D2D Interview: The Houston Brothers

Of the seventeen D2D interviews I've already conducted—a pretty eclectic list of intriguing personalities—I'm most excited for all of you to read this one. If you're like me and you think the American food and wine scene is beginning to take itself a bit too seriously, with trendy bars and restaurants that are trying to impress you rather than take care of you, I present to you now the antidote to that poisonous posturing. You may remember Mark and Jonnie Houston from a little exposé I did on their Hollywood empire this past August—an inspiring romp through some of the most creative and imaginative bars I've ever visited. Now I'm back hanging with the twins once again, this time giving them the chance to explain their incredible hospitality experiences in their own words. I can't say enough about how much I love these two guys and how drawn I am to their general philosophy as it pertains to the perfect drinking environment. The Houston brothers have created nine thematic destination spots—each with its own sense of place—that are as concerned with atmosphere, energy, and showmanship as they are with presenting you with a great libation. The only thing intimidating about them is that they seem to do everything extremely well.

I'm hardly the first person to feel this way, either. When you walk into their iconic 1970s-era house party of a bar, Good Times at Davey Wayne's, you can feel the energy in the crowd—even on a Wednesday weeknight. There are no snooty bartenders with stoic, solitary stares of pure contempt. There is no pretense, nor is there even the slightest bit of self-aggrandizement. All you'll find is a crowd of people having a great time, possibly drinking alcohol out of snowcones, with one or both of the Houston brothers right smack in the middle of it, leading the charge towards that good time they promised you. And don't think they're ready to stop now. These two dynamic entrepreneurs are just getting started, and I for one cannot wait to see where they go next.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink we talk putting the fun back into the bar scene, the ever increasing standards of cocktail quality, and how ultimately you need a bit of magic to make everything come together perfectly. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of the blog. 

David: So when I was down visiting your spots in LA a few weeks ago, Mark told me about an encounter he had in college with a professor who told him there was no better education in business than to simply go out there and do it. Which is exactly what you guys did. You guys dropped out of school and created a bar and restaurant empire in Hollywood.

Jonnie: Right, but when we first dropped out we went into the cell phone business. That was the big thing at the time. Mark did speak to a professor who told him, “If you want to get into business, then just do it,” and it proved true. It worked for us, and that’s when Mark and I first started working together closely. Even though we would have our differences, and argue like brothers do, it turned out to be the best working relationship that either of us had had. We did have other jobs prior to this, but none of them ever felt organic. 

David: So you eventually decide to jump into hospitality.

Jonnie: Jumping into the hospitality business—having grown up in LA—wasn’t really for us at first because everything we were exposed to at the time just wasn’t appealing. You had these huge night clubs with flashy lights and super rich guys posturing for position. It was so showy. Either that, or you’d go to a dive bar—and I appreciate dive bars—but you can’t really take your girlfriend there for a night out without having some guy hit on her, or worrying about a fight breaking out. It felt like there weren’t any comfortable places where you could meet interesting people and have a conversation. 

David: And you guys looked to remedy that?

Jonnie: Just creating a safe environment for people to get together and hopefully make new friends was something we wanted to do—to create an extension of our living room or a dinner party. Without having to do all the clean-up at the end of the night (laughs).

David: When did this idea actually become a reality? 

Jonnie: It came to a reality by us just falling into it. I had a cell phone store next door to the place that would become our first bar and the spot became available. It just felt right. It was perfect timing. Mark and I grew up in the bar business. Our mom was a bartender. Our dad was a barfly. We grew up around restaurants. We peeled shrimp for our aunt’s Thai restaurant and passed out fliers on the street, door to door, as children. We were always around hospitality and—truthfully—I don’t think either of us longed to get into the bar business. We had a different idea of what it was. We hardly saw our parents, my mom would work late nights and when she got back she was always tired. My dad went out almost every night, so in a way it kinda put a bad taste in our mouths. It wasn’t until we started doing our own stuff and saw the potential to create a different environment that we decided to get into it—a place where you could go and didn’t even have to drink really. You could simply socialize and have an experience. That was the impression we wanted to leave in the minds of people. 

David: So the first bar is the Piano Bar. This is the spot you decide to start out with.

Jonnie: When we walked into the available space we realized it was an old, run-down gay bar. I won’t go into all the details, but it was like a male meat market (laughs). We could see the potential of the location, however. That’s one thing I think Mark and I do well—envisioning the process of creation and coming up with a plan. The main thing that we wanted to create there was a safe environment for live music where you could hear a piano player while relaxing and having a good time. That was the inspiration. It has a New Orleans type of a feel with gas lamps and brick walls, along with great jazz musicians who play there on Wednesdays and Fridays. Great piano players, too. This is a place where you can come with friends, see a show, and not pay a cover fee. Unlike the Roxie and Whisky-a-Go-Go, for example. This was a casual setting where an artist could just pick up a guitar, play for everyone, and feel comfortable,

David: That sounds amazing, especially as I continue to grow tired of the pretentious live music scene as it pertains to bars and clubs.

Jonnie: What evolved from that was incredible. A lot of artists who would play at the Hotel Cafe nearby, they would play their big shows, then afterward walk over to the Piano Bar and just jump on stage and play there as well. Everybody from guys like Craig Robinson—I don’t know if you know him from the movie Hot Tub Time Machine.

David: I love Craig Robinson. He had the all-time best cameo ever on Reno 911 where he plays the keyboard and sings for the Sheriff’s Department commercial.

Jonnie: Well, he’s a good friend and he loves singing and performing. He’s jumped on the piano on many a night. He does it just for fun, just for the enjoyment. There’s a list of other celebrities too who have also just spontaneously performed. It’s those impromptu moments, those memories that are created, that really inspire us to keep to doing what we do.

David: Plus, that’s just pure word-of-mouth buzz. If I’m sitting at a bar and I see some celebrity just hanging out with the crowd, performing on stage just out of the blue, I’m thinking that’s a pretty cool place to be. That’s a place I want to be as often as possible. 

Jonnie:: It is cool! We don’t really publicize it though and I think that’s why a lot of these people feel comfortable doing it. They know it’s not going to end up on TMZ or some other celebrity rag.

David: So you guys ride the success of the spontaneous happenings at the Piano Bar into your next project: La Descarga. Mark, why don’t you jump in and talk about how the thematic elements came into play. You’ve got a very specific Cuban-inspired theme with a unique Speakeasy-style entrance.

Mark: La Descarga really marked a change in how we looked at night life, with me having gone and traveled to the Caribbean, to restaurants in New York and San Francisco, where cocktail cultures were really getting started. This is about six or seven years ago. We wanted to create our own cocktail program, infuse it with live entertainment, and create something that was more of an experience rather than just a bar. We liked the idea of a space where you couldn’t pin-point exactly what it is. It’s not a nightclub, but it feels like it because you’re dancing, you’re getting sweaty, and you’re having a great time. It’s not a cocktail bar because it’s not necessarily mellow and chill. And it’s not a theater or a stage where you sit down for an hour and then leave when the show's over. It’s all of these things mashed up, so it took a lot of planning to try and figure out how this was all going to work. But it was kind of like magic, too. 

David: In the way it all magically came together?

Mark: Yes. You can’t always plan certain things, they just happen, and for Los Angeles it really set the tone for a new way of going out. We did a reservation process, which was totally unheard of for a bar. You actually had to plan it out, and when you do that—that’s a date! You’re taking someone out on a date for a specific experience. Reservation for two, 8 PM. I think adding a dress code also issued a new statement because—as you know—LA is pretty relaxed when it comes to going out. These things created an experience and experiences would happen because of it. We had the Piano Bar where the guys from ZZ Top might jump on stage and play for everyone. Then we’re doing this Latin-themed bar where Andy Garcia might drop in, or the Buena Vista Social Club. As a culture I think we like to travel because we want to have new experiences, but not all of us can travel year-round. We wanted to mimic that same sense of inspiration that you might get by taking a journey. 

David: In a sense, you were bringing your experiences from traveling back home for others to enjoy.

Mark: Right, I would travel and then experience something and think, “I want to bring this back to LA.” I met this girl once who was really into cigars and it was the sexiest thing, but then I went back home and went out to a cigar lounge, and it was so….scuzzy. It was like a typical gentleman’s club. I looked around the room and thought, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” The environment was not the vibe I was looking for, so I thought we could create a better version. A place where guys and girls could go and feel comfortable, where you could also dance, and there was fun going on all around you, I thought that was the direction. So we have a cigar lounge at La Descarga and we have people of all types, of all ages, coming in to enjoy the atmosphere. 

David: And how has La Descarga gone over with the industry do you think? I thought the live salsa dancing was incredible when I visited.

Mark: Quite well. We were nominated a few different times at Tales of the Cocktail. It really resonated with the cocktail culture and the industry. This was our first attempt to incorporate live dance into the routine and since then it’s been—not really a formula or an approach—but it definitely has some role in every venue that we’ve created since. We continue to want to create venues that have an outlet for professional dancers who are open to dancing in our locations, creating an experience for the guests.

David: What you guys have been able to accomplish is simply awe-inspiring. To hear you say that you’re traveling around the world, collecting experiences, and bringing them home—that’s what I do as a buyer for K&L. Except that I do it merely with bottles. These are actual objects that I put on a boat, have them shipped, and then give to people. That’s easy. But you guys are bringing concepts, theories, and experiences—they’re ideas that are somewhat opaque. You then have to get home and turn those ideas into something clear and visible. It’s much more difficult, in my opinion.

Jonnie: I think you’re right when you say that what you do is similar. When you bring that special wine or spirit back from your trip, and you pour it at a dinner party, and everyone get’s that little taste of a country or whatever you were inspired by, we do that same thing. We like to incorporate spirits that correspond to these themes. With La Descarga it was Cuba and we wanted to bring in Havana Club rum—secretly we did in the back room. You want to create that complete experience down to the beverages themselves. 

David: That bar is one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever been to—just in the aesthetics of the interior. You walk in and you think, “Wow, this is beautiful.” Then a salsa band shows up and starts playing music on a balcony over your head, and people start dancing on top of the bar. You talk to the bartender and he’s super friendly. He makes you a great drink while maintaining a kind demeanor. I mean, what more can you ask for? You guys have every aspect of this covered. Most other places would be happy to have one of these elements, but you have all of them!

Mark: I wish I could say we planned it like that, but it was really just magic. It was just something that happened. Believe me, there was some fear and a few doubts. Even my brother wasn't sure about the dancers, but it worked out.

Jonnie: Yeah, Mark was definitely more into the entertainment and creating an experience with that entertainment. At first I was skeptical. These are burlesque dancers doing salsa. I wasn’t sure how people would take it. But it was magic, and in doing La Descarga we really found our formula. Every day we’re perfecting that formula. There’s a misconception out there where people think, “If I can do great cocktails then I’ve got a great bar.” I think people are getting more savvy, however, and the customers’ eyes have been opened to so much more. People want more now. I remember back in the day when you could open up a bar and just put a pool table in the middle of it, and it would be packed. 

David: Ha! (laughs)

Jonnie: People now are like, “Well……maybe I’ll walk over there for a 5 o’ clock beer,” but they’re hungry for something more at this point, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. People expect more, and it makes our job that much harder. We’re always thinking of something better, trying to do something more creative, but it’s tough! Following our instincts and traveling to experience different cultures really inspires us. But I think if your inspiration comes from a real place—from somewhere in your heart—and you follow that, it’s possible to come up with something unique and special.

David: So speaking of inspiration close to your heart, let’s talk about the beginnings of Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. You guys are now successful bar owners, you’ve got two clubs under your belt, and you decide to create a bar in tribute to your late father.

Jonnie: To be clear, when we originally planned the project and took over the space our dad was still around. We were actually going with a different concept, but then he passed away and we put the project on hold for a bit. Until you lose one of your parents you really don’t know how it feels, and I think it affected us greatly. At that point, being in the space, it seemed like a natural idea to dedicate that place to him and his memory—to create a piece of our childhood, to make it reminiscent of our living room growing up. Every little detail that we did there—like the coffee mugs, for example—are from our past. Every morning our dad would have his coffee—so he said—but it was really a beer or a mixed drink and he put it in a mug so that he could hide it from us. But we caught wind of that after a while. So because of that we serve our beers in coffee mugs that say “Number One Dad” on the side. The garage entrance is an homage to all the great times we spent in the garage with our dad working on cars or building stuff. Mark and I learned all our skills there, from framing to dry wall, our dad showed us the way and taught us how to do stuff. You don’t realize how important those moments are until you lose them. All the little nuances and lessons your parents teach you that you don’t get at the time. You think, “Why are you making me do this chore?” but it becomes clear later. You remember those moments and you put them into practice later. Dedicating a bar to his memory seemed like the obvious thing to do at that point.

David: The first time I went to Davey Wayne’s was about a year and a half ago and I was absolutely blown away. My jaw was on the ground after leaving there. I came back up here and I told everyone I knew about that place, but the San Francisco scene is so different. Everyone is so fixated on being taken seriously, and in order to be taken seriously you have to show that you’re serious about what you’re doing. I would tell my bartender friends, “No, the cocktails were actually really good!” I had to make them understand that you could have great drinks—every bit as good as what SF is doing—but combined with a thematic experience that was extraordinary. Why couldn’t we do both?

Jonnie: I think that’s the mold that we broke. At this point in the cocktail culture of our modern age, there should be nowhere where you go and have a bad drink. You should be able to go anywhere, get an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour, and have it made properly. It’s ridiculous to not be able to. But why can’t you have fun while doing it? Why do you have to sit down, be quiet, and be told the twenty rules about what you can’t do? Why can’t you drink a cocktail and have fun? Is it illegal? So I think cocktail culture needed to evolve—and still needs to. And I agree with you—San Francisco wants to be taken seriously, and there’s a place for that. However, I think you can be serious and have fun.

David: My question is: who doesn’t want to have fun? Isn’t that why we’re drinking in the first place? 

Mark: I think there can be different bars, created for the type of environment that you feel like being in. I think our approach is just something unique and different, where we’ve filled a void with something that was lacking. I don’t want to wait in line at some mega night club with three thousand people, and I also don’t want to go to some dive bar and drink stale beer. I want to go somewhere comfortable, clean, and safe, but maybe with a bit of entertainment. We wanted to give Angelinos something they were lacking. Something inspired from our passion and our own enjoyment. One example is the Speakeasy-style entrance at La Descarga, where we’ve turned that into something more playful and fun. Or like Break Room 86 with the vending machine that you walk through. It doesn’t always have to be a door with a little window that opens up sideways and a guy asking you for the secret password. It doesn’t have to be so literal. This isn’t the 1920s. We’re not actually in the Prohibition era. We’re in a new age where we can re-imagine what exactly a Speakeasy is. We’re having a good time without taking away from the quality of the drinks. People expect fresh squeezed juices, great sweetners and syrups, home-made bitters and whatnot, but we don’t base our bars strictly on the quality of the cocktails. 

David: Quality isn’t just about drinks when you go out. I have to say that—of all the Houston brothers bars I visited—the one I’m most excited about going back to is Dirty Laundry, which was the least thematic of the bunch. The reason being the small, club-like room in the back where the house band plays. The band that played when I was there was absolutely amazing. It was new-wave, upbeat, interesting, and catchy. There were only about forty people in the room, you could see the show without struggling, the visuals and lights were fantastic, and it felt like something real was going on in there. My wife and I looked at each other—you know that look when you both widen your eyes and give that expression that intuitively says, "Jesus, this is amazing". We were really impressed.

Jonnie: It reminds me of the Cavern in Liverpool. I think a lot of people gravitate towards that room because there’s a raw energy in there that you can’t explain, but it feels electric. I agree completely.

David: I feel like the third Houston brother being around you both. When I listen to you guys talk I get this energy in my legs and it slowly starts making its way to my head. We’re so similar in the ways that we think and with what motivates us, except you guys are like four steps ahead of me. And I’m used to being four steps ahead of everyone else! 

Mark: I think everyone inspires each other and we create. That’s what sparks innovation. I think that’s the beauty of working with my brother. I wouldn’t want to say we challenge each other, but we’re definitely open and honest with our feedback, and that helps us elevate and enhance the experience we’re trying to convey. The best thing about all of this—all these things that we’re building—is that i get to do it with my brother. It’s not work when you look at it like that—it’s fun. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work that goes into this, but I really enjoy it. 

-David Driscoll


Follow Greg St. Clair Live in Italy

Sure, I might be grounded here in Redwood City, but that doesn't mean you can't follow one of our other buyer's travelogues. I'm helping Italian wine legend Greg St. Clair—the Mayor of Montalcino—organize his photos and thoughts into a nice little series of blog posts. You can follow his adventures starting here on the K&L wine blog. I think we're up to Part IV by now!

-David Driscoll


Tanqueray's Bloomsbury Arrives

I think we sold enough of Tanqueray's limited edition Malacca gin to supply a small army, but last year's special Old Tom release didn't seem to go over as well. I'm happy to report, however, that Tanqueray has returned to form with this year's Bloomsbury release: an homage to Charles Waugh Tanqueray, the son of founder Charles Tanqueray, and his recipe for gin dating back to the 1880s, when the distillery was located in Bloomsbury, London. Using a heavy juniper berry formula, along with coriander, angelica, winter savoury and cassia bark, the result is a delicately fragrant spirit with a lovely balance of flavor. The juniper is front and center giving the Bloomsbury a classic London Dry profile, but it's soft and graceful on the palate, elegant enough to stand on its own, but begging for a splash of vermouth and a dash of bitters. Presented in a liter bottle with a gorgeous throwback label, it should be the highlight of your home bar this season. The kicker is the 47.3% ABV, boosted just enough to mix like a dream into your favorite cocktail.

Tanqueray Limited Edition Bloomsbury Gin 1L $31.99

-David Driscoll


Catching Up With Mickey Heads

We've got the Ardbeg Space Train rolling into the Redwood City parking lot tomorrow if you want to get come check out the festivities. There will be a trailer parked out back that has a new exhibit about the Ardbeg space-aged whisky and most likely some free schwag. They’re going to open it up at about 4 PM, so come check out the excitement if you’re in the neighborhood. Seeing that we’ll be celebrating Ardbeg this week, I thought I’d check in with my old friend Mickey Heads—the distillery manager for the company—for a piece we're calling: "Catching Up With Mickey Heads".

David: So tell me what’s been happening around the distillery with the big 200th anniversary this year?

Mickey: We’ve had a busy year. There’s been a lot of investment in the distillery. We had a big celebration for Ardbeg Day, which was probably the busiest one we’ve ever had. People were coming over in large numbers—bearing in mind that many people have been planning to come visit for the last four or five years, and decided this would be the time to do it. If I had to guess how many exactly I would reckon a couple of thousand, plus.

David: Oh wow. 

Mickey: It’s such a big open space we have here. We just asked people to just come along and join in on the fun. We don’t really count numbers at the gate, if you know what I mean.

David: How does that work with the ferry during the Feis Ile Festival? Do they run extra boats to get all those people over?

Mickey: The ferry is pretty busy that whole time. Some people arrive and stay for the whole week, and some will stay for either the first or second half, depending on what they want to do. Ardbeg Day is always the last day, however, so a lot of people want to stay until the end. There are extra ferries going as well.

David: Are there even 1,000 guest rooms available on Islay? I can only picture about a hundred or so.

Mickey: I think we’ve got about 1200 beds in total, but a lot of people come over in campers or mobile homes and make their own place to stay. We had a good day this year. We’re also doing some bicentennial dinners—this Saturday we’re going another one—and we have people come over for that. We’ve been calling them “Bring Back Your Own Bottle”, so if you’ve got a favorite bottle of Ardbeg you can bring it back to the distillery and have a dram with people, chat about it, relax. It’s quite a nice thing to do.

David: How have things changed at the distillery in the face of all this demand? Has it become more hectic with the extra interest in all things Ardbeg?

Mickey: We upped the production about two or three years ago and took on some new people. If you think back to the late 90s when we started with six people, we’ve now got eighteen of us working in the distillery directly—including myself and Janie in the office. Then we’ve got ten guys in the process and another six looking after casks and putting the whiskies together, so we’ve got quite a number of people now. The production has stepped up—we run 24/7 now—so we’ve got a new process to help make a little bit more. This is the highest production we’ve ever done this year—we’re up over 1.2 million liters. We’re hoping to get it up a little more as we had to shut down longer than planned this year to install new equipment. We’ve also refurbished the site a bit. We’ve got new car parks and we’ve revitalized all the stone walls along the entrance walkway. There’s a nice area now for pedestrians that’s separated from the car park without the larger vehicles in their way.

David: How has the island responded to the growth in popularity—with both single malt whisky and Islay whisky particularly?

Mickey: I think in a positive way. The whole island’s had a boost, you know? Farming is of course one of the biggest industries we have, but now it’s tourism as well—all the bed and breakfasts, hotels, self-catering locations, and all that. There are more people coming in all the time. The distillery was very busy today with tours and people eating in the cafe—this is the middle of September—so I think the visitor season is getting longer. We’re busy from March through to October now, which is great.

David: We’ve got our own Ardbeg tourism industry coming tomorrow to the Redwood City store. Have you seen the new space trailer yet?

Mickey: No, I haven’t, but I’ve heard all about it. 

David: At some point tomorrow afternoon it will pull into the parking lot behind the store and set up camp. It’s got the space-aged whisky inside, I believe. What’s the plan for that whisky, do you think? Are they going to auction it off at some point?

Mickey: The amount they have is quite small—something like twelve vials of it that went up there. I think it’s all traveling around at the moment, but hopefully we’ll get some back here eventually. I was lucky enough to see Bill (Lumsden) when he was opening some of them up in the lab, so that was quite interesting to see that liquid come out and go into a bottle. 

David: I love that Ardbeg can still embrace the imaginative and fun-based side of marketing without ever sacrificing quality. It’s not really about drinking the space whisky as much as it is about simply doing something crazy—outside the box—in the name of exploration, right?

Mickey: I know we do things a little bit quirky….

David: Which I really enjoy….

Mickey: …but we’ve always been known for the quality of the whisky. As you know, I work alongside with Bill and quality is always at the top of his priorities. What’s the feedback been so far with the Supernova?

David: Fantastic, of course. That’s why you guys can get away with doing all this wacky stuff. It’s because ultimately everything you make is so good. The marketing never comes at the expense of flavor as it often does with other big brand companies. And it hasn’t raised the prices either. I think the consistency in quality and price in expressions like the Uigeadail are more important to customers ultimately. 

Mickey: There’s been a large demand for new special releases like the Alligator—one of my favorites—and the Ardbog. Going forward, there’s been a gradual increase in production, but we can’t just go and put more new whiskies out there. We’re still planning for down the line. We’re laying down whisky now for the next ten or twenty years, which should help to create more exciting projects down the line. 

David: Has your job become more stressful and challenging due to the increased demand?

Mickey: I enjoy every minute of it. I think it’s great for the place. Way back when I started—I’m going on thirty-six years here and can remember Ardbeg in the late 80s and the 90s—I worked at Laphroaig and we owned both sites, so I was going up and down between the two places. I remember Ardbeg when it was pretty much on its knees. Obviously back then it was a different time. There wasn’t the same level of popularity with single malt. But now the Islay style has grown in popularity, over the last twenty-five years, so to see it as it is now….I just really love the job. 

David: Just makin’ whisky, day in and day out.

Mickey: The production is what I do; the whisky making. Just trying to ensure that everything is as good as it can be. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. I don’t ever get fed up coming to work. Seeing other people loving what we do, I never dreamed we’d be where we are now ten years ago. 

David: You’re kind of like a celebrity chef, never thinking he’d have his own TV show when he got started.

Mickey: I don’t think I’ve ever signed as many whisky bottles in my life as I have this year! (laughs). I never thought I’d be doing that.

David: Who knew the drinks business would create its own cult of the celebrity? But that goes back to people enjoying what you do, Mickey.

Mickey: It’s part of telling the story. People are coming from all over the world to see what we do here. I think coming to Islay and getting a feeling for the place is really important. You get the atmosphere, you talk to the people who work here, and it all really comes together. I live basically 200 meters from where I’m sitting at the moment, and I look out over the Mull of Kintyre and the Atlantic. It changes every day, but I never get tired of it. 

David: So you obviously can’t be here tomorrow to greet all the Ardbeg lovers who will come to view the space exhibit, but what would you tell them about the space project if you could?

Mickey: Just enjoy the experience and see how things change. The project is about finding out what happens when you travel to different places—you see how things develop, how they change, and you’re trying to learn more about why they do. That’s the message behind it. It creates a bit of excitement, I think. The learning excites me. Seeing what can happen.

David: You guys are always pushing the boundaries over at Ardbeg—figuratively and literally.

Mickey: Hopefully we can keep going.

David: Boldly going…where no man has gone before?

Mickey: Well…keep doing what people enjoy. Hopefully in twenty years time people will say it’s as good as it ever was.

-David Driscoll


Why Burgundy?

OK. So you've heard me talk a lot about Burgundy lately—in Paris, while hanging out in my hotel room; actually over the past few years, here and there as time permits, even though this is supposed to be a spirits blog. I know some of you are curious as a result. I know this because I get emails from readers every day, asking what in my opinion would be a good Burgundy to explore; just something to help them understand what all the fuss is about. That's a tough task, however, because—the truth is—it's not simply the taste of Burgundy that draws you in. It's everything. It's the history, the mystique, the untouched expression of place, and the dedication to a completely different philosophy of winemaking than most of the world. That's what draws you in. Sure—it's all just pinot noir and chardonnay; two grapes you can find in California, New Zealand, and most wine-making regions of the world. But the problem is: the wines from those places are not Burgundy. They're not the original. They're not nearly as storied or ancient. There's a thousand years of history behind the vineyards in Burgundy, dating back to the Cisterian monks who planted many of them in the first century of the last millenium. Some of these vineyards were famous long before we even knew what California or New Zealand were. The more you think about that, the more you start wanting to know more about it. 

Did you know that winemakers in Burgundy are called vignerons? There's nothing related to the actual practice of "wine-making" in that term because in Burgundy you don't make the wine. The vineyard makes the wine, and God made the earth, so the expressions are considered divine in origin. One simply cares for the vines in the vineyard—hence, they're called vignerons. Plots within a vineyard are called climats, which literally means exactly what it looks like: climate. The terroir in Burgundy—the combination of weather, soil, and place—changes drastically from vineyard to vineyard, so it's no surprise they use that term. On one hill you could have a vineyard known for making $1000 bottles of wine of supreme elegance. Immediately next to it, a standard village-grade vineyard that makes daily-drinkers. That type of intimate variance blows my mind—that just those little things can make such a difference. The extra bit of sun exposure. The gust of breeze that helps prevent rot. The slight elevation that promotes drainage. All of these tiny things matter in Burgundy and they make the difference between Grand Cru grandeur and standard swill. There are books dedicated to their comprehension; terrifying tomes of esoteric plonk that would bore the hell out of most people. It's this dedication to a pureness of expression, however, that prevents the Burgundians from blending their vineyard wines together in the name of flavor. They want singularity of place. God's will is what it is and it's their job to honor that. They're just along for the ride.

Americans like me hear this type of talk and get absolutely romantic. We long for a thousand years of any kind of tradition; let alone a millennium of glorious wine spirituality. Did you know that when the monks planted many of these vineyards originally they actually tasted the earth? They literally put the dirt in their mouths and analyzed the flavors because they knew there was a connection between great earth and great wine. What's crazy is that there was a study done a while back to see if the actual science of the soil backed up their decisions. It did, of course. Those monks knew their stuff without any of the technology we now have today. Like anything great however (Pappy, Pliny...cough, cough), the word will always get out. When the wealthy landowners realized that the monks had all the good shit, they decided to tax the hell out of their vineyards. "We can't afford the land if you tax it," said the monks. "Yeah....we know," said the aristocracy. For centuries after that these vineyards would be collected and cultivated by serious connoisseurs of the elite, even the cousin of Louis XV—the Prince of Conti—who lusted after the famed Romanée vineyard (which even then was known as the best vineyard in the world) wanted in on the action; eventually purchasing the land and instantly pulling the wines from general availability. He would drink it all himself, occasionally sharing it with his guests. Like—you know—Mozart. (Read Maximillian Potter's Shadows in the Vineyard for an exciting romp through Burgundy, told through the theme of an eco-terrorist plot)

And still today in 2015 all of that intrigue and romanticism continues to run wild. We long to know: what is it exactly that makes people go crazy for this stuff? Is it really that complicated? It is and it isn't. It's not complicated when a pureness of red fruit explodes on your tongue like nothing you've ever tasted before. That's not complicated in the slightest. There's also nothing complicated about the way a great white wine glides over your tongue, simultaneously evoking a minerality and a salinity derived from the remnants of the ancient sea that once covered the region. That's obvious, instantaneous understanding. But what exactly makes it taste that way? that's something else entirely. 

Understanding the nuances of Burgundy requires a lifetime of study. That's what gets my head spinning. That's what keeps me coming back for more. It's such an adventure.

-David Driscoll