Thursday
Aug222013

Defining Craft (Part II)

I sat down to write an article called "Defining Craft" this morning, only to realize that I've already written this article. It's getting to the point where I've written so many posts that I'm forgetting about what I've discussed and what I haven't. In any case, the gist of the subject I felt like tackling is already spelled out in the previous post from last May (which is great because now I only have to type half of what I had planned). However, seeing that the American Distilling Institute has come up with a new distinction to determine "craft" distilling from "craft" blending, I think it's important to explain what's going on in the world of "craft" spirits in general - especially with the most recent edition of the Whisky Advocate dedicating its entire issue to "craft" whiskey (one of the most thorough and in-depth issues I've ever read of the publication, by the way). Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this today is because of these recent additions to the "craft" discussion, but another is the way that the terms "hand-crafted" and "artisanal" are being used on the label to market these products .

As usual, John Hansell's opening editorial, "Thinking Small," sets the tone for the rest of the Whisky Advocate issue. In this most recent issue, he writes,  

"Much of the craft whiskey being produced is unaged, also known as white whiskey, largely for economic reasons: it costs money to wait for whiskey to age in barrels. Just ask the Scotch distillers. But this isn't what defines craft distilling. Perhaps more than anything else, it's the variety of the products and the creativity of the distillers. It's not just that there are so many of them, but that they are also making an incredible variety of whiskey."

Creativity and variety are the words Hansell uses to summarize what's going on with "craft" whiskey distillation. I don't disagree with that summation at all. It's entirely accurate. Let's also examine what ADI had to say recently:

The American Distilling Institute defines Craft Spirits as the product of an independently owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,500 cases, where the principal distiller defines the house style and oversees all aspects of production. CRAFT DISTILLED SPIRITS are the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,500 cases where the product is distilled and bottled on site.

Size, scale, and independence are the main criteria for the ADI definition. These are important aspects to consider as well.

Are we missing one here, however?

What about quality? Shouldn't a distillery have to meet a certain qualitative level to be considered "craft" or "artisanal"? I understand that assessing the quality of a spirit can be a very subjective process (just ask anyone who has sampled the Lost Spirits single malts), but unless this issue is addressed within the "craft" spirits community the whole movement is going to lose credibility.....and fast. I say this because currently on my desk are over twenty samples from new, small, "craft" distilleries that definitely meet the criteria set up by the ADI definition. Not some, not half, not most, but all of these bottles say something along the lines of "hand-crafted, artisanal" on the label to help separate them from the pack of bulk-branded spirits. These smaller, "craft" spirit products want to be recognized for their "artisanal" production methods and their "hand-crafted" quality, which apparently the big boys are lacking. Yet, the Merriam-Webster definition of "craft" reads: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill. Does that definition not apply to Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, or Heaven Hill?

And what about the quality of these "hand-crafted" spirits? Is there a striking difference between the "artisanal" vodka on my desk and the bottle of Belvedere on our shelf? Is there a supremely superior aroma emanating from the bottle of "hand-crafted" white corn whiskey that is lacking in the standard Buffalo Trace white dog? I'm not so sure. And that's where I have a big problem, not so much as a fan or aficionado of spirits, but as a retailer. Let me further explain.

I'm all about the story when it comes to booze. I love a romantic tale about old-school production, years of tradition, coming up the hard way, all that stuff. Anyone who reads this blog and sees the way I market our products knows that. However, I'm only interested in that story if the product being described offers value and quality for our customers. Currently sitting in my email inbox are multiple responses from "craft" distillers whose products I have decided not to carry at K&L because I don't think they offer value and quality beyond what we already have. Most of them want me to reconsider the heritage, the story, and the intrigue of their brands. My problem, however, is that anything a customer purchases from K&L becomes my responsibility. I have to stand by our selection and believe in the quality of whatever it is that we're selling. How can I look someone in the face and say, "Yes, ma'am, I do believe that this 'craft' vodka is better than Grey Goose" if I don't really believe it?

While ADI wants to distinguish between "craft distilled" and "craft blended," there is no standard in the United States that prevents a producer from adding the words "hand-crafted" or "artisanal" to the label, regardless of which category they fall into and regardless of whether those words apply to the spirit inside the bottle or not. These descriptors can be very deceptive to the everyday spirits customer because there is a growing demand for quality in the spirits market and an even larger push to understand what defines it. In the case of wine or beer, smaller production measures that are "artisanal" or "craft" often do result in a higher quality product.  Therefore, when the same words are used to describe a spirit, they imply that the product is of a quality that exceeds the standards of non-craft distilled spirits. This is rarely the case, however, as it's often just a marketing gimmick catering to that type of consumer.  When the term "hand-crafted" is exploited for profit it ruins the credibility of all "craft" distilleries, not just the culprits looking to cash in. To me, this is a bigger problem than putting "Colorado whiskey" on a product that was distilled in Indiana.

To me, the term "craft" is slowly becoming the newest incarnation of "organic" - a buzzword that eventually becomes more important than taste or flavor. Is that apple "organic"? Is your milk "organic"? How can you tell? Oh, there, it says "ORGANIC" in gigantic, size 140 font right there on the label. My buddy Thad Vogler from Bar Agricole was recently quoted in an article about green spirits, saying, “I definitely shy away from people who are marketing their products as green. Either it’s a large company trying to fool you or a mediocre company trying to give you another reason to buy their product, other than quality.” I couldn't agree more. Usually the people trying the hardest to talk about how sustainable their spirits are have the worst-tasting booze, hence, why they're focusing so heavily on that one aspect. "Craft" spirits might be going down the same road. More people seem to be focusing on size and scale than actual quality.

There are plenty of small American distilleries that are making high-quality hooch deserving of the term "artisinal." St. George. Clear Creek. Osocalis. Anchor. Leopold Bros. But these guys aren't new to the party. St. George began distilling in 1982. Clear Creek in 1985. Osocalis in 1991. Anchor in 1993. Leopold Bros. began distilling their gin in 2002. These guys aren't giving you their mistakes, their experiments, their first-batches, or their trials and errors. They've been doing this for a decade or more and they've turned their craft into actual "craft" products. But what about the newer guys that are capitalizing on the "craft" spirits bandwagon? Are they all as deserving of the same praise? That question must be answered on a case-by-case basis and should be 100% based on the quality of the spirits being produced, not solely on the size, scale, ownership, or vision.

Here at K&L we only have one way of determining if a "craft" spirit offers both value and quality for our customers: our own opinion. While I respect the task that ADI is attempting to do in the name of the consumer, I don't think it's a problem that can be solved with a simple sticker or description. Ultimately, not one customer at K&L is going to care if a product is "craft" if they feel like that spirit doesn't offer value for the money. Once they've been burned by one "hand-crafted, artisanal" product, they're going to be skeptical of any bottle with those terms on the label. And they should be! I am too!

Hand-tailored suits should fit better and offer a quality beyond that of a suit taken off the rack. Hand-crafted furniture should be more solid and dependable than the mass-produced, flat-packed IKEA options. Both a tailored suit and a hand-crafted coffee table will cost you more for these reasons. By that logic, a hand-crafted spirit should cost more because it offers you something beyond what Diageo, Beam, or Pernod-Ricard are able to pump out. "Craft" spirits are giving us more creativity. They're giving us more diversity. They're definitely giving us more variety.

But are they giving us more quality? Or is the movement itself becoming crafty?

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug212013

Almost There

1981s are done. We're working on the 1999s right now. Should be ready to go by Friday. YUM!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug202013

Sunday Pubcrawl

I purposely cut back on my Saturday night alcohol intake to prepare for what I knew would be an epic Sunday marathon. My wife and I had plans to meet friends in the city for an early brunch, then wander our way around San Francisco, eating and drinking until one of us said "mercy." It had been a while since we had experienced one of the most insane debauchery sessions in recent memory – a day that we had thought was winding down, only to kick back up into a hazy memory of speed cocktailing and late-night Tacolicious. This time I had vowed to maintain more control throughout the day and end the evening in a more subdued frame of mind. Would I be able to follow through on my campaign promise? I needed to be steadfast.

We began in the Tenderloin with brunch at Brenda's – another in a long line of trendy breakfast locales with a line out the door and at least an hour's wait for a table. I had gone through this debacle a few weekends back and had left many city hot spots both haughty and hungry when I decided I was too cool to wait that long for food. This time, however, armed with coffee-to-go and a banana I was ready to exercise my legs and my patience. Let me tell you that of all the brunch places I've so far dined at in the Bay Area, Brenda's by far takes the cake. Waiting an hour for eggs and mimosas is pointless. You can get eggs and a mimosa at dozens of other places in San Francisco. However, waiting an hour for fried oyster omelets, chedder cheese grits, fried hash, fluffy cream biscuits and decadent beignets (New Orleans-style doughnuts stuffed with chocolate, apples, crawfish, or just pastry) is an entirely different story. Washing all that down with a Cajun Bloody Mary doesn't hurt either. It was incredible. Unique, down-home, and a refreshing change of pace from our usual breakfast routine. Best of all, my stomach was properly fortified against the onslaught that awaited it. As Charles Bukowski would've said, "I've got fuel."

While we had planned on Brenda's far in advance, we had no idea that Sunday was also the date of the Tenderloin Street Fair – a fortuitous event that allowed us to walk freely through the colorful neighborhood without any traffic. We didn't need to wander far, however, because next on the list was a new bar called Emperor Norton's Boozeland, a new pub on Larkin between Eddy and Turk that features a remodled backroom with shuffleboard and pool tables, along with a bitchin' outdoor patio where you might stumble upon Thor – the absolutely gigantic pitbull who hangs out there with his local owner. I had a Chartreuse and tonic (I know it sounds weird, but try it) followed by a whisky and soda while we chatted, threw a few pucks down the salted table, and watched Thor bite a hole through the bar owner's jeans. It was a love bite, but a love bite from Thor could take your arm off. If you're in the Loin, I'd highly recommend dropping by Boozeland. It's got a relaxed, unpretentious vibe and a fun atmosphere with one of the most eclectic jukebox selections around (lots of Ween).

Three drinks into the day, we decided to mosey towards Union Square and the new Golden Gate Tap Room – a massive spot on Sutter street close to Powell with huge televisions, lots of pool, and even skeeball – Chuck E Cheese style! They've got a good amount of beer on tap and so much space that I can't imagine it ever being full. My wife and I spend a decent amount of time shopping between Powell and Stockton, so it's nice to know there's a fun spot to get a drink and maybe eat a grilled cheese sandwich. I killed two Anchor Steams while my friend and I shared stories about our Hollywood experiences at the Scientology Celebrity Center. Apparently he had also tried to break into the Franklin location while intoxicated. He made it all the way in, however. I was utterly captivated.

Since I had used up my four hours of potential parking on Polk, we had to walk back through the Tenderloin celebration, dancing with all kinds of folk along the way, taking in the numerous live music acts, before piling into my VW and heading south towards Trick Dog – the newest cocktail darling in the Mission District. We posted up along the backwall, received our cocktail menus (with the drink written on EP vinyl where the name of the artist would normally be), and combed through the pages to see what we wanted. To be honest, the whole experience feels a little forced, as if they're so worried about being hipster credible that they just went all the way. If you really want to be hip, why not just tattoo the menu on the inside of the bartender's wrist next to the cross section of a pig and a butcher's knife? Better yet, why not force me to bring my own mini vitrola and listen to the menu audibly? I kid Trick Dog. While I was honestly confused by the menu, the drinks we had were very well done. They were out of a few ingredients so I was forced to switch up my first choice into a Hangar One-based concoction with lime. We were all very impressed, but we couldn't stay for seconds because our stomachs were starting to grumble.

We tried hitting up the nearby Flour & Water but we had just missed the last table at opening, meaning we were looking at an hour or more before getting seated. We decided to wing it and headed west towards Mission St. where our gut told us that such a beautiful evening deserved a rooftop setting with lots of small plate options. We walked up the stairs to Lolinda's outdoor, latin-inspired El Techo patio and found an absolutely packed house. People were talking, drinks were flying, snacks were being nibbled, the sun was going down, and we were pumped. I had never even heard of Lolinda, but apparently I was the only one. The first drink I ordered (pictured above) was the El Presidente – something with white rum, Luxardo, and curacao that went down too easily. My second drink was a cold beer because I knew I could have put down dos Presidentes más even quicker. I was really impressed with Lolinda. The drinks were top notch. The food, even better. We had steak quesadillas with real Oaxacan cheese stretching like gooey mozzarella between a thick, hand-made corn tortilla. We had chorizo sticks, big fat chips with fresh guacamole, beef empanadas with flaky fried crusts, and a gigantic Cuban-style sausage sandwich with picked jalepeños and a fried egg on top. That was all before the monster plate of pork chicharones appeared with more tortillas and tangy salsa. I gorged. I gorged some more. Meanwhile I watched the show unfold before me, both on the patio and on the horizon. You need to go here if you haven't been.

After dinner we headed north to 16th, then back behind Dalva to the Hideout for a nightcap of Amaro di Santa Maria al Monte. It helped digest the mound of food still sitting in my stomach and it was the perfect way to wind down the evening. We walked the long way down Valencia, eventually heading back to our car on 20th near Alabama before calling it a night. The cool air refreshed my body and my head, and by the time I got behind the wheel I was completely fine. I had paced myself successfully and managed to enjoy a long, lasting, extremely delightful day full of food, booze, friends, new experiences and conversation. We even got home in time to watch the new Breaking Bad before hitting the hay.

I treasure days like this. Who wants to come with me next time?

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug192013

New K&L Spirits Newsletter Going Out Now to 600K

With an ever-expanding database of more than 600,000 people, K&L is really starting to reach a lot of passionate drinkers out there. Most of our customers, however, are here for the wine, but today they're going to get a special treat in their email inbox. Our new K&L Exclusive Spirits Newsletter is going out in just a few minutes to the entire K&L database.

Hopefully there's still some booze left after they're done going through all of our new selections!

Download your copy here via PDF.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Aug182013

More Letters from the Mailbox

David - Why aren't there any older Bourbons available at K&L? What happened to things like Rittenhouse Rye 25, Vintage 17, and Jefferson's 18? How long until we're likely to see these again?

Great question(s). Let me start by saying that most extra-mature Bourbon that you've purchased over the years (let's say anything older than 15 years) wasn't really part of any particular business model or forward-thinking plan on behalf of American whiskey companies. It was simply because they had extra booze, sitting there in their warehouses, getting older because no one was buying it. If you've ever gone to a backroads liquor store and seen bottles on the shelf, covered in dust, that look like they've been sitting there since the 1980s, imagine the same situation for America's whiskey producers. These liquor stores never planned on having those bottles for two decades, they planned on someone purchasing those bottles. In the case of American whiskey distillers, they produced Bourbon and rye anticipating a certain number of sales as well. A good amount of it didn't sell, however. The difference between the liquor in a dusty bottle and the liquor in the barrel, however, is that the latter will continue to age. If you talk to someone from Heaven Hill they'll tell you exactly what they've told me - there were never any plans to make Rittenhouse 25. The only reason they even had 25 year old rye is because they made more than they could sell and it just sat there getting old. (According to Chuck Cowdery, they were storing it for a customer who had bought more than he could sell. When it got to be so old, Heaven Hill informed the customer that it was probably getting too old and offered to buy it back, because they realized there was now a market for it. That was a situation peculiar to the Rittenhouse)

Before this whole whiskey renaissance happened, many producers were happy just to clear this old stock out of their warehouses. That's how David Perkins from High West got his hands on older rye whiskies from LDI. Seagrams had made all that rye for their own Seagrams whiskey label, not for some single barrel cask strength limited expression. That rye only sat there in Indiana, maturing year after year, because Edgar Bronfman Jr. orchestrated one of the worst investment strategies in history, putting Seagrams money into the film industry, before finally losing his family's drink business to Pernod-Ricard in the year 2000. All of the Seagrams assets were sold off (Coca-Cola took the sodas and mixers) and PR planned to shut down LDI as well, until it was sold to CL Financial in 2007 – the exact same year David Perkins founded High West in Utah and began readying his old Seagrams whiskey expressions.

As far as I understand it (and there may be some things here I don't understand as well), any older stocks that Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill have on hand are so limited that we're likely to only see a handful of extra-mature Bourbon releases per year, in quantities so limited that getting a bottle of Elijah Craig 20 or Four Roses Limited Edition will be no different from finding a bottle of Van Winkle – at least at K&L (I can't speak for the allocations of other regions or retailers). If they are easier to find, expect a price tag north of $100 as the reason behind it. Heaven Hill plans on releasing an Elijah Craig 21 at around $140 over the next few years, as they continue to slowly leak out what extra-mature whiskey is left. The situation has gone from getting rid of glut-era whiskey, to recouping its full market value. I don't imagine that stocks are going to improve for some time either. If production only started increasing within the last five years that means we're at least a decade away from any healthy supply of 15 year old whiskey. From my conversations with Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses this is the situation I've come to understand. I don't know much about Beam's older stocks, nor the situation at Brown-Forman or Wild Turkey, but maybe we'll learn more when we visit later this year.

-David Driscoll