A Few New Arrivals

While I still plan on talking about gin for the rest of the week, I do have a duty to keep everyone up to speed about new arrivals! Let's take a look at what just showed up, including our last cask from the most recent container of Old Particular casks (new container is due in July):

1991 Cambus 25 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Scotch Whisky $79.99 - The final cask from our most recent shipment of Old Particular single casks is this lovely little number from Cambus, one of Diageo's top grain distilleries until it was closed forever in 1993. That means every bottle of Cambus that gets consumed from this point out moves the whisky a step closer to total extinction! This 25 year old single cask, originally distilled in September of 1991, is a glorious example of both Cambus and grain whisky at its most splendid. The nose is a hedonistic wave of butterscotch and vanilla, followed by tropical notes on the palate with plenty of oak spice and syrup. Those who love the banana element that can be found in Bourbon should go gaga for this. It's difficult to believe the whisky is bottled at 62% ABV, mainly because of how rich and wonderful it is. While offering spice and plenty of heft, the power is still masked by the symphony of vanilla and syrup on the finish. For collectors who enjoy drinking whisky made at now-defunct facilities, a bottle of 25 year old Cambus represents quite an affordable luxury at $79.99. For fans of Scotch or even American whiskies who enjoy drinking delicious, cask strength, single barrel expressions, this is a must have.

A la what we've seen with Douglas Laing over the last year, David Stirk, the man behind the Exclusive Malts independent bottlings, has put together a new regional series of 100 proof whiskies meant to highlight the distinct characters of Scotland's regional styles. Unlike the Laing editions, however, these are all single cask expressions. All are bottled at 100 proof, as well. They're quite striking and well-priced, to boot. I jumped all over them after tasting through the line-up.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 12 Year Old Single Grain Whiskey $49.99 - This Port Dundas 12 year edition showcases the simple pleasure of great grain whisky with exotic macaroon coconut flavors, rich oak, barrel spice, and plenty of punch from the higher proof. It drinks like a bolder and rounder version of the Nikka Coffey grain for a better price.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 8 Year Old Peated Highland Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 - This 8 year old peated Ardmore showcases the difference between Island peat and Highland peat, with a lighter, fruitier smoke influence that tastes more like a campfire than a the medicinal phenols of Islay. Lovely richness and creaminess accent the finish.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 8 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 -  This 8 year old Glentauchers is a chewy and unctuous sherry-aged delight with an extra kick from the 100 proof ABV.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" Islay Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 - While not labeled as such, this is an all-Laphroaig bottling that drinks like a softer, more lush version of the standard 10 year, albeit at a higher proof.

While normally I'm not excited by new distilleries selling whiskey from other distilleries, this little Irish number really jumped out at me. Much like the Jameson Cooper's Croze and the Midleton "Dair Ghaelich," there's a heavy amount of exotic oak spice in this whiskey, which leads me again to the realization that you can't judge a whiskey solely by where it was made. You must taste each one, as the specs will never tell the entire story. This is delicious!

Tipperary "Watershed" Irish Single Malt Whiskey $64.99 - Tipperary is a new Irish distillery making whiskey from their own barley, grown on Ballindoney farm in County Tipperary. As the production is still underway, the group searched Ireland for a mature whiskey which would reflect the style of the spirit they eventually wanted to make in Tipperary, The "Watershed," sourced partially from West Cork distillery, is an extremely striking Irish single malt with a strong oak influence, heavy with exotic spices and richness. Try this for a bolder, more mouthcoating style of Irish whiskey. 

-David Driscoll


North Shore Gin

If there was ever an example to demonstrate just how competitive the gin market has become today (and the spirits market in general), North Shore is it. Back in 2009, when I took over the spirits at K&L, North Shore was my first real addition to our selection. I had spent some time hanging out with bartenders Erik Ellestad, Jennifer Colliau, Craig Lane, and Erik Adkins over at the now-defunct Heaven's Dog on Mission Street—at one point easily the best bar in San Francisco. We were discussing the exciting new world of "craft" gin (there were maybe three or four new ones back then!) and Ellestad told me he thought the North Shore 11 was his favorite. We sat at the bar tasting small pours of various gins side by side, and there was no doubt: the North Shore was the clear winner. I ordered a few bottles for the store the next day, opened them for the staff, and watched the madness take hold.

From that point on we were all huge North Shore fanboys at K&L. The staff was amazed, we were selling bottles by the case, and Sonja Kassebaum—the distillery owner—was making regular trips out from Chicago to do events with us. That momentum lasted for about two years until the gin world absolutely exploded and began pickling itself in a veritable sea of saturation. All of a sudden our customers wanted new gins—non stop—every single time they came to visit. The shelf became a revolving door of boozy experiments, wild concoctions, haphazard distillates, and transitory faces. Years later, North Shore's dominance had all but been forgotten. 

The pendulum is now swinging back the other way, however. After years of tasting through bizarre recipes and amateurish adventures, I see a lot of customers returning home to the basics. It's no different than being young and wide-eyed. You want to see the world and know what's out there—to date all kinds of people and understand what's possible in life—but eventually you settle down and gravitate back to the basics. That's happened to me recently with gin, which is why I've been drinking gallons of North Shore recently—the gin that originally brought me to the dance. The gin that made me love gin because it tastes like really good gin! You know who else loves gin? Sonja Kassebaum, which is why she and her husband Derek started North Shore distillery in the first place back in 2004; not because they eventually wanted to make whiskey, but because they wanted to make gin. They were pioneers of the American craft gin movement, focusing on the botanical spirit long before it was cool again. 

The opportunity to be artistic with the botanicals and creative with the recipes was what drove Sonja and Derek to open their own distillery. Wanting to create something different from what was available on the market, they released the North Shore #6 gin back in 2005, one of the first American gins to use cardamom and lavender—a standard practice today among many small producers. Not only did they want a new gin, they wanted clean gin. Fresh gin. Bright gin. Gin that tasted more vibrant than the standard pour. What they quickly learned, however, was just how picky gin drinkers can be (as I also learned after sending various bottles to my grandmother, the ultimate gin connoisseur). It turns out that gin's focal point—the juniper—was pretty important to a number of classic enthusiasts, who had a hard time coming over to the North Shore #6. Thus, the North Shore #11 was born with a heavy juniper recipe (because it goes to eleven—yes, they named it after Spinal Tap). 

"As that point, there were few distilleries that were making multiple styles of gin," Sonja told me recently. "We were the first distillery making different gins to play differently in cocktails." People were totally confused. "Why is that bottle white and the other one green?" customers would ask all the time. Two gins? Why two? Today, it's common for a distillery to have more than two gins and to make a navy strength, an Old Tom, and a sloe gin, to boot! But it wasn't always that way. These days there are plenty of new and bright-eyed gin customers who don't even know about North Shore and their early dominance. They think this modern movement began with Bruichladdich's Botanist or Monkey 47 (just like Nirvana fans who had never heard of the Pixies). 

Maybe, now that you're all grown up, you can go back and revisit some of the classics to give yourself a better perspective. Like an old Motorhead song, these gins still kick major ass.

North Shore #6 Gin $31.99

North Shore #11 Gin $31.99

-David Driscoll


Copper & Kings American Dry Gin

I'm starting off our special gin week here on the spirits blog with a new expression that likely none of you have tried, and no one has yet sold at retail but us here at K&L. It arrived today, custom-made for us by Joe and the team over at Copper & Kings in Louisville after my co-worker Julio and I spent the evening drinking gin and tonics out on the patio at the distillery this past April and decided we needed it in our lives. "We only make this for us," Joe explained after both Julio and myself commented on how delicious the drinks tasted. "We like gin, and we can make it here, so we do," he continued. While C&K is indeed making what is—to me—instantly one of the best American gins on the market, they're doing it in a way that few other producers (if any) are doing. Let's break it down:

- Almost all gins are made with neutral grain spirit as the base. 

- Almost all gin producers purchase that grain neutral spirit on the bulk market (it's a dirty secret).

- Very few producers distill their own base spirit for gin

- Even fewer use apples as the base material

Yet, because C&K is a brandy distillery, Joe and his team use brandy as the base for the American dry gin, adding a botanical soak and basket to their standard double pot distillation process. The production is no different than distilling a batch of C&K American apple brandy, just with the addition of juniper berries, coriander, angelica, orris and other dry botanicals tossed into the low wine for a long steep before the second distillation begins. Once that first 35% ABV distillate is thoroughly flavored, a basket is hung in the pot still with citrus peels and lavender to further infuse that vapor as it passes through the chamber during the second run. The result is a flavored apple brandy, or an American dry gin—call it what you like. I can it gin. Delicious, delicious gin!

One thing to know about the C&K American dry gin is that it's made on the smallest pot still in the facility, which according to Joe only yields about 120 bottles worth of gin per batch—exactly the amount we ordered in our initial ten case purchase. Smelling my first glass of the newly arrived hooch, I can already sense the differences from the bottle I originally brought back from the distillery this past Spring. There's a bit more apple must on the nose and the finish is creamier and tangier in profile. My point in mentioning that is: this is real small batch gin, in that it will taste a little bit different each time we order it. Joe is making it especially for us each time, so while the recipe will remain the same, the subtle nuances of the apple brandy base will vary from batch to batch. 

Other than the wildcard of a base material, the C&K American dry gin drinks much like a classic London dry style. Bright juniper notes, lifted by the coriander, with a fresh and spicy finish. In a gin and tonic, it's absolute heaven. It's also my new favorite gin in the store. I highly, highly recommend getting one. 

Copper & Kings American Dry Gin $34.99

-David Driscoll


The Gin Takeover

Alessandro Palazzi pouring me one of the world's best gin martinis in London at the Duke's hotel

While we can talk about the rise of American whiskey, the proliferation of single malt, the emergence of brandy, and the rebirth of rum in the realm of our modern spirits renaissance, I don't think there's one bartender from here to Shanghai that will argue with me when I say we are currently living the era of gin. Not just gin, but great gin—more gin, from more places, with more flavors and more botanicals than we've ever seen in the history of this planet. While brown spirits continue to dominate the message boards, blogs, and Instagram review sites of today's connoisseur subculture, it's gin that is dominating the consumption market; not just in America, all over the world (what's funny is that the U.S. actually lags behind the Phillipines, of all places, and it's not even close!). How long does it take you to consume a bottle of gin versus a bottle of whiskey? For me, it can be as quick as 24 hours if I'm making heavy gin and tonics, but rarely will I consume an entire bottle of whiskey in less than a month. Think about that comparison from an economic perspective now. If consumers (and bars & restaurants alike) are blowing through gin at a faster clip, using a product that's cheaper to make than whiskey (yet often costs the same per bottle), can be made faster than whiskey, and will likely never suffer from the supply and demand issues that have hampered pricing and availability in the whiskey market, then tell me honestly: would you rather build a whiskey distillery in 2017 or a gin distillery? I know where I stand.

It's crazy to think that between 2009 and 2014 gin was seen simply as a way for many small distillers to make money while waiting for their whiskey to age. Many of these players got into the game with visions of Pappy dancing through their heads, but found out quickly that gin was the spirit that ultimately paid the bills. My problem with that strategy then is the same as it is today: to distill gin with such a mindset is almost a slap in the face to the legacy of the spirit (a legacy that is much more interesting and far more romantic than whiskey's, to me). Can you imagine if you heard a distiller say:

"Yeah, I really want to make pear eau-de-vie, but since whiskey's popular and people will buy it, I thought I'd throw some corn spirit in a few oak barrels just to make some extra cash."

I know whiskey drinkers who would lose their minds if they heard something like that! Yet, for almost a decade that's been a perfectly acceptable mindset for many a small distiller—to treat gin with such deference. There's an enormous gap in quality between those distillers who take gin seriously and those who see it simply as the means to and end. Over the last three years, I'd say, as a drinking society we've gone from a mindset of "good gin makes a great classic cocktail" to "good gin tastes pretty damn good—period!" Because more drinkers are understanding how gin is made, how the botanicals play such an important role, and how an ancient recipe for gin can be every bit as complex and intriguing as a old family recipe for Bourbon, we're seeing a change in public thinking. As a result, we're beginning to see more and more small distilleries who focus almost entirely on gin—and that's a good thing. Let me tell you: there's a reason why Monkey 47, Four Pillars, North Shore, and Edinburgh Distillery have come on the scene over the past decade to construct some of the world's best gins: they all make gin almost exclusively. Do the world's best Scotches come from distilleries that also make vodka, gin, and brandy? Not usually. There's something to be said for focus.

That being said, there's also something to be said for discovery, education, and redirection. For years, the crux of any argument concerning what makes a spirit worth its price has been its age. A large majority of the marketplace believes a 12 year old whisky should cost less than a 15 year. More importantly, these consumers believe a spirit that's entirely unaged (like gin) should never cost more than a spirit that is (like whiskey). But we're now starting to see cracks in that facade. I was flipping through Tristan Stephenson's excellent book The Curious Bartender's Gin Palace last night, when I found a passage that made me both chuckle and ponder deeply about gin's origins: 

In 1495, a wealthy merchant from a region known as the Duchy of Guelders decided it would be a good idea to have a book written for him. Being a household guide, the book documented some of the lavish recipes he and his family were enjoying at the time. Included was a brandy recipe made from '10 quarts of wine thinned with clear hamburg beer.' After distillation the liquid would be redistilled with 'two handfuls of dried sage, 1lb of cloves, 12 whole nutmegs, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise' and—crucially—juniper berries.' The spices were placed in a cloth sack and suspended above the distillate, allowing the vapours to extract their flavour.

...and here's the kicker:

Grinding diamonds over white truffle is as close a comparison as I can imagine to expressing the extravagance of such a recipe during that period.

Why, you ask? Because this recipe dates back to the era of the spice trade! Back when nutmeg was more expensive than gold. To make such an elixir with those valuable ingredients was unheard of! While it's true that all of those botanicals can be purchased much more cheaply today, let's not discount the importance and the impact that carefully-sourced, fresh, and flavorful ingredients can play in a true top-shelf gin. Not only in terms of flavor, but also terroir. One of my goals this past February in traveling to the Four Pillars distillery outside of Melbourne was to use as many indigenous, locally-grown Australian botanicals as possible in our K&L cuvée. St. George's outstanding Terroir gin uses herbs and spices sourced entirely from California's Mt. Tam. Bruichladdich's Botanist gin collects most of its botanicals from Islay, giving the gin a true local flavors. Botanicals can be to gin what age is to whiskey. For those looking beyond flavor to determine value and intrigue, the origin of each recipe should provide endless talking points and fodder and provide insight into the great regional gardens of our planet.

Gin isn't just taking over the world right now, it's also going to take over the K&L spirits blog for this week. Each day, I'll be digging deep into a few gins that I think you all might want to know more about, while providing a deeper insight into how gin is made and why you should be drinking it. Until then!

-David Driscoll


One More Round of Villa Zarri

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

This most recent batch of Villa Zarri represents the remnant of our previous cask, of which we only bottled a portion. Rather than change the label and go through the whole TTB approval game again, we left it at "24 years" even though it's older than 25 at this point. Why should you buy this brandy? Simple: rarely has a grape distillate ever come this close in my mind to mimicking the best parts of Scotch, Bourbon, and Cognac all in one tidy, cask strength, single barrel package. You get the richness of of the Brandy on the nose; oodles of caramel and creme brulée. You get the power and oak dominance of a Bourbon on the entry, with big spice and bold strength. You get the nuance and complexity of a Scotch on the finish with candied fruit, hints of earth, and rancio notes for minutes after swallowing. There's a reason we went crazy for this bottle last time around. It's the same reason we're crazy about it this time: it's a dynamic, delicious, and dangerously drinkable spirit.

1991 Villa Zarri 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Italian Brandy $99.99 - Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still by from Trebbiano (the Italian version of Ugni Blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least 10 years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the 10 and 21-year-old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. At nearly 60% ABV, there's a lot of heat, so a drop or two of water really helps open up the fruit. Underneath all that power is plenty of rich vanilla, sweet oak, lush stone fruit, and Cognac-like finesse, but without all the sticky additives. What you get here is almost like a Glenmorangie version of brandy. 

-David Driscoll