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Tuesday
Jan302018

Hope

In response to my last post, if you ever need evidence that face-to-face conversation still exists and a pre-iPhone civilization continues elsewhere outside the Bay Area, go literally anywhere in Paris other than the Louvre and soak it all in. Anywhere. Any bar. Any café. Any restaurant. In Paris, it's not merely a generational thing, or a sign of age. I hung out Sunday morning by the Sorbonne with all the college kids, and not one of them was on their phone while drinking coffee. All of them were talking and laughing, socializing. It's simply rude in Paris, I think, to stare at your phone or computer while you're out. Instead, there are folks reading the newspaper, studying books, chatting vivaciously, or simply gazing out at the world like any good flaneur should. Going out in Paris means not having to rush, to think about what's next on the agenda, or map out each hour of your day. You just sit there and talk. Or not talk. Whatever. 

If you live in California and thought that world was dead, it isn't. While I did see more yoga pants and joggers on the road than ever before, the French still smoke, drink, eat, and talk as much as they ever did. France has always protected its cultural values that way, which is ironically why Americans love it so much. We're not willing to take any official measures that might impact our freedom here at home, so we simply gush about how romantic it is when tradition continues elsewhere. Look at France's AOC wine appellation system as an example. The reason these winemaking cultures remain intact is because the law states that they must. You cannot make Chardonnay in Sancerre and call it Sancerre. You cannot make Syrah in Bordeaux and call it Bordeaux. Contrast that with Napa or Sonoma where what's made is mostly dictated by the market. Merlot is popular? Let's plant Merlot. Merlot is no longer popular? Let's rip it all out and replant it with Pinot Noir. That's what happened during the last decade because our culture revolves around doing whatever sells, or whatever seems best in the moment. That's not to say there aren't great winemaking traditions in California, because obviously there is a rich heritage here; it's just to say the only real protection for that history is the will of the consumer. Napa Cabernet culture continues because of our continual desire to drink it, that's it. Ultimately, you can plant anything in Napa and call it Napa. You can make Bourbon in Alaska or Alabama, it doesn't matter.

Imagine if America passed a law restricting Bourbon to Kentucky only. It might piss off loads of people (mainly the people trying to capitalize on the current fad), but I'd be in favor of it because frankly I don't drink much California or Arizona Bourbon. I'd support protecting that heritage moving forward, despite that fact that Bourbon has long been made in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In the short term, it seems like restrictive oversight, but in the long term that's how value and tradition are matured, cared for, and preserved. You pick something, you do it better or differently than anyone else, and you stick with it. Then you protect it by preventing others from copying that model and capitalizing on that name elsewhere without the same conditions or standards. For decades and decades, cheap California bulk wine has been marketed as Chablis and Burgundy. When I was in high school we used to buy handles of "Blush Chablis," a sweet rosé à la Carlo Rossi, and drink it out in the orchards. Never once in my life, however, have I seen a French bulk wine trying to market itself as "Napa rouge" or "Blush Sonoma." 

When you don't take any measures to protect tradition and culture, you open yourself up to sweeping movements of monumental change. In many cases, that unrestricted potential has been a positive thing for America and it's a longstanding part of what makes our country great. You might say that lack of restriction is indeed our heritage. However, in many other instances, that lack of a firm identity leaves our values vulnerable to the influence of money and the market.

Starbucks at Yosemite, anyone? 

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jan282018

Nausea

When I was in my early twenties I was a serious fan of existential literature. It's what ultimately led me to do my masters degree in German, focusing on Hesse and doing some comparative papers on Camus and others in the genre. One of the books I read back then that I probably didn't pay enough attention to was Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. If you haven't read it, it's basically the story of a historian that suffers from attacks of nausea due to the panic caused by life's free will. Essentially, a tale of the angst that being completely responsible for your own actions can cause, along with a feeling of hopelessness and meaninglessness that accompanies one's daily activities when we realize there's no real purpose for our existence. That type of stuff. Real uplifting. 

I was thinking about Sartre today in Paris because I wound up in a book store this morning and found these books called Le Paris de...., a series that allows you to read about Paris from the perspective of the most renowned artists and thinkers who lived there. They had Cocteau, Cendrars, and of course Sartre along with his companion Simone de Beauvoir. I picked up the Sartre/Beauvoir edition and started reading it at the Café de Flore while having coffee. That's when I decided I would spend a thematic day in Paris retracing their footsteps and hanging out at their old haunts, using the book as a sort of guide. I had an entire day to kill, so why not? I think this is my ninth time in Paris so I've pretty much seen the main attractions at this point. 

Apparently, Sartre and Beauvoir once sat on a bench outside the Louvre, near the Jardin des Tuileries, and made a pact to continue their relationship while watching the passers-by stroll along the stony paths. I went and visited the spot after finishing my coffee, then wound up taking a walk through the Louvre since I was in the area anyway. That's when the nausea hit me. If you ever need a dose of reality as to the meaningless of life in the modern age, go check out the main attractions at the Louvre. It's bad enough when people take pictures of other pictures (they're all available to look at online!!), but now it's an entire room of people taking pictures of themselves in front of other pictures. The entire world is just one big Instagramable attraction at this point. Fashion is no longer just for clothing and celebrities. It's everything. Cities are fashion. Food is fashion. Bottles of whiskey are fashion. All of these things have lost their inherent and original meaning and have been replaced with a new value and purpose: their potential to become the next viral social media post.

We are indeed free to do what we want in this life. And this is what we have chosen to do. Barf.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jan272018

New Bowmore, Plus Updates from France

One of the hardest things to do as a retailer/importer is to temper your enthusiasm (I'm terrible at it) when making a large purchase. Charles and I discussed this subject at length during our most recent lengthy drive through Cognac country. How much of the pleasure we derive from tasting is due to the quality of the liquid itself, and how much it comes from the romance of travel? For example, I continue to buy cask after cask of available Bowmore because I will always think about our first night at the distillery in 2011 with Jamie MacKenzie (pictured above with David OG). It was a cold and foggy night and we were fresh off the ferry, our first visit to Islay. I'll think about that wonderful memory each and every time I take a sip of Bowmore whisky, so that's when I have to ask myself: does this latest cask of Bowmore really cut the mustard, or am I letting myself get carried away by sentimentality?

Which brings me the latest K&L single cask arrival: a heavenly 22 year old hogshead that was bottled for us by our friends at Sovereign. Let’s go down the list with what is yet another great deal from our direct barrel program (one that the current Pound/Dollar rate will make difficult moving forward): 1) the standard edition of Bowmore 25 year sells for about $400, while the standard 18 year comes in around $130. At full proof, this 22 year comes in at well less than the 25 and for only a bit more than the distillery’s 18 year old edition. That’s a great price. 2) Despite the isolated single barrel character, this whisky is incredibly balanced. You’ve got loads of vanilla, plenty of peat smoke, and a lovely, oily texture. You’d think this was blended into a harmony, but it just so happens to taste that way right out of the cask! 3) Finding Islay whiskies with age in this market is getting harder and harder. We can get as much no-name Highland whisky as our customers can buy, but to secure barrels from the legendary peated whisky distilleries is becoming a tough task. I’m doing everything I can to lock down more supply, but the truth is it’s not something I can assume will continue with any frequency at this point. Needless to say, you can’t go wrong with a classic expression of Bowmore. This isn’t an anomaly in any way. It’s everything you hope it will be with no rough edges and plenty of richness to balance out the campfire notes. Plus, my colleague Alex thinks it's one of the best whiskies he's ever had. That's saying something.

1995 Bowmore 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99 - Bottled at 51.8%

We met up with Claudine, Gerald, and Pierre at Dudognon this week for dinner at their home in the Cognac region. If you'll recall, I was here at the end of 2015 and at that time Pierre and I made a blend for K&L: two brandies married together, one distilled from ugni blanc and the other from a rarely-seen grape called montils. We brought it in the following year and it sold through around the end of 2016 during that holiday season. Since then, however, the remainder of that blend has been sitting in a cask, marrying slowly and gaining complexity from the additional oak maturation. We tasted it against the original blend (they still had a bottle on hand) and there was no question: it was way better, so I told him to bottle it up and ship it over ASAP! I'm also going to have Gerald bump up the proof just a bit. It will still say 40% ABV on the bottle because the labels were printed long ago, but in reality it will be more like 42.3%. That extra little kick on the finish made all the difference for me. 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan252018

Armagnac Tourism

It's only been a year since my last trip to Armagnac, but it seems that every time I'm away I forget just what an incredible place this is for passionate spirits drinkers. It's honestly a giant Disneyland of booze, full of ancient, brandy-maturing barrels around every corner, colorful characters, and farmhouses that look like movie sets or theme park installations with their quintessential rustic charm. There are endless casks of brandy, vintages from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties just sitting around in old barns and cellars. Bonbons with spirits distilled in 1900, 1919, 1923, and 1939 just above them, still filled with plenty of Armagnac from a century ago or more. You can taste whatever you want, buy whatever is there, and bottle it however you like. Everything is on the table. To the locals, Armagnac is really just a commodity, no different than the olive oil or pistachios you might buy at a roadside stand in the California countryside. Some are better than others, but in the end it's really just one of many things these people do. You won't find many producers talking about the "art" of their distillation, or their "craft" as a "master distiller."

The only real roadblock to Armagnac's breakthrough with the greater public in my opinion is the language barrier. It's not unlike mezcal in that sense. For example, when agave fans head off to Oaxaca for a spirited vacation, they're typically not driving out into the sticks to visit the actual palenques unless they speak fluent Spanish or are with someone else who does. It's not like the distillers of Santa Ana del Rio wouldn't welcome any friendly and passionate mezcal tourist with smiles and open hearts into their tiny village (because they would). Rather, they simply wouldn't be able to communicate in English and they might find it a bit awkward after a few uncomfortable minutes without any sort of connection or mutual understanding. When I was at Domaine de Barailllon earlier today, I spoke with the Claverie family about some American tourists who came by for a visit this past year. Laurence told me she was somewhat shocked by their arrival, but more than happy to show them around. However, she felt a bit weird continually telling them things in French when it was clear they didn't understand anything she was saying. 

You can see why over the last decade or so the major distillers of the world have hired multi-lingual tourism directors to help promote their facilities as potential destinations of interest. It's completely normal these days to see a huge group of Japanese tourists walking through Maker's Mark in Kentucky with a Japanese-speaking guide. The same goes for the major distillers in Scotland. Armagnac, however, is not quite ready for the spotlight, which is part of what makes it so wonderful for those seeking something less manipulated by money. But if you can speak French, or dedicate yourself to learning it like I have, then you can really start to peel back the layers and get into what is easily the most exciting place in the world right now for distilled spirits. On my first trip to Gascony in 2012, I didn't speak a work of French. Today, while I'm far from fluent, I can follow every conversation and participate in any sort of dialogue. I make mistakes and sometimes I use the wrong words here and there, but the difference is night and day and that effort went a very long way towards ingratiating me here. These people went from knowing me as the quiet American guy who travels with Charles Neal and buys a lot of stuff, to knowing me as a person—understanding my sense of humor, my intentions as their American representative, and my own personal interest in their products.

I had an hour long conversation with Christelle Lasseignou (pictured above) from Domaine de Maouhum yesterday about the perils of modern technology and its troubling effect on today's society. Compare that with the last time I saw her where I pretty much just stared at the ground and nodded my head now and again like an idiot. If you're interested in Armagnac and you'd like to visit the region, the adventure doesn't begin with a book about Gascony and its many brandy producers; it begins with a French dictionary and a guide to grammar. This is a region completely oblivious to the current spirits culture and what's happening with connoisseurship in places like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. They have no concept of whiskey's current rise in popularity, or how the spirits market has exploded in America, nor would they understand why some foreigner might knock on their door and want to meet them or take a few photos of their chai. They will, however, want to know why you're there. What is it exactly that you want? How did you hear about them? Would you like to buy a bottle? 

You'll need to be able to explain those things to them. Once you break the ice, it's all gravy. Just understand that no one in Armagnac will give a flying you-know-what about your extensive personal collection of bottles, or the fact that you think their brandy rates highly on a scale of 1 to 100 points. They will, however, want to know about you, so you'd better be ready to talk. If there's one thing I've learned over the last six years of traveling in the region, it's that there are no short appointments. Taste a few things, then head off to the next producer? HA! Yeah right. This isn't Napa. If you show up, be prepared to commit. They might invite you to eat lunch with them and talk about your life in America. If you're unable to do so, it's going to get weird quickly. 

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan242018

Detective Work

It's taken serious diligence, but after a few years of detective work I've managed to track down what happened to the last stocks of Pouchégu Armagnac. If you'll recall, Pierre Laporte's brandy was one of our original discoveries back in 2013 and the immediate customer feedback we received was off the charts. People went absolutely crazy for the combination of richness, concentration, and higher than normal proof, especially as the mature Bourbon shortage was just beginning and older American whiskies were disappearing from the market. The Pouchégu Armagnacs seemed like a pretty good substitute for those craving something old, woody, and sweetly spiced. 

Then something terrible happened. Pierre Laporte succumbed to to cancer shortly after our first order arrived in 2014 and all business stopped immediately thereafter. We tried to find out what the future held for his estate on our next visit, but apparently there were no heirs interested in continuing Pierre's legacy and eventually the stocks were sold off to a mystery buyer. We checked with all the regular negociants in the region, but none of them had been involved with the deal apparently. It was only after a random conversation with another distiller in the region that we discovered exactly who had purchased the remaining barrels.

Charles and I met with this mystery entity today and tasted through the vintages. They were every bit as spectacular as I remembered. The 1980 in particular might be the best Armagnac I've ever had in my life, an amazing combination of vanilla, oak, and bold baking spices with plenty of proof. I tried to hide my excitement so as not to tip my hand.

Now let's see if we can make a deal.

-David Driscoll