Whisky Season 2016 – Round Two

Are you ready for Round Two of K&L Whisky Season 2016? I hope so because we’re back today with three more single casks that offer more of that incredible bang-for-your-buck we showcased in Round One. This time, however, we’re debuting our first editions from Hepburn’s Choice—a label we’ve been using for the past few years in conjunction with our friends at Hunter Laing in Glasgow. Once again, the goal in our meeting was to find classic Scotch that tasted like Scotch, yet offered nuance and complexity, while keeping prices down to the absolute minimum. That’s not too much to ask for, right? We also wanted to find great whisky at different price points to offer options to every kind of Scotch drinker, putting delicious and mature malts back into reach for many who had given up on the genre.

Some of these distilleries aren’t household names, but we think you’re going to be quite pleased with the flavor and the quality. Let’s look at the first three selections from Hepburn’s Choice below. You can click on the links to visit the product page as well and check out the reviews from other K&L staff members:

1998 Royal Brackla 17 Year Old "Hepburn's Choice" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - The Royal Brackla 17 year old completely caught us off guard on our recent trip to Scotland. We'd of course heard of the Bacardi-owned distillery, known for its role in blended whiskies, but we'd never tasted one quite like this. Joining us for the first time this year during the meeting was Hunter Laing's master blender Tom Aitken who used to blend for Dewar's back when Bacardi first bought the brand. Tasting samples with a veteran who understands the inner workings and the history behind some of these lesser-known distilleries is invaluable. Tom explained that former owner Diageo used the distillery as a sort of experimental lab during the nineties. They made all sorts of different styles back then apparently and the quality could be wildly variant. This particular cask was absolutely stunning. It was straw colored and light to the eye, but packed with so much flavor it was deceiving. There were definitely phenolic elements at play; very subtle hints of peat that worked as an undercurrent to all the sweet stone fruit and vanilla. The combination of grain and fruit was like burst of classic malt goodness, but on the finish it turned savory with hints of sage brush and white pepper. All in all, this is an incredibly dynamic malt for the price and a great introduction to the distillery for newcomers. Bacardi has since turned Royal Brackla into its own single malt brand that should be on American shelves soon.

1991 Glen Keith 24 Year Old "Hepburn's Choice" Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $89.99 - This single sherry butt cask of Glen Keith is another K&L "refill" selection, meaning we purposely looked for whisky that had been matured in sherry casks that had been used previously. The result of refill aging is that the whisky still takes on some of the richer, fruity, sherry-esque flavors, but much more mildly, helping to maintain the integrity of the inherent malt character. In looking for delicious Scotch whisky that tasted like old-fashioned Scotch whisky, we came upon this outstanding Glen Keith: a Speyside distillery that's part of the Chivas portfolio. The whisky is classic Highland in style. The nose explodes with cereal grains, apricots and pear, vanilla, and the faintest hint of almond. The palate shows a bit of rich Oloroso character briefly before giving way to the more standard dried stone fruit flavors and supple, malty deliciousness. It's the price, however, that really grabs your attention: 24 year old, cask strength, single barrel, Speyside single malt for $89.99??!! Sherry-aged, no less! Thank goodness it was a big barrel because we're sure this is going to be quite popular.

Now let me add a bit of editorial before this next selection. This whisky labeled “John McCrae” is one of the best old school Scotch whiskies we’ve found in years. It’s not peated, or heavily sherried, or super mature, or powerful and potent. It’s simply a classic malt whisky that delivers the goods on every level. There’s fruit, and vanilla, and suppleness, and texture. It’s slightly sweet on the tongue, but creamy and malty towards the finish. It’s just a perfect specimen, in my opinion. And it’s from Balven………oops! I wasn’t supposed to say that out loud.

1991 John McCrae 24 Year Old "Hepburn's Choice" Single Barrel Cask Strength Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $129.99- While it's become common practice over the years for independent bottlers to label their single malt whiskies by distillery, there are a handful of producers who do not want their brand name to be mentioned or utilized by a competitor when selling casks to a third party company for blending use. To prevent that from happening, some producers practice what's called "teaspooning," meaning they add a teaspoon of a second whisky into the cask, instantly changing the whisky from a "single" malt into a "blended" malt. Once the whisky is "blended," the name of the distillery can no longer be used on the label because it's technically no longer a single distillery bottling. However, when you taste this single barrel of John McCrae blended malt whisky we're pretty sure you're going to be as thrilled as we are. To get a single cask of whisky from this distillery is almost unheard of, and getting one this good for this price is a rare treat indeed. The nose is candied ginger, round vanilla, and sweet malty grains, and the palate builds into more cereal grains, dried fruits, honey, resin, and a beautiful, classic, old fashioned Highland Scotch finish of sweet biscuity malted barley. It's the whole package from front to back and it's naturally proofed down to 47.6% ABV. We think this will be one of the most spectacular deals of the year for fans of both Highland whisky and delicious, no frills malt whisky.

Not bad, right? And we haven’t even begun talking about the ultra-mature grains or the bevy of Islay whiskies we have in store. We’ll have subsequent rounds to talk about in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


Modern Day Passions & Obsessions

I work in a field that has one of the geekiest, most inquisitive and passionate set of customers that exists. Next to comic books, Pokemon, and Xena Warrior Princess memorabilia, I think whiskey appreciation is close to becoming one of the most analytical and life-consuming hobbies in the world among its more serious fans. I also happen to be working in a niche market at a store that specializes in unique, hard-to-find, out-of-the-way selections, where I'm the one actually going out there and sourcing these products, so take that initial geek factor and multiply it by ten when talking about my personal day-to-day encounters with whisky fans. All day long at K&L I have people emailing, calling, and tracking me down in the store to ask seriously esoteric questions about alcohol. I love helping people find a great bottle of booze. Nothing makes me happier, in all honesty, than helping someone who needs assistance—whether it's helping a customer remember the forgotten name of a wine or helping my 85 year old neighbor Miriam throw out her garbage when her hip is sore. My patience can be tested when people forget where they are and begin abusing that good will, but I learned this week in Austin that I am not alone in this delicate position of "craft" customer service. I learned from standing in lines and watching the meat-hungry customers around me that serious barbecue fans might be even more geeky than whisky nerds. 

I'm far from a barbecue connoisseur, so I’m not the kind of person who's willing to stand in line for four hours for the legendary Franklin brisket (so, no, unfortunately I didn't get to try it). But I did happen to walk by La Barbecue in East Austin as they were getting ready to open, on my way back from the adorable Cat Cafe. I figured: why not go for it? The smells emanating from the food truck were incredible and I had heard from multiple sources this place was a serious contender for best BBQ in Austin. The line was only about five deep when I got there, but within minutes it had expanded to a snake of thirty-plus people. I was sixth, so I didn't expect to wait long. It was only when two guys begin holding up the line that I began to eavesdrop. "What temperature do you...?" I heard one of the men ask before his voice trailed off. As I listened closer it became clear that rather than ordering, these guys were trying to ask the pitmaster about his various methods and strategies for slow-cooking, as if there weren't two dozen hungry people waiting patiently behind them. They began listing off their own methods and their own preferences for dry rubs, ovens, cuts of meat, you name it. After a few minutes of this “shop talk” you could sense the restlessness from the people waiting patiently to get their lunch. To their credit, however, the guys at La Barbecue were friendly and professional the whole time. Barbecue, much like craft beer, just happens to be one of those things you can somewhat easily attempt at home (unlike distillation) so there's an entire army out there of DIY hobbyists looking to talk about their passion with established players in the game. Just look at the social media feeds dedicated exclusively to barbecue online where people all over the world are sharing their favorite creations, destinations, and recipes.

How was the food at La Barbecue? Absolutely incredible. But you can read about that topic from more experienced experts online. Of course, all the meat we had this week in Texas was incredible because they actually cook and season it. In the Bay Area food culture we have a completely different concept of beef. We’re looking at it from a wine-based perspective; one that values the inherent quality of the meat and—as with grapes—believes in preserving that original integrity as much as possible. We’re far more interested in how the cow was raised and how well the meat pairs with Bordeaux than we are in the actual cooking process. In fact, most people I dine with eat their steak rare because they want to actually taste the meat (me included). Texas barbecue, on the other hand, looks at meat from more of a whisky perspective. It’s not just about searing the meat on either side and slopping it down on a hot plate (we call that “cooking” in California for some reason); it’s more about the long game and the development of flavor under controlled and specific conditions over time. The scene in Austin also touts local and sustainably-raised meat, but then combines that Grade-A beef with tradition, science, and patience. These guys are cooking brisket in low heat ovens for more than fourteen hours, rendering the fat into pure silk and sealing in a succulence that must be tasted to be understood. But I want to make this clear: it’s not just the barbecue guys that are bringing flavorful meats to the Austin food scene. Every burger I had this past week was more flavorful than back home (and I had three). Every piece of bacon was that much more sizzling and savory (and I had bacon every morning). I had pork tacos on two occasions and they were simply out of this world. But, yes, the barbecue was the real show—I had it from Stubb’s and Cooper’s as well. Even the turkey was light years ahead of anything I had tasted previously. 

Meat is very much a thing in Austin. If you order a dish without meat, your server will likely ask you if you want to add meat to it. As we quickly learned, however, it’s not because the locals don’t appreciate fruits, vegetables, or grains (because there’s plenty of those things, too); it’s just because their Texas meat is so freakin’ good. My wife is practically a vegetarian and is not known to eat meat often, but I’ll be damned if she didn’t eat meat with every single meal. She ate more meat in the last four days than she’s eaten in the last year. I finally threw in the towel this morning and ordered a salad for lunch, the barbecue sauce practically oozing out of my pores at that point; but she went right back in and ordered more beef. It was like Freaky Friday—like we had switched bodies. There’s a culture of cooking in Austin, and I mean that in the most literal sense. It’s not just a simple foodie scene where people take photos of charcuterie and act like it’s interesting, but rather a devoted and experienced crowd of meat eaters who put flavor and texture above all else. Through processes that are honed, tweaked, and obsessed over in extreme detail, Austin pitmasters are constantly looking to outdo one another and raise that bar just a bit higher. Ask anyone in town where the best barbecue is and they’ll each give you a different answer—kind of like burritos in California. 

Sometimes when I travel and people on the road find out I work at K&L, they’ll want to pour me a small, local wine they’re proud of to see what I think. Usually it’s fine—nothing special—and I’ll be as polite and positive as I can be in return, but I’m spoiled because I taste so much great wine every single day. I have to imagine that’s what it’s like for a Texan to order meat anywhere else in the U.S. It must be a let down no matter where they go simply because they come from an advanced meat culture. They’re passionate about meat in a way that Californians will never understand because we don’t really push meat to its limits. I have to admit: we’re pretty good when it comes to cabernet and cocktails. But we have a lot to learn as it pertains to meat, mainly because we don’t geek out nearly as hard. We’re not nearly as passionate. We’re nerdy about other consumable things: like alcohol, bread, and gluten-free cookies. We’re worried about batch numbers with our whiskey, and organic farming with our produce, but I don’t ever see guys bothering cooks in the kitchen with scientific meat questions about temperature and time. Don’t worry, however, because the guys at La Barbecue told me they’re now doing pop-up trucks in LA every weekend. Hop in line, order some brisket, ask some questions, and let those dudes show you how real meat is done. You might want to get over there and check it out if you’re a Californian carnivore or a Texan transplant—it’s meat for people who obsess about meat.

-David Driscoll


Celebrate Cachaça @ José Andrés' Bazaar 

Join us and Avuá Cachaça to celebrate the Rio Olympic Games with a tasting of José Andres' exciting tapas menu alongside the incredible, hand-produced Avuá Cachaça. We'll enjoy Andres' wonderful Jicama Guacamole, delicious Catalan-style Pa'amb Tomatquet, and many more enticing specialties from the Spanish legend, while Pete Nevenglosky, co-founder of Avuá Cachaça, takes us through his journey of tasting nearly every Brazilian cane distillate being produced. After tasting the best of the best, Pete approached one of the finest distilleries in Brazil to secure exclusive rights to export their products. The result is an artisan cachaça unlike any we've ever experienced here. Truly a handmade product and one poised to create a renaissance among drinkers of cane spirits and cocktails alike. Take this incredible opportunity to experience one of Los Angeles's greatest dining experiences at a fraction of the normal cost.

Avuá Dinner, Thursday August 18th @ Bazaar in the SLS Hotel from 8:30-10:00pm $65

-david og


Austin, Tejas: Congress North to South

No sooner did we land in Austin when the tropical swells began. Dark, bulbous, low-hanging thunderheads descended upon the Texas capital and humid gusts of thick, sweaty wind that you could just about cut with a steak knife sweltered down. The rain began. It's been coming in droves ever since. It definitely feels like vacation here. It feels like tropical Mexico, actually. Not really all that surprising though because Texas was once a part of Mexico—a fact I dwelled upon at the Bullock Texas History museum this morning while I sipped my coffee. In fact, there was a period during the early 19th century when the Mexican government issued a warning about illegal white American immigrants settling without license within their borders, crossing into Tejas without permission and taking land that wasn’t rightfully theirs. The incredible irony was killing me as I read the historical placards alongside other local dwellers. “Maybe Mexico should have built a wall?” I pondered to my wife with a smirk.

In all honesty, we only went to the history museum because we didn’t know where else to go in the rain, but it was a fantastically curated exhibit and I would recommend it to anyone. The most amazing part was an excavated French ship from the 1600s that sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, was discovered in the mid-90s, and reconstructed by archeologists after more than a decade of painstaking efforts. We had no idea what we were walking into; we were simply there to beat the elements. Located on Congress Ave just north of the capitol building, it’s an easy jaunt from downtown. After you’re done, however, head back down to South Congress across the Colorado River and check out Allen’s Boots. It’s one of the most quintessentially Texan places I’ve ever visited in my life. There are thousands of boots! And hats! And shirts! I definitely got my rockabilly on there and bought a few things. This is just one of a dozen identical looking aisles!

There's a lot of action in downtown Austin, but—to me—Sixth Street feels like Haight Street in San Francisco; there are still residual elements of former glory, but what I saw of it seems contrived and forced at this point with a seedier element that overshadows the overall scene and infiltrates the mood. Outside of downtown, however, it's like a gastronomic wonderland and the vibe could not be more cool—and welcoming! I've only been here for forty-eight hours and I've already made friends! Plus, there are so many hip boutiques and fun local shops with local Texan flare. Uncommon Objects, as an example, is more like a museum exhibit than an antique store.

At the recommendation of my friend Matt Freerks, we did Juliet on Barton Springs Road for brunch yesterday. It was everything we hoped it would be and more—classic American fare done well, with a chíc interior that was tasteful art deco and a bar that over-exceeded in every way. Their pastries were out of this world—cornetti and pecan toffee buns that were fluffy and delightful. Our server Gina was also a wealth of local advice who couldn't wait to recommend future destinations for our Austin vacation. We stuffed our faces. By the time I got to my mushroom frittata I was almost too full. Not far from Juliet on South Congress is Home Slice Pizza where my wife and I got a drink with a few slices earlier today for lunch. Talk about old school atmosphere with modern luxury. I think a pizza parlor should always be low-lit, but that may stem from childhood memories of the original dark Round Table dens. The pizza at Home Slice was on point and the beer was cold, but the best part was the music and the crowd. You had teenagers, hipsters, families, and businessmen of all colors in the place, along with a setlist that was carefully tailored to the deluge outside. New Edition's "Can You Stand the Rain," the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays," Rhianna's "Umbrella," and even Toto's "Africa." I bless the rains and the pie!

One of the restaurants Gina from Juliet had mentioned to us was called Hopdaddy and was supposedly famous for its frozen margarita; not some sweet, sugary bullshit like you get at the pool bar in Cabo, but a serious drink that happens to be served in slushy form. She wasn't kidding—the drink was totally legit. Not only was Gina not kidding, she was sitting at the bar drinking one herself when we popped in earlier this afternoon. We ended up joining Gina, her husband, and her co-worker Hannah for drinks and conversation. What a blast that was—not only chatting about life in Texas, but also scoping the scene at the end of the counter. There were rockers, SoCal-looking surfers, cowboys, and just about every other type of dude you can think of grabbing a seat along the bar. I wasn't sure what was more refreshing: the ice cold tequila pumping through the straw in my mouth at a breakneck pace, or the diverse and eclectic atmosphere completely free of pretense and posturing right there in front of me.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was shredding on the restaurant sound system. Texas Flood played as the rain poured down outside.

-David Driscoll


Austin City Limits

After decades of reread Cormick McCarthy books and repeated viewings of various chainsaw massacres, I’m finally going to Texas. Not only am I going, I’m going to drink and party like a Texan. I’ve done my share of layovers in Texas airport bars over the years, but this will be the first time I’ll have left the airport and set foot outside the security gate. I’m going to Austin, a place I’ve heard great things about for most of my life, but have never found time to visit. For Bay Area residents like myself, Austin forms that holy Californian trinity with Portland and Seattle as potential destination cities for those whose frustration with overcrowding has them dreaming of greener pastures. I won’t lie—I’ve almost reached a boiling point of my own here at home and unconsciously this trip is probably as much about reconnaissance as it is relaxation. For me, however, my frustration with the Bay isn’t so much about the price of living as it is the living itself. I listen to my neighbors complain about rising rents, the price of a house, the cost of a burger or a ticket to the movies, but for me those aren’t the key issues. I’m mostly lamenting the loss of any real social identity in San Francisco and how that soul-sucking void affects my ability to enjoy local nightlife, music, and urban character. Back in the nineties and early aughts, you had cultural drinking options depending on your desire. Pick a neighborhood and a bar—each had its own scene and its own identity. Today, however, I don’t know where you go to do anything other than discuss your job or stare at an iPhone while Instagraming your latest craft cocktail. Every new bar I visit offers the exact same thing, no matter if I’m in North Beach or the Mission, and the clientele is uncannily uniform. There are plenty of great drinks to be had, but fewer interesting people to enjoy them with. It seems like San Franciscans today are using the food and drinks from these establishments to actually form their cultural identities, rather than accent or enhance them. Instead of dressing up or expressing oneself while drinking, people at bars in the city use regional French wines, microbrews, and rare whiskies to try and show you who they are through drinking. It’s a terrible thing to witness because not only is it boring, it’s rarely an accurate depiction. 

You are what you eat, they say. You are what you drink, too, according to social media sippers, desperate to sell themselves as unique with hand-crafted user profiles that—like the many establishments I visit—are exactly alike. Most of it’s bullshit though because what you drink doesn’t say anything about who you are inside or what makes you interesting. I’m still the same David Driscoll whether I drink cheap vodka with a bum on the street or Pappy with the Pope. No amount of asshole affectation or image-building iconography will ever change that because drinking an idea doesn’t constitute or create culture. I learn who someone is by talking to them, not by rummaging through their recycling. Drinking is an activity that helps promote social behavior: you go out, you get a drink, and then you talk, and you watch, and you dance, and you discover. You can visit a new city, meander through its many bars, and learn what makes it tick—what drives it—and then compare and contrast that experience with previous ones. In Seattle, they do this. In New York, people do it this way. In LA, people like to do this. Hopefully by the end of next week I’ll understand a little more about what people like to do in Austin, Texas. I’ve heard it’s a city that still very much has its own cultural identity—live music with plenty of beer and barbecue, for instance. I’m really looking forward to checking that out. I’m also looking forward to chatting with people and getting their take on life. It’s amazing how cold and calculated San Francisco has become over the last decade. What was once the city of peace, pot, and free love is now a rigid nest of residents who’d rather rush to their jobs and stare down at their phone in silence than look you in the eye and smile. It didn’t really hit me how bad it had become until I went to Seattle a few weeks ago and was completely gob-smacked by how polite, forthcoming, and friendly everyone was. I talked to the bell hop at my hotel downtown about local breakfast spots longer than I talk to most of my friends these days. It was so nice to discuss scrambled eggs and Cajun hot sauce instead of work, working, how long it took to get to work, how well work is going, and how we’re all so busy at work these days! Where do you work? I work here. I’m going to work now. Work is tough. 

If you asked me ten years ago about San Francisco’s identity as a city, I would have burst out into Jefferson Starship and belted: “We built this city on rock and roll!”  Today, however, it’s all about computers, careers, and cocktails. I’m sure even local resident Huey Lewis would tell you matter of factly: the heart of rock and roll is no longer beating. But I’ve heard it’s still going strong in Austin. What have I learned going out in San Francisco lately? That it’s a city where people talk about work all day long, then go out and make virtual photo albums about the lives they wish they were leading. Austin? I’ve heard that’s where you go to party. So I’m going. 

See you all in a week.

-David Driscoll