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Saturday
Dec272014

Wheat, Not Wheated

This was a fun surprise from last week. I got a call from Germain Robin distillery about a haphazard project I began with them more than four years ago. In 2010, less than a year after I had taken over as spirits buyer, I had all these empty Jefferson's 18 barrels from the casks we were purchasing at the time (back when you could not only buy bottles of Stitzel Weller juice, you could buy entire barrels) and I wanted to give them to a distillery for maturation purposes. At that time, Germain Robin had started playing around with different grains for whiskey distillation and they were working with 100% Bavarian wheat spirits. I said, "You know what would be funny? If you aged a wheat whiskey in a wheated Bourbon barrel. I don't know if it would taste very good, but it would at least make for a funny story." I thought about the prospect of this project for about three seconds, said "Huh," and then promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago.

"Whoa, you guys actually went through with that?!" I asked, half kidding.

"We did," said the distillery, "Would you like a sample of it?"

A few days later the tiny vial showed up on my desk, so I gave it a whirl. No, it didn't taste anything like Pappy, or even remotely like a Bourbon in general, but man was it fun! It started out basic and primary, but ultimately erupted into an explosion of wheat flavor on the finish. I've never tasted an aged whisky that expressed so much of the source material in the flavor itself. There are just gobs of golden wheat on the finish. I told them to bottle up what was left and sell me back my barrel. Now it's here. Check out the notes below:

Low Gap 4 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Stitzel-Weller Barrel Wheat Whiskey $69.99 - Four years ago, when barrels of 18 year old Stitzel Weller Bourbon could be purchased on a whim, we began piling up more casks than we knew what to do with. When you buy a barrel of whiskey from a producer they usually send you the empty vessel with it. At that time we were working closely with Germain Robin on a number of new projects and when they mentioned they were experimenting with wheat whiskey, running it through their antique column still, I offered some of our ex-Bourbon casks for maturation. "Fill this old wheated Bourbon barrel with wheat whiskey," I said, "and maybe we can buy it back from you in a few years." Then I completely forgot about it. But a few weeks ago we got the call from the distillery; it had been four years. Did we want to see where the whiskey was at? You bet we did, and after tasting the sample we had Germain Robin bottle the whiskey immediately. It's in an absolutely perfect spot. The nose is a mixture of fresh cut grain and oak spices. The first sip is like a handful of Wheat Thins that turns into a rich, stone crackery explosion on the finish. There is no doubt as to which grain this whiskey was distilled from. It's just wheat all the way through. The SW barrel is really just a coincidence; a matter of what we had on hand at the time. Gimmicks aside, this is one fun new bottle I will be drinking lots of and a new step forward for California's whiskey movement.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec272014

Splurging

One of the questions I get asked most come December (along with "What's the best?") tends to be: "Is this bottle worth the money?" That's another loaded query with an answer that will vary from person to person, because—let's face it—what's worth it for you might not be worth it for me, and vice versa. So we need to dig a bit deeper. What are you normally willing to pay for a bottle of whisky? What's important to you in terms of quality and craftsmanship? What ultimately determines value for you personally? These are all follow-ups I would ask in the face of that question; more specific inquiries into the intimate philosophies of each customer that help me to understand how they typically spend. In attempting to predict consumer satisfaction it's important to know a bit more about what makes each person tick.

But let's say I wasn't able to ask any follow-up questions. Let's say I had to answer that inquiry point blank; on the spot. One general answer to guide every general spending habit. This is what I would say:

I've always loved Burgundy and I've always been really interested in learning more about the wines. Every now and again I'll splurge on a high-end bottle from some fancy vineyard that I've read about in a book, or from a producer whose wines we don't see all that often. Each time I do this I always fool myself into thinking that this bottle might be the one that really opens my eyes. But that never actually happens because, in the end, expensive bottles of Burgundy don't cost hundreds of dollars because of they contain epiphanies. They cost hundreds of dollars because the production is limited, the demand is high, and wealthy people have determined that this is what they like to drink (and they have the money to drink hundred dollar bottles whenever they feel like it). Whereas I'm buying one single bottle and holding on to it for dear life, others are buying cases of this stuff and burying it in a cellar full of hundreds of other cases.

With wine, you're never quite sure when the actual liquid is going to peak, or if you've got a spoiled bottle on your hands, so you need to buy multiple bottles to protect against that. Open one now, see how it is, then use that experience to judge when you might open a second. Buying one bottle of anything is always risky because there are so many things that might be off: it might not be the right time in the wine's evolution, the wine might be corked, the bottle may have been jostled in transit and is in need of a rest, or any multitude of other factors. When you look at how these bottles are usually purchased and consumed—in cases, rather than bottle-by-bottle—it really puts my dilemma into perspective. Here I am, anguishing over whether or not to splurge on this one experience, whereas the people are are generally drinking bottles like this don't even bat an eye at popping one just as a tester. It would be like buying a Rolls Royce and being afraid to drive it, or buying my wife a Chanel purse and her being afraid to wear it. We're not supposed to be afraid to drink these bottles, which is why I generally avoid buying them. It's supposed to be fun, not scary.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: splurging on one bottle hasn't ever answered any longing questions or delivered any ah-ha moments for me, and I don't know if I've ever spent more than $300 on a bottle of anything that actually delivered value or worth. What I usually take away from those experiences is a greater sense of who I am, what I enjoy, and what I'm willing to pay for that enjoyment. Sometimes that sense of awareness itself is worth paying for; just knowing that you don't need to spend that much to enjoy the best things in life and being certain of that because you've splurged, had the experience, and can safely come to that conclusion. You can't write off anything until you've tried it, so sooner or later you'll have to take the plunge. Either way, you'll probably learn something important about yourself.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec262014

2015: Crisis & Quest – Part II

My wife is a professional when it comes to gift giving. She takes the task incredibly seriously; seeking out interesting, beautiful, yet practical items to bestow upon loved ones. She was completely on point for Christmas this year. I think my mother was the most delighted by my wife’s gift to her yesterday morning: a set of wine tools that were both darling and incredibly useful. There was a steel bow tie version of a drip stopper (the ring that sits around the neck of the bottle to prevent leakage), a metal top hat that also happened to be a Champagne stopper, and a larger metal top hat that, when turned upside down, became a bottle chiller. Form and function. Art and practicality. Two diverging poles that have been tamed and met in the middle.

Part of the reason spirits are enjoying such a renaissance at the moment is due to the public’s newfound discovery of quality. People have learned that a bit of research can go a long way in improving their experience and relationship with booze. Oh, how many times I’ve heard people tell me something along the lines of: “I’ve always been a ________ drinker, but since discovering Glendronach I’ve never looked back.” There has been reward awaiting those brave enough to take a risk, and enlightenment for those seeking a new path to intoxication. The big brand monopoly on our collective attention has been breached and broken. We’ve discovered there are superior alternatives to Bacardi, or Jack Daniels, or Remy Martin that are twice as tasty, but no more expensive. For many of us, once we made that discovery, we went full throttle in that direction.

I’ve found that extremism usually causes an equal and opposite extremist reaction. Kids who were incredibly sheltered in their youth tend to go absolutely wild once they’re given a taste of freedom, for example. 90s grunge was a serious, melo-dramatic, and depressing counter to the bright lights and neon bubble gum of the 80s. In the end, however, the revolution itself becomes a newer version of the same old thing: a lack of balance. Americans are exceptionally prone to this phenomenon, in my opinion. We eat, eat, eat. Then we have an epiphany and we decide to work out, work out, work out. One minute we’re all about being vegan, but then we decide it’s healthier to eat nothing but meat. We like to be “all about” things. We like to make bold commitments to ideas and trends, but eventually apathy leads us back to the middle. Booze has followed a similar trajectory for me. Back in 2007, when I originally discovered all the micro-brands lining the shelves at K&L, I went buck wild. I bought and tasted everything. I threw away all my “corporate slop” and rededicated myself to the smaller brands. Five years later, however, I ended up in a bit of a crisis (which you can read in yesterday’s reposting of that original 2012 realization). 

There was a point in time when choosing sides in the booze world was important to being cool (at least in San Francisco). If you ran a bar, for example, you had to make a commitment to either big brands or small brands. It was like becoming a punk in the late 70s. People made bold choices and went all the way in one direction. Now, however, I see the same ultimate resolution on the horizon that I’ve seen in every other extremist reaction: a settlement on the middle of that spectrum. If you had asked a hipster bartender in 2009 to pour you a glass of Jim Beam or Crown Royal, you probably wouldn’t have had much luck. Today, however, there’s a realization that many of these big brands we once rebelled against are actually pretty darn good for the money. We’re not as obsessed with being so serious at this point. Part of this rebound is, like I said previously, the natural progression of polarization. Another part, however, is a reaction against the exploitation of small booze. Once it became clear that Americans were becoming interested in “craft” spirits, the money machine went into full-blown micro-mode and began pumping out “small batch”, “limited edition” products with reckless abandon. Bottles became harder to get. Secondary markets began to thrive. The prices went up, and the quality went down. Revolution over, right?

Yes and no.

We’re about to move towards a very special place, in my opinion; a more moderate political view that is the love child of shitty mass market hooch and ultra-geeky pretense. It’s a place where you can take your booze seriously and have fun, simultaneously; it’s a wonderful hybrid of “drink your booze” and “drink good booze”. If you’ve been by the Redwood City store lately then you’ve likely seen the silver cans of Oregon pinot noir sitting on the front counter. “Wine in a can?” exclaims every third person who rings up with us. Yes, my friends, wine in a can. You take the fun, functional form of an aluminum can and you fill it with something delicious and of high-quality. The beer geeks started doing this years ago. Why not add wine into the mix? And, while we’re at it, let’s start working on the booze shelf. Creme de Menthe? Gross; that’s the neon green crap that my grandmother drinks. Not any more, thanks to Tempus Fugit. Oh my god, look at that ridiculous packaging. You know you’re only paying for the box when you buy something like that. Not any more, thanks to Glenmorangie; who just began to update their packaging without increasing the price or decreasing the quality of their single malts. We’re beginning to enter into a stage where all of the stereotypes we’ve taken for granted are being re-formulated and re-evalutated by hip, smart companies.

Fancy bottles and excessive packaging = low quality spirit inside. So why not make a great product in a beautiful package and have both?

Wine in a box/can = low quality wine (why put something good in a box or can?) But why not put something good in a box or can?

Whisk(e)y that costs less than $20 = bad whisk(e)y. So why don’t we start making good good whiskies for less than $20? 

Four years ago all you could get at fancy bars in San Francisco were ridiculously pretentious snacks like pate or rabbit terrine with a piece of lettuce and a crostini. Today, I’m seeing deviled eggs almost everywhere. Not ironic deviled eggs, mind you, but really high-end, thoughtful, delicious deviled eggs. Again, the food and beverage scene is going back to the drawing board to take our new-found desire for high quality and apply it to things that are fun and functional. That’s where I see booze headed in 2015, and that’s exactly where I want to be heading. Drinking well no longer means you can’t have fun. Fuck all this “sip it, don’t shoot it” bullshit. That’s just one extreme to the other. How about just “enjoy it”? No one's saying you have to drink $5 vodka, but you don't have to have a stick up your ass, either.

Now, how long do I have to wait for Diageo to make me a Port Ellen-in-a-box?

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec252014

2015: Crisis & Quest

Part of my master's degree program in literature required me to take a course called Crisis & Quest: an investigation into a series of texts purveying alienated or troubled protagonists and their search for answers and information. I remember spending an entire month just working through Kafka's "Der Schloss" (which is hard enough in English). It's been a year and a half since I identified my own crisis and wrote the article reposted below. I went back and read this anguished piece, "A Crisis of Romanticism: From Rousseau to Booze" today and I finally realized where I've been heading in this crazy booze adventure, and where I plan on getting to. Now it's just a matter of doing it. 2015 here we come!

Let's revisit this now:

There are a number of crises that can behold the wine or spirits drinker, but the one we face most often at K&L involves our own personal booze philosophies. When I say we confront them, it's usually within ourselves rather than with our customers.  There are many roles to play within the world of booze: the high-browed wine intellectual, the down-to-earth beer guy, the artsy-fartsy cocktailian, or the super-duper whisky geek.  It's no different from walking into Amoeba Records and finding the indie rocker, the punk, the emo girl, or any other genre-specific employee who wants their own personal taste in music to reflect in their appearance.  Like with music, there are periods of growth, inner-reflection, and change when it comes to our alcoholic tastes.  Much like I outgrew my love for psychedelic drugs and Pink Floyd, I've outgrown my desire to drink ultra-ripe California wine.  We get older, we shape our own philosophies by where we stand in life, and our tastes mirror these changes.

I've just recently come out of a serious transition and am in the middle of an identity crisis myself. For years, if not decades, I've considered myself a romantic - I've always had a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathyI've always loved the idea of wine or whisky, perhaps more so than I've enjoyed the actual liquid - the idea of drinking Bordeaux with a finely-prepared steak, the idea of sipping great whisky after dinner with a few friends, the idea of having a fancy cocktail party with amazing drinks that blow everyone's minds.  I love to imagine the greys and the stark landscape of Islay as I consider purchasing more Bowmore, the spray from the sea and the brooding image of Jura in the distance. The rustic farmer who made the Bourgogne Rouge on my dinner table also comes to mind, picking grapes in a bucolic landscape of serenity.  In the school of romanticism, the poor are more virtuous than the rich, the sage is the man who retires from the corruption of the modern city and seeks solitude in the unambitious life of the country. The images of classic romanticism are ubiquitous in everything I think I love about booze.

The truth is that I've begun to shed my romantic skin. I've become a realist, more utilitarian and practical in my outlook, and I'm thinking that maybe I've actually been a realist in denial for some time.  Valuing emotion and feeling has always been at the core of my personal philosophy.  I've always preached the idea of drinking what you like and what makes you feel good, rather than chasing points or over-hyped brand names.  The boutique wine store world is definitely skewed towards the romantic school of thought, much like Fox News is skewed towards the conservative side of politics.  I've found comfort in this world because it made for an easy transition, like a liberal teenager starting his first semester at Berkeley.  If anything, my romantic nature became more extreme, emboldened by the likemindedness of those around me.  Here at K&L, much like with the romantics of Rousseau, the small farmer is always more virtuous.

Seeking council for my condition, I consulted Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, in an attempt to understand my crisis. I still felt a kinship to romantic imagery, but my drinking as of late had been less than satisfactory. In describing the romantic movement, Russell wrote:

The romantics did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.  They had no sympathy with industrialism, because it was ugly, because money-grubbing seemed to them unworthy of an immortal soul, and because the growth of modern economic organizations interfered with individual liberty.

The above passage still strikes a chord with me.  I still believe that industrialism is ugly and that it takes the fun out of drinking.  While I won't completely discount a whisky if it's a mass-produced, profit-driven product, I do find it entirely less interesting.  There had to be more though because something was entirely wrong with my romantic nature.  Reading deeper into Russell's account, I found this passage:

The romantic movement, in its essence, aimed at liberating human personality from the fetters of social convention and social morality...By encouraging a new lawless Ego it made social cooperation impossible, and left its disciples faced with the alternative of anarchy or despotism.  Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence.

Yes!  Wow, what a summary!  Perhaps the problem doesn't lie in the romantic notions themselves, but rather in where a firm belief in romanticism leads.  Let's break down the above statement and translate it into booze terminology we can understand.

In attempting to liberate human personality from the fetters of social convention, I've spent countless hours talking to customers about the romantic ideals behind Springbank, Bruichladdich, Glendronach, and other rustic single malt producers that exist outside the scope of the mass-marketed brand options.  This part makes total sense.  However, my firm belief that small, hand-crafted spirits are inherently superior has given me a bit of an ego when I hawk my wares.  I feel strongly that the small, country producer is more virtuous and therefore desire that my customers do so as well.  Yet, how can I build a social community with people of all opinions if I expect everyone to simply listen and agree with me?  In a sense, I'm on the verge of becoming a whisky despot, a dictator who demands that all customers recognize the virtue in craft distillation and grower/producer wines.  However, when confronted with someone who feels differently than me, I immediately turn indignant because they're not giving me the confirmation, or in Russell's words parental tenderness, that I need to feel secure in my beliefs.

So it's not the psychology that's at fault, but rather the standard of values, according to Russell.  He writes that

(Romantics) admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences...but most of the strongest passions are destructive...Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.

Here is my underlying problem with romantic, emotional passion for booze over realism - it leads to this exact type of anti-social behavior: bickering on blogs, arguing on message boards, quarreling with customers, and an overall sense of resentment.  The more we stress the ideal of whisky, the virtue of the lost distillery, and the merit of the majestic family legacy, the more we lose touch with what booze is for: SOCIALIZING! 

I've found that perhaps my intellectual studies in alcohol have only isolated me, keeping me further away from true pleasure and happiness.  I know you all can relate!  Everyone reading this blog has bought that special bottle of whisky or wine, sat down with your friends and family, and attempted to convey to them the importance of the elixir, to which they all replied "That's nice," before continuing on with their previous dialogue.  How many times I've heard from customers, who lamented, "David, I opened a bottle of Port Ellen with my friends and nobody cared! Never again!"  This is our fault, fellow romantics.  We've become too entwined in our emotional connection to booze and have lost our ability to socialize normally.  We can no longer sit down with our fellow man, drink table wine or Jameson, and talk like regular people.

Ultimately, this is what Rousseau and the romantics had in mind.  They wanted mankind to retreat back into the forest, become again like the noble savage, and find the virtue in nature and solitude, wandering the countryside alone like Young Werther.  Unfortunately, this has not made me any happier!  It's only made me more lonely, sitting alone in my house, drinking the Pappy Van Winkle that only I understand and appreciate, while my wife and her friends have a blast with the box-o-white wine.  Russell understood this, which is why he wrote:

Man is not a solitary animal, and so as long as social life survives, (the romantic ideal) of self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics.

Instead, whisky geeks like myself are more like Frankenstein's monster, a classic tortured figure of romantic literature.  In Frankenstein, the monster contends:

My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.  I dared not think that they would turn from me with disdain and horror.

Nevertheless, this is what happens when you have a dinner party and expect people to listen to you about why your 1988 Chateau Margaux is so freaking amazing.  All you want is for people to say, "Wow, I can't wait to try this!  All that information was so stimulating, David!"  Alas, this is never what happens.  Which is why, ultimately, I find myself no longer a romantic.  I no longer imagine the perfect Bordeaux dinner with a finely-prepared steak, where everyone enjoys and appreciates the wine, because that image is a fantasy.  It doesn't exist for me!  It's simply a romantic notion.

When I say that I've become a realist, I definitely do not mean that I no longer appreciate great booze, nor that the merit or virtue of the small farmer has become devoid of value.  It's just to say that the romantic ideal of these products is no longer the end-all, be-all of what we should be drinking.  We should be drinking what we like, and if we're drinking with friends we should ease up.  Be practical and pragmatic - choose a simple, fun wine for a simple, fun evening.  This is the opposite approach of the romantic.  The romantics found everyday themes (and perhaps everyday wines) too pedestrian, finding inspiration only in what was grand, remote, and terrifying.  That sounds exciting and fun, but rarely are those qualities within actual reach, and if they are, you're usually the only one enjoying them.

While the romantic chooses to blame the common man for failing to understand such qualities, it's more or less the case that the common man doesn't care - he's happy with a bottle of Buffalo Trace and the company of his fellow man.  When I say that I've become a realist, it's to say that I am choosing to embrace the merits of social interaction and shun the philosophy of isolation.  It doesn't mean that I will no longer enjoy sipping my bottle of Brora in peace, it's just to say that this type of drinking won't dominate my way of life.  There's much fun to be had while we're alive and our time is too short to spend it wandering the country in search of the grandiose (or, in whisky terms, wandering from store to store in search of only Stitzel-Weller Bourbon).

While the romantics preached the virtue of the countryside, I now defer to Samuel Johnson's belief that the man who is tired of London must be tired of life.  I'm not tired of life, nor am I tired of drinking - in fact, I'm more energized than ever.  I am tired, however, of the romantic notions that have guided me thus far and the disappointment that has followed in their wake.  Drink up, my friends, and enjoy the company of your friends.  Have a good bottle on hand when you do, but let that bottle speak for itself.  We all know how good that bottle of wine you had in Italy last summer was, but it wasn't the bottle - it was being in Italy.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Dec232014

No Limit

Liquor is like a symphony, or like a classical song, or something. You don’t use it as a downer; you use it to leap up into the sky when you’re in pain.

-Charles Bukowski

When I think of the words "No Limit", I immediately think of Master P. I picture the No Limit soldiers jumping up and down, dunking basketballs, riding in gold-plated tanks, and showing that bling. It gets me excited to think about no limits, and I love it when I can provide great products at great prices in large quantities. It makes me want to drink whiskey and get crazy! Today, I give you my final Christmas present: as much wheated cask strength Maker's Mark as you want! No raffles, no trivia, no one bottle limit. I pulled some strings, backed up the truck, and made some shit happen (because that's what I do). So we've got 1,000+ bottles of some of the most exciting Bourbon in the land and you've got a license to buy as much as you want.

Make 'em say uhhhhhhhhhhh! Na, na, na, na!

You wanna buy 50 cases? Go for it. It's a red wax-coated Maker's Mark Christmas frenzy. No limits. These will be placed as special orders and we will fulfill all purchases AFTER the holiday. We have all the booze, but we're a little backed up at the moment, as you can guess.

Maker's Mark Cask Strength Bourbon 375ml (half bottles) $39.99- Kentucky's most popular wheated Bourbon that isn't called "Pappy", Maker's Mark has long been famous for using winter wheat as the flavor grain (along with the majority of corn) instead of the ubiquitous rye. The only thing that ever kept Maker's Mark from capturing the hearts of serious Bourbon aficionados everywhere was the low proof. In 2014, however, they released a tiny amount of cask strength whisky (in tiny bottles) to Kentucky residents and people went bananas. Seeing that landing a bottle of Pappy today is like winning the lottery, the Maker's Mark Cask Strength is easily the next best thing (and, depending on who you talk to, it might even be better!). Big richness, bold spice, and that classic, creamy wheated profile combine into one epic ride. We've been forced to limit customers to one bottle only, and most people were lucky just to get that. But somehow, someway, we've managed to grab a truckload of this stuff and offer it to every K&L customer with no limits or restrictions on quantity. This is the best holiday present we could have asked for: a giant allocation of highly-allocated, highly-desired Bourbon at the time of year when folks are searching for something special. Load up while they're here because we don't expect a shipment of this magnitude again.

-David Driscoll