 50 wines as they're super legit. But, as LeVar Burton would say on Reading Rainbow: you don't have to take my word for it! Taste for yourself.

If you really want to get down and dirty with Gerald, I've just opened up another six spots for our private dinner at Donato afterward. We're doing four courses and a retrospective of the 50 by 50 Pinots for $75. You can get geeky about wine, punk rock, devolution, whatever you want! 

See you there.

-David Driscoll