New Faces from Gascony at K&L

Ask someone why Kentucky whiskey is referred to as Bourbon and they’ll likely tell you “because it comes from Bourbon County.” Not everyone agrees with that explanation, however. Some historians believe that the corn-based spirit was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans where many a glass of American whiskey has been consumed over the years. Regardless of why it's the case, there’s no denying that the county, the street, and the beverage were all derive their origin from the name of the French royal family—the House of Bourbon—which began its reign on the French throne with King Henry IV in 1589. Henry IV was born in the town of Pau, formerly part of the kingdom of Navarre and currently part of southwest France near Armagnac country. His mother Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, commissioned a hunting lodge in 1540 to be built in nearby Mauvezin on behalf of her future child. The property was called Château de Briat and Henry inherited the manor when he took the throne of Navarre in 1572. That's where I spent a few days this past December while traveling through Armagnac region.

Twelve years later his ascendance, Henry of Navarre found himself in a bit of a pickle. You see, the son of Jeanne d’Aubret was baptized as a Catholic, but raised as a Huguenot by his mother. Henry III was a Catholic monarch sitting on the French throne, but upon the death of his brother, the Duke of Anjou, the next in line was the now-Protestant Henry of Navarre. This little quandary caused all kinds of crowning chaos culminating in numerous wars of religion, perhaps the most significant of which was the Battle of Coutras in 1587. Henry emerged victorious from the fight thanks to the help of a man named Arnaud de Mâtines, a fellow officer in the Huguenot army who saved Henry’s life during the clash. Henry of Navarre would succeed to the French throne as Henry IV two years later upon the death of Henry III.

As a thank you gift for his efforts, Henry IV gifted the hunting lodge of Château de Briat to Arnaud de Mâtines. Almost three hundred years later, it was purchased by another famous name in the booze business: the Baron de Pichon-Longueville. Known for his world-famous wine château in the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, Baron Raoul added the Armagnac-producing estate to his portfolio, eventually passing the property down to his daughter Jeanne, who would pass it down to her children thereafter. Today Château de Briat is operated by Jeanne’s great-grandson, Stêphane de Luze, who represents the fifth generation of the family to make Armagnac at the former hunting lodge of Henry IV. While he may look aristocratic with his tall, thin frame, his flowing hair, and his perfectly-tailored country couture, Stéphane is truly a dude's dude. We had an absolute blast drinking Armagnac in his historic estate, cracking jokes as boys do, wandering the property as we talked history and drank brandy.

The sun was going down behind the forested hills as we arrived at the château. You could hear the gunshots in the distance from nearby hunters likely taking aim at a few pheasants or perhaps a wild boar. Château de Briat was strategically constructed in a wilderness populated by game of various types. As if hanging out with the descendent of Baron de Pichon-Longueville wasn't cool enough, we were going to do so on royal ground. I don't think it gets any more romantic than that. A historic country manor, a roaring fire, a few glasses of Armagnac. Voila!

Of course we weren't just visiting Château de Briat for the sake of atmosphere and hard drink. No, we were there to taste some of the newer casks he had recently moved into nearby storage and potentially work out a deal. The brandies being made by Stéphane and his wife Julie are truly fantastic, full of rich oak flavor with plenty of spice and lift on the finish. We were joined in the chai by his young son Balthazar who was fully ready for la chasse—a toy bow and arrow in his hand, and a plastic sword in his scabbard. We tasted through more than twenty different vintages in search of something we might be able to use for K&L, as Stéphane dropped the hose into barrel after barrel. There were two vintages that struck me as both very distinct and very different from one another in style, which is great for budding new Armagnac drinkers who are interested in exploring a variety of different styles. One was incredibly rich, dense, and thick on the palate. The other was more lean, fruity and easy to drink—almost like a wheated Bourbon. 

Six months after my visit to Château de Briat, the two expressions have arrived and our currently making their way to each of our retail locations. There are two single vintage expressions: a 2001 fourteen year old edition and a 2005 ten year old release. They could not be more different from one another. Most of the Briat distillations are blends of baco, folle blanche, and colombard, so I don't think it's the çepage that ultimately makes the difference. Rather it's the extra time in wood and the character of the vintage at play. The 2005 is very Weller 107-esque with light oak and vanilla at first, but a fruity and soft palate thereafter and plenty of youthful vigor. It's very much like a Bourbon (coincidentally made at the former Bourbon hunting lodge). The 2001, on the other hand, is dark, dense, concentrated, and rich, full of stewed fruits and brandied cherries, finishing with dark chocolate and caramel. Both are delicious. Both are distinct. Both are welcome additions to our shelves. If you're got the brandy bug as of late, you might want to try one of each so you can see just how different Armagnac can be.

2001 Château de Briat 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $69.99

2005 Château de Briat 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $54.99

-David Driscoll


The Grace of Japanese Bartending

When I went to Japan in the Fall of 2014 with my friend Chris Fu from Anchor Spirits (importer of Nikka to the U.S.), both of us were just completely taken aback by the bar experience. It's all we could talk about. Getting a cocktail in a high-end Tokyo bar was almost like getting a massage in how personal and intimate the exchange was. You didn't dare talk. Each drink was ceremonial. The bartenders were absolutely customer service oriented, on a level that Americans can never and could never (and will never) understand, and their elegance of movement was almost ballet-like. It's tough to explain if you haven't been there, but now I don't have to explain it. My buddy Alan Kropf (also from Anchor) just put together this little documentary on Japanese bartending that absolutely hits the nail on the head. Alan and I have an interesting relationship in that both of us seem to always be in awe of the other. But he's definitely the more talented one. His photographs and videography always inspire me to be better, and this little piece here is just another example of his prowess.

Check it out. And then book your next flight to Tokyo.

-David Driscoll


Bourbon & Bourbonesque

We're down to the last two casks from last Fall's expedition to Four Roses distillery, which means we're going to have to hit the road again soon. David and I have a date plugged in for late August and will be combing the warehouses for more loot. In the meantime, have a look at the latest arrival from Kentucky. I'm not sure that 10+ year old barrels are going to be part of our future barrel program with supplies where they are, so these two might be the last we see of the more-than-a-decade ilk. Both are very nice selections:

Four Roses "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel OESF (10 years, 1 month) Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey $64.99- The last two casks from our Fall 2015 trip to Four Roses have arrived and we've definitely saved a great pair for last. This 10+ year old single casks was bottled at 55.25% ABV and is classic Four Roses through and through with plenty of herbaceousness to balance out all the sweetness from the oak. Beyond the characteristic notes of charred oak and vanilla are graphite/pencil lead, pepppery rye, oak spice, and earth, all melding gorgeously with the vanilla and the fruit. There's plenty of weight from the decade spent in wood and the whiskey feels round and supple on the palate while maintaining a complex balance of flavors all the way to the finish. For those who want more than just sweetness and spice, this is the whiskey for you. This is a Bourbon for Bordeaux lovers, chalk full of the secondary flavors that make whiskey so fascinating.

Four Roses "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel OESO (11 years, 5 months) Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey $64.99- This eleven and a half year old cask brings exactly what you would expect to the party: a richness, weight, and roundness on the palate that simply isn't apparent in some of our younger Four Roses bottlings. This is creamy and smooth on the entry, especially at the lower 51.75% ABV, but after the sweetness pops on the entry there's a distinct and pronounced earthiness towards the back, full of dried herbs and damp wood with a very gentle touch of old oak spice. Seeing that even 10+ year old American whiskies have become difficult to track down, expect anything over 11 to sell quickly. In this case, you can clearly taste and relish the extra couple years in oak.

While I was the David who got to visit Kavalan back in the Fall of 2014, David OG was one who got to pick the first casks on behalf of K&L. There were very few single barrels available to retailers in the U.S. and Southern California got first dibs. Since David OG is the hottest spirits buyer in LA and a close friend of Kavalan, he got to choose first. There were only about 170 bottles per barrel, so David decided to buy a few considering the growing demand for new and rare Kavalan releases. What's interesting is how much these three whiskies have soaked up the actual Bourbon flavor. As you probably know, Taiwan is an incredibly hot and humid subtropical climate, so the whisky tends to get into that wood. In the case of one our new K&L exclusive casks, I found that the whisky tasted more like Bourbon than single malt; not so much because of the richness, but because of the intense oak flavor. They're quite fascinating examples of how differently single malt ages in a completely different climate, particularly because ex-Bourbon casks tend to cast a more mild shadow when it comes to concentration.

Our three single barrel selections are here:

Kavalan "Ex-Bourbon Cask #52" K&L Exclusive Cask Strength Single Barrel Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $149.99 - Taiwan's Kavalan distillery once faced an uphill battle, selling the quality of their precocious, young single malt whisky to a world of skeptics. It didn't take long, however, to sway the critics. When the Kavalan Vinho Barrique expression won "best in the world" at the 2015 World Whisky Awards the entire planet took notice and Kavalan's reputation received an instant shot in the arm. Here at K&L we are lucky to have a close relationship to both the company and to the master distiller Ian Chang, who hosted our group in Taiwan back in 2014. Due to the close bond that was formed between K&L and Kavalan, we were allowed to select three single barrel casks to be bottled exclusively for our store; all three of which were ex-Bourbon barrels. Because of Taiwan's subtropical climate and intense humidity, the whisky ages more rapidly and soaks up the flavor of each cask with intense concentration. In all three cases, the Bourbon flavor comes through on the whisky almost more than the single malt character. Barrel #52A has classic American whiskey aromatics with intense oak and a high dose of vanilla with more toasted oak character coming through strong on the palate. At 58.6% ABV, the alcohol is potent and intense, so water is definitely recommended. With a few drops, the whisky unloosens itself and opens up more fruit and spice with additional layers of toasted oak and vanilla, but the structure never fades. The oak has penetrated deeply into this whisky. The finish is strong.

Kavalan "Ex-Bourbon Cask #75" K&L Exclusive Cask Strength Single Barrel Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $149.99 - Barrel #75A is another beast of a whisky at 58.6% ABV, but it's the richest of the three by a hair with subtle floral elements that dance atop the intense oak flavor. There's more maltiness apparent on the palate than the others and there's a tropical coconut note on the finish that comes from the sweetness of the oak. It still needs water, however, as the high proof masks much of the complexity when taken neat. It's a whisky to unlock slowly and methodically.

Kavalan "Ex-Bourbon Cask #76" K&L Exclusive Cask Strength Single Barrel Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $149.99 -  Barrel #76A is the softest of the three at a mere 57.8%, and with water showcases a creamier and more nuanced palate of vanilla, fruit, and burnt sugar. This is the prettiest of the bunch with pronounced maltiness on the finish and plenty of spice. It's classic Bourbon barrel-aged single malt, but with more oak concentration from the warm maturation environment.

-David Driscoll


Set Adrift on Memory Bliss

What a bummer this year is turning out to be for music. Now we've lost one of my all-time favorite R&B singers of the early nineties: Prince Be. For those of you who weren't interested in pop music circa 1991, Attrell Cordes (known as Prince Be) was one-half of P.M. Dawn, a creative, philosophical, and often quite spiritual duo that came to popularity at the turn of the decade. Whereas their contemporaries like Bell Biv DeVoe, Silk, Shai, and Boyz II Men mostly sang about sex, love, and more sex, P.M. Dawn cleverly wove in themes of nostalgia, loss, memory, and other observations of modern dystopia. Their music was deeper, more soulful, and it never felt like an act. 

Perhaps their most incredible accomplishment, however, was their sampling of Spandau Ballet's "True" to create an artistic expression even better than the original. Rarely, if ever (in fact I can't even think of another example right now), does hip-hop ever sample a popular tune and improve upon the foundation. Usually it's just exploitative. But "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" is SUCH a good song that I find I often prefer it to "True"; and let me tell you something: I love me some Spandau Ballet. P.M. Dawn was always graceful in that way. They took care with their music. Even the ballad "I'd Die Without You" from the Boomerang soundtrack (the only good thing about the Eddie Murphy/Halle Berry flop) was painful and penetrating, rather than just another mediocre expression of young angst.

Alas, now it's all just a memory. I'll be setting adrift this evening in homage. R.I.P. Prince Be.

-David Driscoll

A Wolf Out For New Blood

There was a time—circa 2011—when the neo-Scotch renaissance was in full swing and it was super cool to trace old forgotten distilleries back to their original grounds. David OG and I spent at least a few days back then driving around various parts of Scotland with a list of ancient distillery names, playing detective, hoping to catch a glimpse of something foundational. All that marketing fluff you see today about tradition, heritage, and hand-crafted quality, this heady era of whisky enthusiasm is where it originally came from: a once genuine passion on behalf of real whisky fans to understand the past and create a more authentic future based on that history. Back then you could still find independent bottlings of long-dormant distilleries on a regular basis. Now it's almost impossible to conceive of the fact that, at one point, K&L was purchasing entire casks of Port Ellen, Brora, Banff, Glenlochy, and Ladyburn, and sharing what we had learned about these closed and collectable bottlings in the hope of inspiring that same passion in others. It was a chance to taste Scotland's past, connect and commune with it in some way, and somehow reach deeper into the intoxicating world of single malt whisky. We weren't alone, however, and there were a few other folks out there who were far more ambitious than us.

I've yet to meet Shane Fraser and the rest of the gang behind Wolfburn Distillery, but already I completely understand their mission and their motivations. They clearly felt that same fire, that thirst for fresh blood. It was around that same time—circa 2011—that a group of investors went looking for the former site of Wolfburn, an old distillery established in 1821 that likely stopped operating at some point around 1872. It was built near the town of Thurso, a remote sea port along Scotland's northern coast that's known for quite a nice wave amongst surfers, and the name Wolfburn (like many Scottish distilleries) came from the water source nearby; a small stream with cold, clear water (the Wolf Burn) that flows all the way to the sea. When the group finally located the verdant grounds they found little more than a pile of stones, but the stream was still there; and where life still flows, whisky will follow. By 2012, a small parcel of land along the Wolf Burn was purchased and plans to rebuild the distillery began. Many of us had been monitoring the moves of Kilchoman to see if the idea of a small, independently-owned single malt distillery was actually sustainable. After the tiny Islay producer was met with a huge fanfare, it seemed this whole Scotch renaissance had legs. By January of 2013, Wolfburn distillery was open and the stills were running once again.

As many of you already know, a minimum of three years maturation is what's required before single malt Scotch whisky can be called such, and this past January the newly-founded Wolfburn distillery hit its third birthday. A press release was subsequently sent out in March announcing that the facility's first single malt would be released: a soft, fruity, and ever-so-slightly peaty expression that would give whisky fanboys like myself our first look at Wolfburn's work. It would be another few months before the American release hit the states, but I had heard good things from friends across the pond. I was excited to get my hands on a bottle. The logo and the packaging were absolutely top notch. The depiction of the wolf looks like a cross between the Stark family crest and an old, hand-illustrated edition of Little Red Riding Hood—somewhat cartoonish, yet simultaneously sinister. They've done a great job with their website as well. It's easy to navigate, informative, and compelling on all levels. This week the first shipment of Wolfburn finally made it to California and we got our first look at the rebirth.

So how's the whisky? I have to say I'm quite smitten, both because I'm a born romantic when it comes to booze and the fact that the whisky itself is utterly delicious. The nose is just delightful: fruity and malty in equal parts with a surprising level of vanilla considering the young age. What the whisky lacks in complexity on the palate, it makes up for completely in charm and balance. There's a wave of fresh wash—the exact flavor of the fruity, malty wort before it goes into the still—but then you taste subtle notes of peat, earth, and brine on the finish. Despite the youthful flavors, the whisky itself doesn't feel young in its mouthfeel. It's never hot, or untempered. After a few minutes, I was surprised that the whisky wasn't more phenolic considering the heavy traces of peat left on my palate. I've got a bottle sitting on my table at home right just begging to be drunk. Considering the light and easy style of the whisky, it's the perfect dram for the warm summer months ahead. I'm excited to drink Wolfburn; both by the opportunity to try something new and the story behind the whisky itself. As I said earlier, I know first hand what it's like to get wrapped up in Scotland's rich whisky heritage and how intoxicating that journey can be. Thank goodness for those of us who like to drink there are people out there willing to go all the way with that passion, and not be satisfied to simply write about it.

Wolfburn's first American release is in stock now at K&L.

Wolfburn Highland Single Malt Whisky $55.99

 -David Driscoll