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Thursday
Jun092016

2016 Craft Extravaganza – Part II

David OG here, back for part two. Next: another wild whiskey, which is not going to be for everyone, but certainly spoke to me. In the tiny town of Hérisson, France an unusual man made an unusual choice in 1983. Hérisson is at the center of a region called Allier, famous for its forests, its grains, and its royal family. This is indeed the realm of the Duke of Bourbon. The area is part of a geological region called the Massif Central, a large raised hilly plateau that stretches across most of south central France. The illustrious Mr. Balthazar was a well respected artist and thespian, famous also for his love of life and food. Hérisson has long been a cultural center of the region, hosting summer theater and musical festivals. The good Monsieur decided one day that he wanted to create a spirit that captured the essence of his beloved region – his creation was dubbed The Hedgehog – spiky yet alluring (also the English translation for the town Hérisson). He spent decades tinkering on his tiny still, trying different mashbill and wood treatments, yeast strains and distilling temperatures. The process was 100% self regulated and he specifically avoided outside influence. He eventually settled on a formula that he believed exemplified his region in the same way that Cognac exemplifies the Charente or Armagnac is of Gascogne. A rugged spirit of great power and intensity, he dubbed it “Straight Whiskey Bourbonnais”. Of course we cannot call it that, so Single Grain Whiskey will do for the TTB.

The distiller starts with locally grown corn and malted barley, these he mills himself and blends in about 20% rye which is milled locally as his apparatus can’t get the consistency correct. These are then put through an enzymatic breakdown process of different temperature washes. The whole mash is then fermented on the grain using two proprietary yeast strains which the distiller has cultivated over the years from local sources. Fermentation is very slow, sometimes up to 14 days in small tubs. This unlautered mash is then distilled with all the solids (not unlike bourbon) on a small Holstein still built in Germany. The second distillation takes him close to 70% ABV, which is cut to 60% before filling in heavily toasted new French oak barrels. After a year of oak extraction, the spirit is transferred into ex-cognac barrels for another three to four years.

The result is rustic, uncompromising spirit that’s as wild as the man you created it. Honey, oak, slight grappa notes on the nose are balanced by a supple mouth feel and a long easy finish. It’s truly unlike any other whiskey in the world. Undoubtedly some will turn their nose up at this unrefined specialty, but I find this hearty beverage ultimately delicious, unique and unpretentious in the best way. I would recommend some serious aeration before judging this whiskey as the powerful nose softens nicely with air. This whiskey is a labor of love and production is miniscule. We received a very small allocation, but it will likely sell quickly thanks to pure curiosity.

Hedgehog Single Grain Whiskey $44.99

-David Othenin-Girard

Wednesday
Jun082016

2016 Craft Extravaganza – Part I

Hey guys—David OG here. We’ve had a pretty wild month with all sorts of limited stuff coming and going quickly. So much new delicious gin, brandy, Scotch, it just never ends. One category, however, has been starkly missing from our recent new offerings. Craft Whiskey! We’ve spoken here in the past about how we’ve had trouble finding craft Bourbon producers that hit all the notes we need. They can be too brash, too young, or exhibit too much rough oak from smaller barrique aging. Today, however, we’re truly breaking ground for K&L and the spirits category in general. Three new hand-crafted products available exclusively through K&L. The first is simply a triumph in every way.

Tom Herbruck is an unassuming gentleman with a solid career and a beautiful family. He’s also a man with a secret. In the shed behind his house sits hundreds of barrels of whiskey. Tom’s love affair with distillation started early, like before he was fifteen. His father was a doctor and did well and, when Tom was just a boy, his father bought a vineyard outside of Cleveland, OH. Now you cannot make good wine in Ohio. It’s both too hot and too cold. But you can grow grapes and those grapes will become wine with a bit of coaxing. Tom’s father thought it perfectly natural that he be responsible for converting that wine into spirit and Tom enjoyed it too. So basically this guy has been distilling in his back shed for the better part of thirty years. Eventually, Tom had kids and they started to get to that age where Dad’s little hobby was seeming more and more interesting—maybe a few too many questions. Maybe it was time, Tom thought, to go legit. And that’s just what he did. After years of “practicing” on a tiny little Portuguese alembic, Tom got all licensed up and bought a serious piece of equipment.

The Michter’s pot stills were original built in the 1970s as a semi-tourist attraction at the distillery in Schaefferstown, PA. This famous distillery was responsible for the original Michter’s Brand Sour Mash and several other exceptionally well regarded products like the A.H. Hirsch line. After success in the 50s and 60s, tourists had started showing up to see the distillery. Since production only occurred a few days out of the month, they’d often be disappointed to see absolutely nothing happening. A plan was devised to create a one barrel a day still that could be run continuously to provide some sort of experience for those who had made the trip. Known as the Michter’s Jug House, America’s first microdistillery was born. This was the first pot-stilled Bourbon distillery since the end of prohibition. In an era when the industry had completely industrialized and consolidation was rampant, this was a bit of a revolution. The big distillers had converted to stripping/doubler set up that’s common in KY today and the thought of building something less efficient than possible must have been shocking to many. But alas, whiskey would not stay cool nor would it be cool again for nearly three decades. When the distillery closed in 1990, the impressive stills and the corresponding tank/fermenters were sold to none other than David Beam, who stored them at a motel he owned in Bardstown, KY. Tom eventually connected with David and brought the old set up to his newly licensed home distillery. There he experimented with several mash-bills and with the help of industry luminaries like Willie Pratt and Fred Noe. Over the next several years, Tom built stocks of high quality pot stilled bourbon, rye, and apple jack. Last year, the new Michter’s Distillery made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse and the legendary stills were sold and reunited with their original namesake. Tom’s back to distilling on the little pot-still he started on, but he’s recently acquired a 200 year old cognac style alembic in original condition. He’s excited to continue making his whiskey on these new stills and insists that he can get the same quality out of those pot stills as he did with the wonderful Bomberger stills.

When I visited him in early 2016 at his home in Chagrin Falls, he was excited to show me his new product: a bottled in bond Bourbon; perhaps the only pot-stilled bottled in bond Bourbon on the market, craft or not. Pot-stilled Bourbon is just something different. We hear marketing about Woodford and their pot-stills, but honestly they only use a tiny fraction of the pot-stilled whiskey in that blend. In fact, true pot-stilled whiskey is definitely the realm of the craft distiller, but it’s not an easy thing to do. It requires patience and experience and generally the craft world has avoided going straight at Kentucky because it’s just too daunting. Tom doesn’t care. He’s making whiskey expertly and aging it exclusively in traditional 53 gallon new charred oak barrels. Some of his whiskey won’t be ready for years more to come. Others, like this Bourbon are absolutely singing. I was lucky to have made the trek to Chagrin Falls on that cold afternoon in March. We’re in the process of picking single casks and we’ll try to offer the Applejack and standard release Bourbons and rye when they’re available, but right now I’m going out on a limb and saying unequivocally that this is the best craft bourbon you’ll find at any price. And while it’s not cheap by any means, it doesn’t fly in the face of Kentucky’s pricing just because it’s “craft”. Indeed, I believe it’s well work the $50 we’re asking. This small first batch of bottled in bond bourbon was limited to 1200 bottles and we’re the exclusive supplier for the California market, but we’ve only received a fraction of the total offering. So buy it, try it, and load up if you love it.

Tom's Foolery Bottled in Bond Batch #1 Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey $49.99

-David Othenin-Girard

Tuesday
Jun072016

To Boldly Go

While David OG and I do a lot of travelling together, we've begun dividing our time as of late; figuring we can cover more ground by splitting up from time to time. During our 2015 trip to France we parted ways towards the end—I headed back north to Paris and David went to Alsace in search of single malt. His solo voyage through the countryside took him to multiple French whisky distilleries and David worked out deals to bring some of those unique selections back to the states. I think you'll be excited about what he has to tell you. Perhaps most exciting, however, was the text I received from David last year while he was visiting family members in Ohio. 

"I've just tasted the next big American whiskey," he told me. 

"In Ohio?" I asked.

With thousands of new micro-distilleries having sprouted up across the globe over the past few years, you have to work harder than ever to taste everything. Sometimes that involves sending one David east and the other west. Expect an update from the other David very soon. There are some interesting new bottles that have just arrived.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun052016

And Into the Weekend

If you figured I'd be sick of drinking Four Pillars gin after months of consumption and a week full of promotional parties and tastings, you'd be underestimating my love of gin. I'm genetically predisposed to this thirst. My grandmother was a bartender famous for her gin martinis. She passed that juniper-mutated DNA to my mother. My mother passed it to me. If had to choose between gin and whisky it wouldn't even be close. I will always choose drinking over sipping, which is part of the reason I love the new gin renaissance we're currently living in. As my colleague Gary Westby always says to me: "I have plenty of open whisky bottles at home. I have very few open bottles of gin." His point being that the gin gets drunk once it's been opened. It doesn't sit there for years as he slowly decides which bottle to pour from every once and a while. Before Stuart Gregor left the Donato gin and tonic party Friday night he handed me a box, within which were several other gins Four Pillars had created that were either seasonal or one-off editions. I've been tasting them all day, eagerly anticipating the unique flavors of each one while peeling back the seal. Like I've written before, Four Pillars only makes gin. But they make a lot of gin.

I have mixed feelings about today's incredibly cluttered alcohol market (see my two part piece on saturation here). When it comes to whisky, I'm not a fan of the current fascination for limited edition expressions. What was meant to add enjoyment and build loyalty towards the market's core brands has now become the sole focus. The exception has become the rule. But in the case of expensive whisky part of the problem has to do with the actual consumption. I don't think many folks are actually drinking their boutique whisky anymore. They're securing limited allocations, hoarding their acquisitions, and treating the bottles like comic book collections. The scarcity and potential value of the edition is almost more important than the flavor. In the case of craft beer, however, I'm less worried. Beer will eventually get drunk because it won't keep like whisky. Seasonal and single batches may be sensationalized, but at least they'll be consumed in a relatively high volume. Gin, to me, is no different. If I were really in the mood, I could probably clean out a bottle of gin over the course of a weekend by myself. If I'm with friends, then within a single evening—no doubt. I'm in constant need of more gin. Personally, I need another bottle of whisky like I need a hole in my head. I already have dozens of bottles that are three-quarters full. The last thing I need is another expensive limited edition weighing down my overcrowded bar. I need interesting spirits that I will consume quickly. That's what the expanded market for gin and beer have in common: rapid consumption.

So while Four Pillars is currently only releasing their Rare Dry (which is easily the best one, so don't fret) and Navy Strength editions to the American public, they are indeed capable of much, much more, as is evident from my patio table. Each label gives you a description of the edition as well, complete with batch numbers, the name of which of the two stills it was created on, and the breakdown of botanicals. In another nod to the craft beer movement, they even have a collaborative gin—the "Distiller's Series: Cousin Vera's gin—made in conjunction with Santamanía distillery in Madrid. It uses both Spanish and Australian botanicals and a base of neutral brandy base distilled from Spanish tempranillo. They have a Spiced Negroni gin from their "Bartender Series" made specifically for that one single cocktail. They have another "Bartender Series" gin created exclusively for Quantas Air that uses green Szechuan, quandong, macadamia nuts, and apples. Again, Four Pillars is not making vodka. They're not making whisky. They're not trying to find themselves or pander to the many desires of the public. They make gin. Really good gin. I love gin. Hence, I love Four Pillars.

So I'm sitting on the patio. I've got the paper. I've got tonic. I've got seven different bottles of gin to play with. They'll all be empty before June is over and then I'll be back for more. Gin is meant to be drunk. It's meant to be consumed cold, quickly, and in high volumes. It's for that reason that I'm always in search of more gin. What I'm currently not interested in are gins being made by distilleries who really want to make whisky, but need something to sell in the meantime. What I am interested in are people who want to do one thing and do that one thing really well. Whether it's making wooden spoons, patent leather shoes, or gin, I believe in expertise. I believe in utilizing that expertise to make something really great—something beyond simply passable. I also believe that expertise should be the main focus of your portfolio.

In the case of Four Pillars, the Rare Dry gin is the star. The one you can get. The one that anyone can buy whenever they want. The exceptions are a fun and interesting supplement for people like me who want more, but they are not the rule.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jun042016

Stuart the Beast

Stuart Gregor reminds me of what the booze business used to be like. That's probably why I like him so much. He's high-energy, outgoing, fun, and in no way does he take himself seriously. He's here to drink, talk about drinking, and hopefully get you drunk; all while slyly educating you about what makes his gin taste so damn good. Contrast that with what the insider scene has become: a look-at-me kinda clusterfuck that focuses more on showcasing your collection online than it does the actual enjoyment of alcohol. Thank God for those of us who do like to drink that there's absolutely zero posturing to be done when it comes to these gins. What's the story behind Four Pillars gin? There isn't one. It's a distillery started by three friends in Australia that makes fine spirits. None of their recipes were based off a hidden manuscript discovered in Bethlehem. The gins weren't run through Pappy Van Winkle's original pot still. The only thing there is to talk about when it comes to Four Pillars is the quality of the outstanding flavor. Do you remember flavor? That thing everyone claims they're really about when it comes to alcohol? 

Stuart came into our San Francisco store last night, commanded the tasting bar, sold five cases of his gin to happy customers (a K&L spirits tasting record), and then drove an hour in traffic down to Redwood City where he and I commanded the outside bar at Donato. We made hundreds of gin and tonics from 8 PM until close, enjoying the warm summer evening with customers of both Donato and K&L alike. There were about forty people there at any given time—never too many, never too few. It was just right. Stuart took over the patio like a madman and began cranking out Rare Dry cocktails to anyone within earshot. "Hey you," he would shout at passersby with his strong Aussie accent, "get over here and have a drink!" We had zero pretense in the house last night. But, of course, that's the beauty of celebrating a brand like Four Pillars. It brings out the people who actually want to drink and have fun; and let me tell you: drinking with Stuart is loads of fun.

More than ever at any time during my seven year career as K&L spirits buyer I'm feeling the need to stand up and support brands that have committed themselves to quality, even if it means taking a loss. Being profitable in the new age of distillation isn't easy. Imagine the overhead of a new start-up today just with real estate prices where they are! I think about how much time and energy the guys at Westland put into that whisky distillery in Seattle, about how they obsessed over every detail, invested in the right cooperage, and even established their own peat bogs outside the city. I think about my friend Joe over at Copper & Kings who's trying to build a new movement in an old part of Louisville, investing in a community and working to make it better. I think about how gracious Stuart was yesterday with our customers, how excited he was to share his passion with them, and how excited people were to speak with him in return. Then I contrast that with the $500 bottle of NDP Bourbon that some company purchased on the bulk market, repackaged, put into a fancy box, and hyped up on the market. I think about how many grown men I've watched scream and cry and throw hissy fits over some minor detail of neo-whiskey pageantry. I think about how so many wonderful things in life have become completely detached their designed function. 

I think about all of those things and then I smile. I smile because I know that I spent fourteen hard hours yesterday working my ass off to support a brand that deserves that help. I hope it pays off. I really do. Stuart Gregor is a beast of booze man. I'm proud to be working with him.

-David Driscoll