The Volume Game

I got a surprising amount of emails yesterday about volume and how it affects spirits (based off the previous post), so I figured I'd go over a few examples here today. Let's talk about single malt Scotch whisky and Cognac, since both are pot-distilled and are therefore more difficult to produce in volume than say Bourbon because you have to distill in batches versus a continuous column. I'm also going to throw in Champagne because they're all technically related.

Perhaps you've heard of the term "house" (or "maison") when it comes to alcohol. Remy is a Cognac "house." Louis Roederer is a Champagne "house." Chivas Regal is a Scotch blending "house." When a producer is referred to as a "house" it usually implies that they're purchasing and collecting stocks, rather than producing their own supply (although they may do both). A "house" is simply a brand or a company that cannot create enough volume on its own to supply its demand, hence the need to contract (in that vein, we could call new-wave American whiskey producers like High West or Whistle Pig "houses" because they're doing the same thing with Bourbon and rye). Usually a "house" specializes in blending and creating what's known as a "house style." Blending (as you know) is an art, but it's also a strategy. The goal is consistency. When you're not in control of your entire production, you're at the mercy of your contracted components. You can only work with the base materials at your disposal. In order to successfully sell a global brand, you need both volume and consistency. Veuve Clicquot needs to taste the same every time, even though the wines will be different each year from vintage to vintage. That's why they make it big.

In the case of Cognac and Champagne, both are made from grapes that have to be grown within a very specific geographical area. Vineyards not planted in either designated zone cannot legally produce grapes for Cognac or Champagne production. In the case of Champagne (I'm not quite as certain in Cognac), the zone is fully planted. There's no more room for expansion. It's maxed out. If you need more juice as a producer, you have only one option: buy grapes from another landowner. That's how labels like Dom Perignon and Perrier Jouët are able to make enough Champagne to sell to every store and restaurant around the world. They contract as much extra fruit as they possibly can. In order to maneuver around the inconsistencies in flavor, style, and quality from these sources, they blend. That's why most Champagnes don't have a vintage date. You'll never know exactly what's in them. What you will come to understand is the house style—the flavor that remains consistent even when the components vary. Cognac works in the exact same way. Sometimes houses like Hennessy and Courvoisier buy grapes, or sometimes they buy distillates. Either way, when you visit their production centers you'll find cellars with stocks that are labeled by producer. An example is the Hennessy warehouse below:

If you can see those little chalkboards that are leaning up against the demijohns in the background, each has the name of the property and the vintage on it. When Hennessy makes a blend, they do so from hundreds of different Cognacs from hundreds of different properties, some of which they own and many of which they do not. Scotch blending houses used to be no different. Before every distillery in Scotland became corporate-owned, blending houses would contract what they needed as they needed it. You could call up Caol Ila and get fifty barrels filled, or phone over to Glenlivet and see if they could get you a hundred hogsheads. While I've heard some of the old contracts are still being honored here and there, most of the people I work with are facing reality. That era is dead. Today Johnnie Walker owns all of its distilleries outright. So does Chivas. So does Famous Grouse. When we go to Scotland and purchase casks, we're usually working with older blending houses that are selling off their stocks and getting out of the business (or building their own distilleries). They had originally contracted those barrels to make blends, but today those casks are more valuable as single entities. 

Our niche at K&L over the years has been to find products produced in smaller volumes and bring them to our market. We look for suppliers who maybe don't have enough volume for the world, but they at least have enough for us. If you click over to On the Trail this week, you'll see that our Champagne buyer Gary Westby is currently in the region visiting producers like this. In both Champagne and Cognac, much like in Scotland, growers often sell their stocks to the bigger houses in conjunction with their own production. To use Caol Ila as an example again, the overwhelming majority of the distillery's production goes into Johnnie Walker, but there's still enough leftover to make the 12 year old edition. The farmers that Gary is visiting are known as grower/producers because they also do both. They might sell 30-60% of their grapes to a large house, but make a small amount of bottles to sell on their own as well. Those are the wines we've come to specialize in: boutique, tightly-controlled, quality-oriented Champagnes from the small producers who use only their own grapes. It's that same model that we took to Cognac where we began working directly with Dudognon, Ragnaud-Sabourin, Bouju, Jacques Esteve, and others. All of these producers sell stock to Hennessy, but they keep enough back to make their own brandy as well. 

Is smaller production inherently better? God, no. Haven't we learned anything from the craft spirits boom of the last few years? Small production doesn't mean anything. What you need is high-quality production of any size combined with careful curation. What usually affects concentration of flavor is the size and volume of the blend (and sometimes even that doesn't matter!). The bigger you are, the less detail-oriented you can be about what you're blending. Remember that when it comes to Scotch, Cognac, and Champagne, there's a limited amount that can be produced. Big companies can't afford to be choosy when they're looking for growth. They're buying anything that can legally be called Scotch, Cognac, or Champagne and hoping to blend away any flaws. The trade off, however, is the price. The larger the scale, the more competitive your costs. The goal for these "houses" is to make the best product they can make, as consistently as possible, for the best possible price. They're looking for the happy medium. When demand goes up, however, these gigantic money-making companies have to choose between running out of supply or selling a lesser product. You can guess which one they usually opt for. What's interesting about Champagne, however, is that unlike with spirits it's actually cheaper to buy stuff from the smaller guys. That's why we have all kinds of Champagnes at K&L that sell for $25-$35 and absolutely destroy things like Veuve Clicquot at $45 (which is why Gary is putting together an order in France right now—we literally sell boat loads of Champagne). 

Our goal has always been to locate and work directly with people who don't care about scaling up their production. That's where the ultimate quality can ultimately be controlled. The blend isn't what matters. Even single malts are blends of numerous barrels. The size of that blend and the commitment to quality over volume is what matters most.

-David Driscoll


Return to Regionality

As many of you know, we’ve been working directly with Douglas Laing for many years now to do our independently-bottled Old Particular casks. What you may not have known is that Douglas Laing was and has always been primarily a blending house and Fred Laing one hell of a blender. In Compass Box style, Fred has put together a series of artisinal blended malts that showcase the regional styles of Scotland. Not only are the whiskies seriously tasty, they’re indicative of an era that is beginning to fade in Scotch whisky. Because Scotland’s focus with modern connoisseurs has shifted to single malts over the last decade and because each producer is now its own brand, the distilleries are less motivated to create one singular style anymore. The corporations have decided they must offer everything to every customer, so as not to lose a sale elsewhere. At this point there are dozens of distilleries that make both light and heavy whiskies, peated and unpeated whiskies, and both sherried and unsherried malts. There was a time, however, when Scotland’s main regions were very specific. Highland’s were lithe and elegant, Speysides were sherried and rich, Lowlands were light and fruity, Islands were salty, and Islay malts were peaty. Back when blending houses were still contracting their whiskies (today they outright own their means of production), they would put together recipes for blends based on these styles. You still find old recipes that say things like: two parts Speyside, one part Lowland, one part Islay, like the one pictured above from Alfred Barnard's old book. It’s from Scotch whisky’s history of blending and from the lessons taught to Fred by his father Douglas that the DL regional malts were born. 

I have to say there is one saving grace for me in the new age of NAS single malt whisky: the recent drop in quality will serve as an important lesson. When I was in the Paris duty free this past week, I just sat there stupified looking at all the junk that's piling up there—five different versions of Talisker that aren't even close to as good as the ten year, eight different Highland Parks that have no explanation other than some mythical Viking nonsense, that type of stuff. There's a reason K&L switched over to a single malt specialty store about fifteen years ago. It WASN'T because single malts are inherently better than blends, but rather because the blends had become too big for their own good. Single malts aren't better whiskies than blended whiskies, in my opinion; it's just that for years they were made in smaller batches. Quality with anything comes from tight-knit control. The more you expand, the less you can provide that same level of attention. I'm prime example number one. When my job at K&L was solely to buy spirits, I was putting on tastings, dinners, and educational events non-stop and I was in the store all the time talking to people about booze. Now that I'm managing ten different buyers, putting together marketing emails, working on outside projects, and working heavily with Bordeaux/Burgundy, I no longer am capable of giving whisky customers the same level of attention as previously. That's a fact.

It's the volume game that put blended Scotch in the toilet, not something inherent in the whiskies themselves. The same phenomena is going to happen to a number of fine single malt brands very soon and then the proof will be in the pudding. If you're someone who thinks that blends are inferior to straight single malts because there's something purer or higher in quality about one whisky from one distillery, I present to you the whiskies below. Not only are they better than many of the fifty to sixty dollar single malts we currently carry, they're a lot more fun. I really have to hand it to Fred and the team over at Douglas Laing. This is exactly what Scotch whisky needs right now: small batch, meticulously-blended expressions that prove to the public Scotch whisky is more like Voltron than the Transformers (Google it if that reference is lost on you). The Epicurean, for me, was like a potent blast of fresh Scotch fruitiness of a style I haven't tasted in years. Bravo.

Douglas Laing's Epicurean Lowland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $46.99 - Our friends at Douglas Laing in Glasgow, with whom we do the Old Particular bottlings, have put together a series of regional malt blends that wonderfully showcase the stylistic flavor profiles of Scotlands main whisky producing sectors. Not only are the whiskies accurate reflections of a dying era in Scotch whisky production, they're some of the tastiest and most enjoyable whiskies we've discovered in ages. The Epicurean is the "Lowland" expression that absolutely brims with fresh fruit, sweet barley, and hard candy. It's a barley-rich malt that is likely a mix of Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie (or maybe even Bladnoch), but while we can't say for sure, we can say with absolute certainty that this is a must try whisky for those looking for something fun and delicious.

Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster Island Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Rock Oyster is an Island blend that uses whisky from the Arran and Jura distilleries, along with other malts from the islands of Islay and Orkney. The whisky is an explosion of sea salt, wave soaked rocks, smoke, honey, peat, ash, and pepper. It's a textural malt as well, one that envelops the palate under all that potent island flavor.

Douglas Laing's Scallywag Speyside Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Scallywag is the Speyside entry in the series and uses whiskies from Macallan, Mortlach, and Glenrothes to create a sherry-matured delight. It's full of rich vanilla, chocolate, fudge, and orange zest with a bit of tobacco and fruit cake on the finish. A classic Speyside malt if there ever was one!

Douglas Laing's Timorous Beastie Highland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Timorous Beastie is the Highland edition that uses whiskies from Blair Athol, Glen Garioch, Dalmore, and Glengoyne to compose an elegant and finely-tuned Highland expressions. There are flavors of sweet barley, honey, sweet fruit, and cereal grains on both the palate and finish. The texture is also as soft as silk.

This one we all know already as it's been available in the U.S. for years: 

Douglas Laing's Big Peat Islay Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Big Peat is a blend of Islay's finest distilleries: Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and the rare Port Ellen, it is exactly what you expect when you taste it. The aromas are of smoke, and salty seaweed with a slight medicinal note, and the palate shows more campfire smoke with a saline and herbal character. The finish is rockin' and the length on it is incredible. It lingers in your mouth for minutes as hints of fresh chopped spearmint and pepper start to appear. This is an aptly named whisky that is very much a big and peaty drink.

-David Driscoll


Self-Induced Coma

Bear with me here on the spirits blog over the next few days. I've got one of the worst colds I've had in decades and the virus is currently ravaging our entire Redwood City store. All I can do to alleviate the symptoms thus far is to sleep, so I've been going to bed around 7 PM for the last few days and trying to stay in bed for as long as possible. The crazy thing is that each time I wake up I feel exactly as terrible. Normally resting for ten to twelve hours at a time results in some progress, but this is the damnedest bug I've gone up against in some time. It's a serious son of a bitch. If you start to feel sick this week, I highly advise you to prepare for war.

In the meantime, we'll have some fun things coming this weekend and early next week. A new batch of peated Couvreur (our heavily sherried and smoky malt), the regional blends from Douglas Laing, Wyoming whiskey, and more.

Hang with me! I'm going down for the count again today, hoping to return in better spirits tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Worlds Inside of Worlds

I've been lucky in my time here at K&L to have some pretty amazing collectors as customers. When I say "amazing," I'm referring both to their collections and to their generosity in sharing those exploits with me personally. While I'm sure you're all immediately thinking wine and whiskey, it's actually the lesser-known stuff that draws in the most passionate devotees. Sure, the whiskey guys are willing to jump through serious hoops to get their fix, but that dedication pales in comparison to the things I've seen in other alcoholic areas. It's always the sub-genres, the worlds inside of worlds, that get the geekiest. 

An example? Chartreuse. 

One of our best customers here at K&L happens to be one of the world's great collectors of old Chartreuse, and I was texting him photos from Burgundy this past week because I ended up getting invited to a private club that had a gigantic collection of old bottles to taste. Sitting there with that glass in my hand, a 1970's era Tarragona edition, tasting what was without a doubt one of the most complex and crazy spirits I've ever had, made me think about all the rabbit holes you can end up getting pulled into with drinking. If you think I'm talking about a forty-something year old bottle of a simple old sweet liqueur, there's a bit more to Chartreuse you might want to know about. I'll give you the five minute explanation below.

When you go to a fine spirits shop like K&L or a reasonably fancy bar, you'll probably see two bottles that say Chartreuse in the liqueur sections: a green one and a yellow one. But if you look a bit higher on the shelf (like in the jewel rack in Redwood City), you'll see two wooden boxes that also carry the name. These two Chartreuse expressions are also distinguished by their green and yellow color, but they're referred to as VEP: Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé. While I'm sure many of you have heard the old stories and probably thought it was just marketing baloney, the truth is that both of these spirits are still made by the order of Chartreuse monks who have guarded and produced the recipe for centuries. What are these versions of Chartreuse, you ask? Most likely not what's in your Last Word cocktail. The VEP Verte is a high-proof maceration made with a special recipe of 130 different herbs and plants that was formulated from a manuscript dating back to the early 1600s. It's aged in gigantic oak vats and clocks in at a whopping 54%. Only two monks at any given time know the recipe and can create the blend of botanicals. While the preparation of the blend is a heavily-guarded secret, you can actually visit the historic cellars located in between Lyon and Grenoble going towards the Swiss border (I've never been there, but it's on my list). While all that may sound romantic and mysterious already, here's where it gets really interesting (and geeky). 

The original Chartreuse recipe is known as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse and it's a 69% ABV absinthe-like tonic that was originally created in 1737 to promote health and long life. The monks adapted that recipe in 1764 to a milder 110 proof expression that we know today as the VEP Verte. It was immediately a huge success and the monks began to peddle the liquid to neighboring towns and villages. But, as you probably know, France was a tumultuous place during that era. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the monks were eventually forced to flee due to religious persecution. The recipe would get tossed around for the next twenty years, but it found its way back to the monks who were able to return in 1816 and begin production once again. They would release the first Yellow Chartreuse twenty-two years after that.

Now fast forward to the early 20th century. France decides to nationalize the Chartreuse distillery and the monks get kicked out once again. They head to Spain this time and build a new distillery in Tarragona. Twenty years after that they would return home and build a second distillery in Marseille. The new liqueurs are referred to as Une Tarragone and Tarragone as the French government holds the trademark to the name Chartreuse. That trademark is eventually sold to a company that winds up bankrupt in 1929. The trademark is repurchased by the monks and production is moved back to the distillery near the monastery in the town of Fourvoirie. If you're a true spirits geek, you can probably see where I'm going here (HINT: it means there are historic rare editions of Chartreuse out there made from "lost" or closed distilleries). All goes well for a few years, until the distillery is almost decimated by a landslide, which forces the monks to move production again to Voiron where it remains today. If you're reading very closely (which I'm sure you are), you'll probably notice no mention of the monks having closed their Terragona location in Spain. That's because it remained in operation until 1989. So let's recap:

Chartreuse is made at....

• 1737 - 1860 at the monestary

• 1860 - 1903 at Fourvoire, then again from 1930-1935

• 1903 - 1989 at Tarragona, Spain

• 1921 - 1929 at Marseille

• 1935 - Present day at Voiron

Now had I written this post ten years ago, I know what you'd be thinking: "There's no way these old bottles of Chartreuse from all these different distilleries can be kicking around still." But we live in the modern age of dusty hunting, auction houses, and extreme collecting. So, that being said, if you can still find bottles of Bourbon from the early 1900s, you can sure as hell bet there's a bunch of old Chartreuse still sitting in many a cellar. One such place? The private club I was drinking at in Burgundy this past week. I sat there in the lounge with a bunch of French guys smoking cigars, sipping on a glass of 1970s-era Tarragona and marveling at the complexity. The even crazier part about old Chatreuse is that it does age in the bottle. The herbs change, the sugar fades, and the spirit takes on a wild and savory component. Just for shits and giggles I did a little research into the European black market and found a few bottles for sale from a broker (the same guy who sold them to the club). You're looking at roughly $800-$1000 a bottle for what I was drinking. It's worth it, in my opinion. I've never tasted anything like what was in the glass and I'm itching now to try it again.

We've been drinking alcohol for many centuries at this point as a civilization. There are many stories out there still unknown to the general public, but they're waiting to be read and told if you're interested. It's just a matter of how deep you want to go. How many sub-worlds can your mind make room for within the great world of booze?

-David Driscoll


Intimate Grappa Dinner w/Jacopo Poli 

As much as I love grappa and as much as I wish we could carry every grappa known to man here at K&L, I faced facts with reality long ago. Grappa's popularity is at an all time low with today's youth and as a consumable spirit it's one of the most difficult to sell in volume. Why? Because grappa is the kind of thing you drink once a week at the end of a meal. It's not something you pour over the rocks after a long day at the office. It also doesn't work particularly well in cocktails, so even restaurants can sit on a bottle for years before they finally finish it. 

But grappa is a foundational spirit for me. It's what I cut my teeth on as a teenager learning about how to eat and drink the European way. It's the ultimate acquired taste and it can take years before you develop a palate for it. It's also the one spirit left in the world that hasn't been taken out of context by American culture and turned into an entirely new genre. Grappa is still grappa. It's still that same intensely-flavored and potent elixir it was before, it's just that we're finally getting our hands on the good stuff over here; the things the Italians normally held back for themselves while sending us the rocket fuel in the states. Grappa today in America is better than it's ever been. But you need to experience that for yourselves. Hence...I invite you to sit down with what is perhaps Italy's premier grappa producer for a small and intimate experience.

Jacopo Poli Grappa Dinner @ Donato in Redwood City - Monday, April 3rd @ 7 PM - $50 - Join as at Donato Enoteca in Redwood City on Monday evening April 3rd as we host Jacopo Poli for an intimate and exclusive dinner paired with a number of grappas and other distillates from Poli distillery, located in the heart of the Veneto region. We'll be joined by Jacopo Poli himself for a detailed breakdown on distillation practices and a walk through the diverse selection of expressions, alongside a multi course Italian meal prepared by Donato just for the event. Only 20 tickets are available for this incredibly rare opportunity. This is the first time Poli has visited our market in the last five years, so we're making sure we take advantage of the time we have! There are no paper tickets for this event. Your name will be put on a guest list at the restaurant. All ticket sales are final and there are no refunds, so please check your schedule and availability before committing to the date.

-David Driscoll