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Tuesday
May162017

Homage

My old friend Steve Ury decided to hang up his keyboard after ten years of blogging at SKU's Recent Eats. This is an except from an old post originally from 2012, a day I had spent working in the LA store while my colleague David OG took vacation:

I was emptying a shopping cart of booze into the liquor section when a tall, red-headed man came and started asking me about Pappy. I explained the sad state of affairs and what we now have to do with our raffle system and he was perplexed.

"Really? Because I heard Costco and BevMO have it in stock right now."
 
Ahh.........sigh.  I was beginning to sweat.  This guy was nice enough, but he really wasn't getting what I was trying to tell him. I began my little schtick about how there's a shortage of great Bourbon right now, so he countered with, "I just need something that's like 98-100 points. Isn't there anything here in the store?"
 
I had to take my jacket off at that point. Heat from both my exasperation and the flu were beginning to set in. Finally, he gives me a ten dollar bill and says, "Call me when the Pappy comes in."  I take his business card, but I hand him back the ten and tell him that I can't do that. 
 
"How about twenty?  Com'on! Twenty bucks, help me out!"
 
I refused but I told him I would do everything I could to help him out when the time came. I finally looked down at the business card he handed me to make sure his email was on it, and.....BAM.....there it was: Steve Ury - my longtime email and blogger penpal, there in the flesh. We had never seen each other before so we didn't know what the other looked like. He had figured out that I was me, but I didn't expect to get punked in my own store! The man behind Sku's Recent Eats is as funny in person as he is on his blog. A very well-executed practical joke.  

A big thanks to SKU and the word he helped spread about not just spirits, but particularly the work we were doing at K&L. He was a big part of helping us build the spirits department back in the olden days when whisky blogs were just us guys writing for each other.

-David Driscoll
Monday
May152017

Stories from the Road

I started a little recurring piece over at On the Trail last week called "Stories from the Road," where I share experiences or funny stories that have happened while traveling for K&L that normally don't make the blog or newsletter. I thought I'd do the same here on the spirits blog when something comes to mind from time to time. I was advising a customer about travel in Oaxaca this morning and I made sure to warn him about altitude sickness because drinking large amounts of high-proof spirit up in the mountains can be hazardous to your health. How do I know? I'll tell you...

It was the final night of my 2015 trip to Oaxaca with Los Danzantes and I was out in Oaxaca City having dinner with the gang from the distillery. A few final shots of mezcal for the road, then back to the hotel room for an early night as my flight was leaving at 6 AM the following morning. I played it totally safe: nothing weird to eat and not more than I might normally drink on a work night. The problem, however, is that I was dehydrated from five days of consumption, not just my current efforts. As I soon learned, dehydration plays a key role in altitude sickness and I had somehow completely overlooked the fact that Oaxaca is over 5,000 feet above sea level.

I remember waking up at around 3 AM feeling absolutely terrible—not throw-up naseous as one might feel after drinking too much, but rather a deeper and more permeating sense of fatigue and fever. I had cramps in my stomach and I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Deciding to get up rather than lie there in agony, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and made for the bathroom, but instantly I took a header and collapsed into the hard tile of the hotel room floor. I was dizzy, short of breath, and my heart rate was through the roof. I made a slow effort to get back to my hands and knees, while I sat there taking deep breaths, trying to figure out what in the hell was wrong with me. I was scared and somewhat panicked thinking not just only about my condition, but also how I was going to get on a plane in just a few hours. That's when I recalled having heard about similar experiences in Denver from friends of mine who had partied too hard in the Mile High City. How high above sea level was Oaxaca, anyway? According to Google, about 1,555 meters—right in the danger zone. That's when I knew I needed H20—stat.

I remained in dire condition for about forty-five minutes, doing my best to take in as much water as I could. At around 4:45, when I was scheduled to leave for the airport, I was just barely well enough to leave and with some Tylenol and saltine crackers I was able to get on the plane as planned. It was close, however. 

If you're going to Oaxaca to drink mezcal and party at the various mezcalerias throughout the city, make sure you drink plenty of water. You don't hear many veterans talk about altitude sickness when recounting their professional travel experiences in Mexico, but it's a real thing. Take it from me.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May142017

Photos From the Vault

Speaking of Bowie (from the previous post), I was visiting my parents in Modesto this weekend for Mother's Day and I came across a box of old concert photos I shot while in high school. My folks have a scanner now, so I sat down and began digitizing some of the good ones. I think I was a sophomore when I took this picture of David Bowie back in 1995. 

I was lucky enough to get to see him a few times before he stopped touring and I was a master of manipulating ticket lines back then, so I always got seats near the front. Those were the days....

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May132017

Singles and Albums

I’ve long used music as an analogy for alcohol when talking with consumers, but lately it seems like the spirits game is beginning to resemble the actual business of music, rather than the art form itself. The idea that pop culture cycles—movements that used to define decades and span a similar length of time—are now speeding up into two year blips on the radar is a concept I’ve been fixated on for the past few months. When we think of music (or at least when I do), I still compartmentalize it into the decade from which it came. When I think of the fifties, I think of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. For the sixties, it’s the Beatles. In the seventies, you can go classic rock, punk, or disco. The eighties is clearly characterized by the birth of hip-hop, new wave, and post-punk. The nineties had the grunge and alternative movement, and in the 2000s we had…….

We had….uh….

What did we have?

We had the internet—that’s what. The birth of the world wide web completely changed the way trends unfurled and developed throughout the world, which is why our decades of pop culture dominance ended in its wake. You no longer had to wait years for trends to permeate into the far reaches of the planet. Kids everywhere could look at pictures, watch videos, and connect with people in the blink of an eye, allowing them to see what was happening in other cities and countries around the globe. With the internet, musical movements began fizzling out within a year or two, rather than ten. I remember discovering new bands back around 2008 that were already breaking up by the end of 2009. Can you imagine how much faster cultural movements are spreading today with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now? It’s crazy to think about. Before you can even figure out what’s happening these days it’s already over. 

For most of my lifetime the booze game has been dominated by brands—recognizable labels that became stronger over time and developed deep and lasting loyalties with consumers. People defined themselves by the bottles that they drank and took pride in calling themselves a Jack Daniel’s guy. Unlike the music business, which has always sustained itself on fresh new blood and reacted to even the most fickle trends in the market, the booze game has always required strategic planning. Throwing an eighteen year old heartthrob into a recording studio to croon out a melodramatic pop single takes no longer than an afternoon, but building a distillery? That’s a much heavier investment and it’s not a plan that allows itself much flexibility. Of course, that was never a problem for the big players in the spirits game because they were planning to dominate the industry for decades, if not centuries. They didn’t need the ability to turn on a dime and react to the ever-changing fashions in front of them. While booze has long played a role in pop culture, it has never been governed by the laws of pop culture. Until now. 

I’ve had a number of conversations over the past week with some of my long-time friends in the industry, and almost all of them were centered by a concern over what’s been happening as of late. Gaining serious traction as a spirits brand seems almost impossible at the moment. No one seems to be able to get a foothold anymore. One day you’re on top of the world, selling cases to everyone knocking on your door, but six months later you’re wondering why nobody ever reordered. Was it not any good? Did some bad press leak out from one of the major magazines? No, it wasn’t that. Then what was it? It may simply be that your time is up! In my opinion, we’re seeing pop culture cycles for spirits brands that are mimicking the same limited exposure periods granted to any musician in today’s market. As a brand owner, you might have the world's most popular gin for 2017, but I can guarantee you that by 2018 there will be three new gins to knock you off that perch, grab your market share, and leave you in the dust. 

Just like I got rid of my Cinderella, Bon Jovi, and Warrant cassette tapes when the nineties hit, I think we’re going to see today’s modern drinkers continually evolve and outgrow their latest discoveries. While that’s nothing new in the world of booze, I think the kicker here is that it’s going to happen at a pace that’s unsustainable for the industry. You can’t build a distillery with the intention of selling booze for three solid years until the limelight fades and the next new brand comes along—it’s a terrible business plan. Yet, this is exactly what’s happening right now (without the intention, of course). What’s even more shocking is that major corporations are circling in these murky waters, searching for fresh new blood just like record producers, and gobbling up these upstarts thinking they’ve just hit gold. And maybe they have! But for how long? A year? Two years? Three years? What are you going to do with all that infrastructure once the cycle ends and a new one begins? If I were a big booze company, I would be scared to death about that possibility. If the contracts for Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had each come with tens of millions of dollars of music equipment and debt, I’m not so sure the Seattle scene would have ever happened.

It’s easy to stay on top when you’re a big fish in a small pond, but making it as a pop star today has to be harder than it’s ever been, mainly because of all the competition. Every fifteen year old kid from here to Dubai has a YouTube audition video for American Idol. There are no longer gatekeepers in the record industry. Any aspiring teenager with enough money (and a little talent) can put together a track on an Apple laptop, edit it cheaply with Garageband, and upload it to the internet in seconds, flooding the market with more than it could ever handle. The spirits game seems to be the new rock and roll for a number of bright-eyed youngsters today. Rather than a guitar for Christmas, they want a pot still. The problem here for big booze companies is that these passionate kids are not just dicking around in their parents’ garage, plastering xeroxed posters on the streets for a live show at the local pizza parlor. They’re getting actual bottles to market, support from hungry distributors, and taking up coveted shelf real estate at every bottle shop in the country. The once-small pond for distillation has turned into a raging sea over the last few years. Again, it’s easy to remain a pop culture darling when there’s no one to replace you, but now that we have hundreds of new distilleries eager for their chance on top, it’s a completely different game. The cycles are speeding up.

I was talking with Copper & Kings owner Joe Heron yesterday about various music analogies, and he came up with a doozy. I was discussing the split in direction that seems to be happening between on-premise and off-premise fads in the booze game (retailers vs. bars and restaurants), and how they’re no longer parallel markets. Today you can completely strike out in the retail world, but find incredible success in the mixology scene. “It’s a bit like the difference between a single and a full album, isn’t it?” Joe said. 

“Oh my God,” I answered; “You’re 100% right.”

The music industry has seen a similar split between older audiences who still cling to the concept of an album, and younger audiences that just want to listen to the songs they like. The purchase of a single track requires much less of an investment and it can be added to a playlist of other singles to create a mix of whatever suits the listener. “Going out on the town,” Joe continued, “they can order a few different shots or a cocktails and create their own playlist based on whatever they’re into at the moment.” Today’s curious drinker no longer has to invest in an entire bottle, so long as there are bars and restaurants that have enough of a selection. I’ve seen that mentality continue to attack the retail side as well, with younger customers continually asking for minis, sample sizes, and smaller options that don’t require them to commit to a full bottle. That won't happen in the short term because there's no money in small sizes for retailers or producers (part of the reason why record stores no longer exist), but a bartender on the other hand can make a killing off of one ounce pours. 

As I’ve written numerous times before, drinking spirits today has less to do with drinking than with experimenting. Alcohol is now as much of a pop culture phenomenon as music or fashion, and as such it’s being governed by the same cycles and demands. A bottle of wine or whisky on the table is no different than a designer hand bag or a rock T-shirt. It now says: “Look at me. Look at what I’m showing you. What does this tell you about me?” While thousands of pop stars have come and gone over the years, there is always that handful of artists capable of reinvention. David Bowie comes to mind. Madonna is another. In order for a spirits brand to remain competitive in this new world of pop culture competition, it’s going to require that same ability for adaptation. Ultimately, that’s what pop culture values most—a keen understanding of what’s happening now. It’s always been a competition. It’s always been about showing the world that you’re up-to-speed on the latest trends and styles, and that you’re always one step ahead of the game. Booze brands today definitely understand that part of the business, which is why you’re seeing more limited edition and seasonal products than ever before. One-off bottlings allow them to experiment with a more modern approach without risking their older and more foundational audiences. 

Even with those limited releases, I'm not sure they will be enough to sustain the growing number of small distilleries today. It's not enough to be good anymore. It's not enough to be new, either. As a spirits brand in 2017, you have to be exciting, hip, cutting edge, tradtionally-minded, and of a tremendous quality. Even with all those qualities, however, you may only have a year or two in the sun. Information moves quickly in the internet age. Fashion, even faster.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May112017

Currently My Favorite Bottle

There are always customers who want to know what we're drinking at K&L. While most might ask for a good bottle of cabernet, or a great single malt recommendation, there are always those inquisitive folks who say: "I want to know what you're into right now." My answer would be the bottle pictured in the above photo. Of all the spirits we have in the store currently, this particular one is my fascination: the Rancho Tepua Bacanora. To be clear, I have a bit of a soft spot for bacanora because of my in-laws. My mother-in-law is from Sonora, the Mexican state from which bacanora originates, so I've been the lucky recipient of a bottle here and there over the last decade when she or one of her sisters comes back from visiting relatives. What is bacanora, you ask? It's a form of mezcal made from agave pacifica, a particular species that grows in the mountains of Sonora and is used for distillation. When made with care and an eye for quality, it can rival the best tequilas of Jalisco and mezcales of Oaxaca. The problem has always been getting your hands on some of the good stuff. Much like German pinot noir, most of the best examples never leave the region. The Sonoran locals have tremendous pride in their bacanora, so rarely have the top specimen been exported to the states because it's being consumed locally. That's part of my excitement. I've never tasted anything this good before from Sonora. Let me tell you: the Rancho Tepua is really, really good bacanora and it's here on the shelf for anyone to buy.

What does it taste like? Like the best parts of tequila and mezcal fused into one glorious spirit. You get the sweet baking spices and the clean citrus flavors of an ArteNOM or Fortaleza blanco, but with a subtle roasted hint that comes from a thirty-six hour roast in a mesquite oven. You see, distiller Roberto Contreras comes from a storied family of cattle ranchers in Sonora, one that established itself in the mountains of Aconchi back in the mid-1800s. Today, cattle is still the main focus of Roberto and his wife Lupita (as it's a big part of the Sonoran economy), which should help you understand the mesquite oven roasting a bit more in terms of cooking the agave. In fact, the logo on the front of the label is the same brand that's seered into the hide of each cow. But Roberto's father was a distiller, as was his father, so bacanora distillation was always a part of the family business in addition to beef. 

Much of my fascination with bacanora comes from the fact that I married into a Sonoran family, so I'm naturally interested in my wife's culture and heritage. But for those of you who just like well-made, delicious, and pure flavored agave spirits, this bottle is an absolute must. It's bottled at 48.2% as well, so there's a little kick on the finish. The price is also right, which helps. I can't say enough good things here. Get a bottle and you'll see exactly what I mean. Then you can come over to my house and taste all the other bacanora bottles I have that aren't as good as this one.

-David Driscoll