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Monday
Dec222014

Literally the Best

I worked at Tower Records for over two years and never once did a customer walk into the store and ask me for the best album we carried. They mostly wanted to know where the newest Madonna single was. In high school, I worked at Hollywood Video and I can't ever remember anyone asking me for the best movie in the store. Most customers just wanted to avoid paying late fees. When it comes to music and movies the general public has a pretty good sense of what they like and what they don't; we recognize that different people have different tastes and that there are genres for these various interests. However, I've now worked at K&L for seven years and I can't remember a day when someone hasn't asked me for the best wine in the store. Not for my opinion, mind you, but for the literal, factual best bottle we carry. The best bottle for $20. The best German riesling. The best Champagne. The best gift.

There must be one, right? Which one is it? Tell me where it is.

Can you imagine walking into Amoeba Records and asking them what the best record is? They would look at you like you were crazy. Can you imagine walking into Whole Foods and asking them what the best vegetable is, or the best whole grain? Can you imagine walking into Macy's and asking them what the best shirt is? Or the best dress? Maybe walking into Tiffany's and asking them for the best diamond? What's the best table at IKEA? The best shower curtain print? What's the best painting in the Louvre? What's the best ocean: the Pacific or the Atlantic? What's the best planet? Jupiter? These questions sound ridiculous when you talk about certain subjective subjects—points of personal preference that clearly have no clear-cut answerbut for some reason asking for "the best" sounds perfectly reasonable when requesting a bottle of wine or whisky. Why is that? Why do we think there is ultimately one bottle to rule them all when it comes to booze?

Part of the answer lies in the way wine and whisky are talked about; the world is and has always been obsessed with ranking its alcoholic beverages. When you learn about Bordeaux, for example, you start with the Classification of 1855; when the Emperor Napoleon had every chateau in the Medoc ranked and organized into five tiers of quality. One hundred and sixty years later these rankings still dictate pricing and desirability for France's most coveted Cabernet-based wines. In Burgundy, one starts by learning the great vineyard sites; where the soil has been ranked by its mineral content to decide which properties are capable of greatness and which are not. It's a longstanding class system that cannot be overcome. Montrachet will always make better wines than the Macon. Greatness has been predetermined. The rest of the world has followed this lead, creating their own appellations, determining their own standards, and handing out medals or awards that also carry a certain measure of factual standing. 

When we read about alcoholic beverages in this manner, where rules and certainty are laid out before us with clear explanations as to their rationale, it's difficult not to believe in their existence. It's not easy to learn about wine and spirits on your own. It takes years of practice and dedication to differentiate the nuances between similar products, and most people don't have the time or the interest to reach that level. But it's not like there's a way we can literally determine what the best wines or whiskies are. It's not like Napoleon held an actual tournament in Bordeaux—like the World Cup or the NCAA 64—to determine the victors in 1855. It's not like the Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask defeated all other whiskies by submission or knockout in Jim Murray's own personal Kumite this year. These are merely the opinions of certain educated people; andjust like assholes—everyone has an opinion (especially assholes). There may be mountains of empircal evidence and plenty of sound reasoning to reinforce these opinions, but ultimately these are just musings. They're beliefs. They're points of advise that rely entirely on the preferences of certain tastes. 

And, let me be clear, that's not to say that these opinions don't have merit, standing, stature, or worthiness. We all have strongly held opinions based on our own personal experiences. More importantly, we trust certain opinions from people we know think on similar wavelengths. I love reading opinions about booze, film, music, and literature, but it's because I'm interested in learning about how other people think, not because I'm researching quality. Why do we like certain things? What makes something interesting or desirable? Why do people make things in a certain way? If I like this what else might I like? These are the questions that opinions can help us to answer. 

For seven years, however, the one question I've constantly faced at K&L that I have not been able to answer and will never be able to answer is: what's the best? But I don't think I'll ever stop being asked.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec212014

Conversaciones de una Fiesta

I went to a huge Mexican birthday party last night after work and all I can tell you right now is: I am so happy I decided to learn Spanish back in my mid-20s. Most of the people there were over forty, drinking Tecate, Pacifico, Don Julio, and reminiscing about the old days in whichever part of Mexico they hailed from. Instead of banishing myself into the English speaking corner with the rest of the gueros, I decided to caucus with the latinos. Grabbing a plate of stewed pork, rice, and beans, I sat down in a circle of native Mexicans who were having an intense discussion about beer. There are certain moments when my Spanish comprehension is really on point, and thank God this happened to be one of those evenings. The conversation they were having was fascinating.

"The water is totally different in that part of Mexico," said the man sitting next to me. "The minerals create a totally different flavor. That's why the Tecate they make in that part tastes different than what we get in the United States."

"They make it stronger, too," added in the guy sitting across from me. "There's a more powerful flavor in the Mexican version."

"Corona is the same," said the older gentleman to my left. "All of the bottles in America have a skunky aroma. It's not like the version we get back in Sinaloa, which is clean and fresh. It's not the same at all."

One of the things that will often drive me crazy about the wine and spirits industry is the sense of self-importance that "educated" drinkers often give to themselves; as if their understanding and appreciation of certain beverages has elevated them to a higher level of consciousness (and class). They shun basic brands and shit on what they believe to be inferior products because they want to believe that their more sophisticated palate separates them from the general shit-swilling public. I interact with these people all the time. Yet, if I were to tell one of these elitist pedants that I met two carpenters (with hands like sandpaper) and a plumber talking about the various regional differences between the intricate flavors of big-brand Mexican beer, what do you think they would say?

"Oh please! As if there's really a difference between all that crap," is what I imagine I would hear (as I hear statements like that fairly regularly).

There definitely is a mindset in the booze community that scholastic appreciation and conversation generally revolves around the expensive, rare, and geeky—and that to have a serious dialogue about something basic, ubiquitous, and mass-produced is boring or irrelevant. There's also a further hypothesis that the people drinking brands like Coors or Tecate don't care about or are unable to recognize quality in what they're tasting (I hear statements along these lines quite regularly as well). That being said, the most interesting and inviting conversation I've heard about alcohol in the last few months came at a birthday party from three working-class guys without any formal training in alcohol appreciation, concerning the production of inexpensive Mexican beer and how the variance impacts flavor.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec202014

Preparing for the Onslaught

For the past few days I've been going into work early—hours before the store opens—in an attempt to get the shelves stocked before the holiday crowd hits. Yesterday, I spent four hours just removing empty cardboard boxes from the warehouse and moving new inventory into their place. I've never seen anything like the rush we're currently experiencing. A few customers who read the blog have been dropping by to say hello and shoot the breeze, but twenty minutes later—after they've waited in line for an eternity—they get up to the counter and say, "Dude, you weren't kidding." It's a total shit show, so be prepared if you're coming by to do some "quick" shopping. Today and tomorrow should be utter chaos, which is why I'm mentally preparing myself now. Not only are we exhausted, mentally destroyed, and on our last rope as a staff, but our patience is now going to be put to the ultimate test. This weekend is when all the frantic, last-minute, in-a-hurry shoppers come out of the woodwork, so we'll have to have our A game today. It's like playing in the Super Bowl after you've just finished the NFC championship game yesterday.

To have an understanding of what I mean, let me give you an example. There was a guy in yesterday from out of town who was walking around the store, yelling at his companion about every product he saw. Finally he read the sign about the Cut Spike Nebraska single malt, and screamed at the top of his lungs: "Single malt from Nebraska?!" Crazily enough, the store was so busy that his antics went largely unnoticed by most of the shoppers. He finally made his way over to the counter, looked at me with a squinted, discerning eye, and asked "So.....is that single malt really as good as y'all say it is?"

I've been in this situation a million times. You're obviously not going to say, "No, sir it isn't. We just made all that up," so that only leaves the affirmative as an answer. However, if you say, "Yes, sir it is," then they think you're just a salesman who's full of shit, going along with the other "propaganda" in the store that they're too smart for (which is what they're setting you up to be). They're usually waiting to follow up with something like, "Well, it had better be, otherwise I'll be back here looking for you, and you'll hear about it." Me being me—always looking to make a joke out of things—I said, "Well, I sure hope it is because I wrote that sign." The guy just stood there and stared at me. He stood there for at least thirty seconds with a deadpan on his face and didn't budge one inch while I kept scanning the bottles on the counter.

"You see what he did there?" his friend said, breaking the half-minute of silence. "He turned it back around on you. That wuddent no answer." The guy suddenly spun around, began storming down the aisle, launching into hysterics, "What the hell kind of an answer is that?! I'm not looking for no damn mindgame. I just want to know if this thing is good or not. Goddamn single malt from Nebraska! That ain't no goddamn answer!" And then he walked out and never came back.

And that was the fourth weirdest thing that happened yesterday. I'll let you use your imagination about the other three.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec192014

Farm to Bottle: Corbin Returns

David Souza was in the store this week, tasting me on his new batch of Central Valley whiskey, as well as a few other new concoctions he's been working on. I asked him how it was going. He said something in return I've heard from many a producer: "If I would have known how hard this was going to be, I don't think I would have gone through with it." Unlike most small producers in the rye business, David set his retail price at around $50 (what he thought would be fair) and tried to work backward from there to set profitability. His is the only mature rye whiskey that I know of in the United States that is handled from farm to bottle by the same person. David planted the rye, grew the rye, harvested the rye, milled the rye, fermented the rye, distilled the rye, matured the rye whiskey for three years, and bottled it himself in his garage.

I don't think he's figured out how to get rich in the whiskey business yet, but he damn sure has figured out how to make a tasty rye whiskey. What I love about David is that he understands the long-term vision. He's not asking consumers to subsidize his growing pains, but rather is willing to eat the profit to ensure a fair whiskey for a fair price. As time goes on I'm sure he'll win over more consumers with that approach. Batch two is here! Enjoy.

Corbin Cash Merced Rye Whiskey $46.99- Corbin is a farm located in Atwater, California (just south of Modesto) that grows sweet potatoes. A few years back, David Souza, whose family has farmed in the region for a hundred years, decided to add a still to preserve the unused harvest (just like farmers have been doing for hundreds of years) and Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka was born. It turns out that Corbin hasn't only been distilling sweet potato vodka over the past few years; they've also been growing, harvesting, fermenting and distilling their own rye--purchasing custom-charred, 53 gallon white oak barrels from Missouri and filling them with their 100% farm-to-bottle distillate. The sandy soil of Atwater, however, leeches a lot of the nitrogen deep into the earth and a cover crop is needed to help remove some of the nitrogen before another round of sweet potatoes can be planted. It just so happens that rye is the perfect cover. Distilled on the same German Holstein still, the almost 4 year old rye (3.75 years) shows a perfectly-balanced nose of rich oak and rye grain aromas, and a leaner, more classically-styled mouthfeel with hints of baking spice from the barrel aging. It's not a full throttle high proof experience, nor is it a softer, gentler spirit like the Bulleit or Templeton products. The Corbin is its own thing--a purely Californian whiskey, 100% from farm to bottle. The Souzas planted the seeds and handled every step along the way until the booze was bottled. It's real deal whiskey from a local farm.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec182014

Driscoll On Driscoll

I used to be obsessed with these cinema books about directors back when I was a film major in college; a series where directors talked about their own work and analyzed their catalog of movies. There was "Lynch on Lynch", "Cronenberg on Cronenberg", and, of course, "Scorsese on Scorsese". My roommate and I used to joke about these titles, using a real dramatic film voice, and say things like: "Esteemed director David Cronenberg, in an extensive interview from the man who knows him best: David Cronenberg." We would erupt into laughter after that. There was also a great character in the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers played by Tom Sizemore; a renegade cop named Jack Scagnetti who had risen to fame by writing a tell-all auto-biography called "Scagnetti on Scagnetti". I think it's a funny thing when people interview or talk about themselves in a serious manner.

If you've been watching the last few episodes of Stephen Colbert lately, you'll have noticed he's taken to debating with himself; using a split screen to pepper his mirror image with questions. There is some function in that type of self-analyzation, in my opinion; especially when you've changed or evolved over the years into a different mindset. With that in mind, and based off a number of questions I've been asked lately by customers, I thought I'd let the 2009 version of myself interview the 2014 person I am today. It's been five years exactly since I took over the buying for K&L. Let's see what's changed.

2009 David: Single casks are definitely the way for retailers to differentiate their inventory from their competitors, don't you think?  I think the best way to grow your department is to go around the world, visit every distillery that interests you, and try to get your own private barrel. Would you agree?

2014 David: Not in today's market, for a number of reasons. First off, every store has jumped into the private barrel game. It's not even a matter of visiting the distillery these days. Today you can get a sample in the mail, send them a PDF with your logo on it, and—BOOM!—you've got an exclusive single cask just for you. I've seen generic grocery stores with their own cask of Four Roses, department stores with their own version of Ridgemont Reserve, and corner store delis with private editions of Knob Creek. The novelty of a single cask is totally gone. Today, it's more of an expectation, simply because it offers a slight variant from the "normal" or "everyday" stuff. Some distilleries have been so overrun with requests for single casks that it's completely gutted their supply. When a producer is that busy with requests for private barrels, do you really think they're offering their best inventory to these chain outlets? I don't.

2009 David: Well, at K&L we've been able to use our discerning palates to choose what we think are really great barrels, so that gives us an advantage. Not everyone has good taste, right?

2014 David: I think that may have been possible in 2009. In 2014, however, it's more about who you know than how well you can taste. It's more about tasting from a particular set of samples than being able to choose the best cask from a selection of mediocre leftovers. I've found that our best single barrels often times came from producers who helped us do the choosing. I won't say who, but a number of companies we work with will actually go and do the selection for us, then allow us to taste from their sample pool before we commit. Do you think David OG and I know where the best barrels are in each warehouse? Are you such a good taster that you can sniff them out? When I go to the market I ask the people working there what's fresh. How would I know what their best stuff is?

2009 David: I think you can improve the single barrel selection by traveling to spirit-making regions that don't normally offer single casks—Cognac and Armagnac, for example—and try your hand at expanding the private cask market from there. Would you agree?

2014 David: No, I wouldn't agree. Five years ago I would have said yes, but today I don't think that's the answer. Ultimately, what we want and what consumers want is better booze. Whether it's from a single barrel or part of a larger blend, our customers want to be drinking higher quality stuff. One of the biggest realizations that David OG and I had over the past few years was that many spirits do not taste good at cask strength, from a single barrel, or unadulterated—which completely flew in the face of what our core values were. Many Cognac producers had single casks available for purchase that were just unexciting and non-profound. Dudognon, for example, makes perhaps the best Cognac in the business. Yet, when we tasted their single casks, we were completely unimpressed. Rum was another case where single barrels left more to the imagination. We tasted a number of barrels in Guyana that were just flat or uninspiring. We eventually realized we needed to work on a blend with DDL, and not simply pigeonhole ourselves into the single cask market.

2009 David: But buying more than a single cask means you have to commit to larger amounts of inventory. That's a lot to ask of a small retailer.

2014 David: Absolutely, it is. But ultimately it means you have to have more faith and confidence in what you're doing. It's easy to pull the trigger on a single Bourbon barrel because you're only talking about 150 or so bottles. Even if it's a total stinker, you can probably get rid of that number eventually. When you're talking 1500 bottles per batch, like with our Glenfarclas expressions that just landed, or 6,000 bottles, like with our DDL blend that's coming, then there's no room for error. It has to be good, or else you're fucked. But that ultimately weeds out the people who shouldn't be doing this, right?

2009 David: But if you make 6,000 bottles of something, don't you think that people will get tired of it eventually? Single casks are so much better because they allow you to buy smaller amounts of a variety of different things. They allow for an ever-changing, eclectic inventory. That's exciting, don't you think? As soon as one thing sells out—BOOM!—you've got another new cask.

2014 David: I think it's exciting as long as the quality remains consistent or consistently improves. The problem with that game is that you're constantly under the gun to keep outdoing yourself. We've had a great run for the last five years—and I hope we can keep it up—but I see two problems with this model at the moment. 1) I don't think there's enough mature inventory available to keep this up—and as we continue to grow as a company we're in need of more and more booze. 2) We're creating customer ADHD. One of the biggest issues I've seen over the last six to eight months is a lack of interest in anything that isn't limited or a single barrel selection. When we introduced our Glenfarclas expressions I had customers wondering if they would be as good as our single barrel offerings.

"Why wouldn't they be?" I asked.

"Because they're not single barrels and they're not as limited," they said.

I realized then that, because we were choosing single barrels for 90% of our exclusive K&L spirits, we had created the perception that single casks were inherently superior.

2009 David: You don't think single barrel whiskies are better than batched whiskies?

2014 David: Not inherently, I don't. What's the best whisky you've ever tasted, 2009 David?

2009 David: I don't know. Maybe some Pappy Van Winkle.

2014 David: OK, well that's not a single barrel whiskey. And let me tell you something: over the next five years you're going to taste some incredible whiskies; some of them from single barrels and some of them from small batches. You're going to taste incredible single casks of Ladyburn and Glenlochy, but you're also going to taste jaw-dropping marriages of barrels from Port Ellen and Brora. There are going to be some wonderful barrels from Four Roses, but none of them will hold a candle to the Limited Edition Small Batch expressions that Jim creates by blending his barrels together. Ultimately, there's nothing superior about a single cask. What single barrels do allow for, however, is variation and raw beauty. For example, we currently have a single barrel of Laphroaig 15 in refill sherry. There isn't currently a distillery-direct 15 year old expression from Laphroaig available in the U.S., so single casks help us to fill a niche.

2009 David: So you're not against single barrel booze?

2014 David: Not at all. I am against perpetuating the myth that they're inherently better, however, and I'm worried about that idea permeating the whisky community to the point that anything that isn't a single barrel gets ignored. I think we're getting dangerously close to a situation in the industry where brands create limited edition expressions simply because that's all certain people are willing to buy. In the past, single casks were a way to offer an exception to the mass-market. Now, they've been co-opted into the mass market. Limited editions are now so coveted that they've become passe, in my opinion. I don't ever want anything we do at K&L to become stale or clichéd. I definitely don't want to buy single casks just because our customers expect more single casks. I want to buy them because we think the spirit inside of them tastes delicious and offers either value or quality (or both). When you stray from that path you start flirting with disaster.

2009 David: Don't you think it's exciting to buy new things though?

2014 David: Hell yes, I do. But what happens when people are only willing to buy one of everything because they're constantly waiting for something new? That would be a huge problem for the industry. No company, large or small, has the ability to create that many quality products on that frequent of a schedule. Eventually, it becomes a decision between quality and quantity. The question I'll be asking myself and my customers in 2015 is: would you rather have something new or rare, or would you rather have something good? We'll have to see how that goes. I think the future involves us creating more batches of great things—like our Faultline Bourbon, Faultline gin, and Fuenteseca tequila—and not just picking off casks. We've got to step it up to a new level.

-David Driscoll