I Love the Label

I saw a customer in the store yesterday just staring at the whisky shelf in awe. He was pouring over every label, inspecting the artwork with extreme care, with a level of reverence that was almost ceremonial. I asked him if he needed any help, to which he asked, "Have you ever had this whisky?"

"I have," was my answer.

"Is it good?" he responded.

"That depends on what you're in the mood for," I said. We talked for another few minutes and, after listening to a story of mine, he smiled, shook my hand, and walked away without buying the bottle. I had talked him (purposely) out of the purchase.

"I just love the label," he told me before leaving.

I know what it's like to be obsessed with the artwork and the idea of a product. The lust I see in the eyes of today's whisky drinkers highly resembles the unabated, feverish craze I once had for music. There was a time in my life when I had over 1,000 CDs (all purchased, none copied), arranged on a gigantic wooden rack by genre, and no dollar amount spent was ever enough to break my spirit. I would buy CDs instead of food, if it came down to a decision between the two. When I was 21 and working as a waiter in San Francisco, I exacerbated the issue by taking a second job at Tower Records in the evenings. It was pretty much indentured servitude.

With a gigantic selection at my fingertips and a staff discount by my side, I expanded my musical selection like never before while working on Market St. I would talk for hours with my co-workers about my favorite albums and they would say things like, "Well if you like that, then you should try this." Then, of course, there was the artwork that would catch my attention while I stocked. I loved looking at the images on each jewel box, wondering what was happening on every disc that passed through my fingers. There were times when I wanted to buy albums based purely on the imagery; none more tempting than Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. I wouldn't call myself a serious jazz fan, but I had enjoyed works like Giant Steps by Coltrane, or Davis's earlier masterpiece Kind of Blue. I had heard of acid jazz and read about Miles's experimental foray into rock and electronic fusion, but it wasn't something that intrigued me all that much. For some reason, however, that cover just called to me.

Anyone who tells you the label on a bottle of whisky isn't important is crazy. A great label will sell a bottle of anything faster than a good review. A bad label will require the whisky to taste twice as good just to overcome the terrible aesthetic (as one of my customers once said, "I like the whisky, David, but I don't want to look at that ugly piece of shit on my bar every night.") I probably stared at that Bitches Brew cover every day for three weeks. And it was a double album! Not one, but two discs worth of enlightenment. The first side only had two songs and they were both over twenty minutes a piece. "That's a classic," one of the Tower customers said to me one day as I was holding the album.

"Really?" I asked. "I've been thinking about getting it for weeks."

"You should," he said. "It's one of the most amazing jazz accomplishments ever recorded."

That was all the motivation I needed. Sure, it was an expensive leap of faith (it was about $27 after my discount, which was a lot for a young waiter paying an outrageously high rent in the city), but I justified it by calling the purchase "a necessary growing experience." It was a classic, right? And if the genius of Miles Davis inspired the incredible mural on the cover, then it must be amazing. I couldn't wait to get home that night and pop that thing in my stereo (remember those?). I had finally found the courage to just pull the trigger and take a risk.

I think I got about halfway through "Pharoah's Dance" before I got totally bored. Then, during the title track, I got a little bit scared. What the hell was this? Was this jazz? I couldn't unwind to this! Bitches Brew was one of the least utilitarian albums I had ever owned. Like a number of whiskies I've experienced, one sip was more than enough. The drum beat kinda flowed, but the electronic keyboard was disjointed; the horns more like those honking in a car than the bebop sound I was expecting. I stared at the cover again. Maybe I just didn't get it. "Actually, maybe this isn't that bad," I said to myself, trying to convince the buyer's remorse away. I finally gave up and stopped listening about halfway through "Spanish Key." I made room for the album in the jazz section of my gigantic collection and went to bed.

Today, listening to the album again (for maybe the fifth time ever), I can appreciate it more than I did thirteen years ago, but it's not something I would ever choose to listen to. I still love that artwork though. In fact, looking at that Mati Klarwein mural right now makes me curious. Maybe I should give Bitches Brew another shot. Maybe I just wasn't in the right spot mentally back them. Maybe I'm the one who's missing something. I mean, everyone says it's good, right? It has an almost perfect five star rating on Amazon. Critics everywhere agree it's a classic. Here we go again.

Now let me tell you about the time in college when I got high, went to the record store, and tried to buy every No Limit Records hip-hop album because the glitzy, embossed artwork they used on the covers made each one seem like an incredible adventure. Thank God my credit card got declined.

-David Driscoll


More New Sake

When I was in Japan last week, I could not get over how much sake there was everywhere. We'd walk through the subway stations and there would be huge storefronts full of sake, as far as the eye could see. Shelves and shelves of different selections that numbered into the hundreds at some establishments. "Who the hell is drinking all this?" I thought.

"More importantly, why am I not drinking all of this?" I thought immediately following.

 I don't know anyone in the U.S. who drinks sake regularly. Why not? Because we don't know anything about it, that's why. If we all knew a little bit more, I think we'd be more interested in giving it some attention. Why? Because it's delicious, distinct, and different from what we're usually choosing between.

Ichishima is a family-owned brewery in the Niigata prefecture that has been making sake since 1790. Located on the western coast of Japan, it's nestled in between the ocean and the mountains, and can receive more than 30 feet of snow annually. The cold temperature allows for an incredibly long fermentation times (roughly five weeks), resulting in light, delicate, and elegant sake flavors that bring new meaning to the word graceful. Niigata sakes are meant to pair well with seafood and sushi; two specialties of the coastal region. Jeff Garneau and I met with Tiffany Soto this week to taste through the entire Ichishima portfolio and we were really taken aback by the quality. We're still roughly new at this, so while we liked everything we tasted, we went with three of the most distinct and different expressions in the line-up.

Ichishima Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake 720ml $26.99- The Tokubetsu Honjozo sake is made from Gohyakumangoku and Koshiibuki rice, polished down to 60%. Technically, the milling percentage would allow Ichishima to classify it as Ginjo, but in order to save on export tax, as well as provide value to their customers, they declassified the sake to Honjozo. Tokubetsu Honjozo means a small amount of rice spirit is added late in the fermentation process, stimulating the yeast cells into making a second round of aromatics. Those flavors do indeed show up on the palate, as the crisp melon and pear flavors see just a bit more richness and tanginess than the standard Ichishima expressions. For the price, this is one of the most-dynamic, interesting, and high-quality sakes we carry at K&L.

Ichishima Ginjo Koshu Sake $69.99- The Ginjo Koshu sake is a bit of a twist on the Ginjo classification, as the liquid is matured in an enamel-lined tank for five years after it is brewed (a tank that sits in sub-zero temperatures, is denied of oxygen, and sees no light whatsoever). The effect the aging process has on the sake is profound. The aromas are mushroomy and earthy, with umami galore and a pungent richness. This is a sake to pair with braised meats and fragrant cheeses. It's a savory delight that really transcends what we normally consider sake to be.

Ichishima Ginnoyorokobi Daiginjo Sake $149.99-  The Ginnoyorokobi Daiginjo is the top of the Ichishima line and is easily the most amazing sake we carry at K&L. Using koshitanreii rice (a proprietary hybrid of yamada nishika & gohyakumangoku that can only be grown in Niigata), this is one of the only truly regional sakes on the market. The palate is creamier with hints of white chocolate and mint. The flavors meander from crisp melon to soft vanilla, and the sake finishes with an herbaceous flutter. One of the most complex and full-flavored sakes I've ever experienced, while simultaneously remaining restrained and delicate in nature. Simply stunning.

-David Driscoll


Back to Basics: Malts

So you're a new generational whisky enthusiast and you want to know where to start. You've got $40, maybe $50 to blow and you want to make it count. Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan, and Balvenie all seem rather safe. Heck, you can get most of those at Trader Joe's now. So where do you go for a basic single malt education that offers a core foundation of classic Scotch whisky flavor, but allows you to taste something a bit out of the ordinary, while remaining focused on value and bang-for-the-buck? You don't just want your money's worth, you want more than your money's worth. For me personally, these are six of the best malt expressions to start with. Let me tell you why:

Nikka 12 Year Old Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese Whisky $59.99 - So you've heard that Japanese whisky is quite popular these days. You're right; it is. But while the mainstream choice is always going to be Suntory, it's Nikka that is quietly bringing the goods to your local boutique retailer. You can go back and read my posts from Japan for more info, but the Nikka 12 Year Old Taketsuru is a marriage of single malts from both the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, and the Miyagikyo distillery near Sendai. Using a formula of different flavors--sherry, malty, vanillic--made from whiskies aged in different types of casks, the aromas are heady and full of oily grains. The palate is soft, supple, brimming with fruit and a shift towards sherry and vanilla at the back. Bring this to a party and you'll be the star. Most people have never had it, so pour it blind and watch them say Macallan.

Glendronach 12 year old Distillery Bottling Single Malt Whisky $47.99 - Another whisky distillery that continues to over-deliver is Glendronach; a Highland distillery that uses a healthy dose of sherry in their single malt expressions. The 12 year is first matured in ex-Bourbon casks for a decade, then transferred to active sherry butts for a two year finishing. The result is a wonderfully fruity whisky on the initial entry, but one that quickly turns to cakebread and spice on the finish. The great thing about the 10 and 2 maturation process is that the malty character of the whisky doesn't get obliterated by the sherry. The rich oloroso character comes through, but it mixes wonderfully with the inherent whisky flavor. I just reopened this and it's tasting better than ever. This is a great whisky to cut your teeth on. Hell, this is just great whisky.

BenRiach 12 year old Single Malt Whisky $44.99 - BenRiach is the sister distillery to Glendronach and is a perfect example of the lighter Highland style of single malt. Rather than rich sherry flavor you've got pears and vanilla with the sweetness of oak spices. The finish gets malty and grainy, turning into just a basic, old school Scotch flavor. This is Scotch that tastes like Scotch; really good Scotch. The great thing about BenRiach is that you can graduate up the ladder and move into the peated and triple-distilled expressions. If you're a Lagavulin fan, I'd definitely recommend checking out the Benriach 17 Solstice. It's a smoky, Port-finished whisky that, in my opinion, delivers far beyond its price point. Gotta love BenRiach.

Glenmorangie 10 year old The Original Single Malt Whisky $29.99 - I've pretty much covered this guy here. Amazing value. Great whisky. Nuff said.

Ardbeg Uigeadail Traditional Strength Islay Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - This is the whisky that legitimized NAS (no age statment) single malts with hardcore fans (before a number of newer whiskies delegitimized them again). By using a marriage of both young and old casks, Ardbeg unleashed the barrel strength Uigeadail on the world and quickly became the industry darling. More than a decade later, it's still the standard for Islay whisky in my opinion (next year will actually be the 200th anniversary of the distillery). It's salty, peaty, briny, smoky, and layered with bits of butterscotch and vanilla underneath all the maritime flavor. The Ardbeg 10 and Corryvreckan are also great, but I think the Uigeadail at $55 is one of the world's great spirits. It's a whisky that every geek from SF to NYC was drinking five years ago, and bragging about to their friends. It's the whisky that made Islay cool again.

Springbank 10 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - Finally, if you want to experience a bit of all these whiskies combined, then you go with Springbank 10. The Cambeltown stalwart is pretty much the last guy left on the Kintyre Peninsula, but they make whisky the old-fashioned way and it shows in the variation. If you want your whisky to taste the same way each time you buy a bottle, then Springbank isn't the whisky for you. Personally, I love the inconsistency. It reminds me that I'm drinking something real and hand-made. The 10 year is a marriage of both Bourbon and Sherry-aged whiskies, with a light amount of peat smoke. It has the richness of Glendronach and Nikka, the fruit of Glenmorangie and Benriach, and a bit of that Ardbeg smoke. Chewy, dense, and mouthcoating on the finish. One of my perennial favorites. I just opened a bottle before writing this post. It's like the first time again.

I'm loving this. These are six great bottles of hooch. Not one of them more than $60. Not one of them hard to get. All of them here when you need them. All of them top value.

-David Driscoll


Back to Basics: Books

Back in the day, we used to read books to learn about whiskey. They were bound with paper, upon which information about whiskey was written. Books, as they were called, wouldn't be updated daily, didn't allow you to leave a comment, and once they were printed were often irrelevant and out-of-touch due to a quickly-moving marketplace. Some of my favorite books—Jackson's Whiskey, Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight—were written in a much different whiskey environment than today, so newcomers to booze might have to do a little extra research on the side. They're still great resources, but they won't necessarily tell you about many of the new producers who have popped up over the last decade.

Enter Lew Bryson. Lew is maybe my favorite Whisky Advocate writer because he usually writes about Four Roses Yellow, or some $20 bottle that he pounded while watching a football game. He and I have corresponded over the years via email, and we even met in person once (although since there are no updated photos of me online it took him about five minutes to realize who he was talking to). I love his easy, mellow, fun-focused, non-snobby approach and I think consumers—both old and new—will get a kick out of his new all-encompassing book: Tasting Whiskey. You'll notice they put a quote from Chuck on the front cover. It was actually supposed to be a quote from me, but they didn't think that "This is the best new fucking whiskey book on the fucking planet!" was appropriate, I guess.

And, without giving too much of his content away, Lew has fantastic reference images with easy-to-understand diagrams throughout each chapter. These pie charts of Bourbon mashbills are outstanding! They're just what I need to refresh my memory every now and again, while also providing a basic visual explanation for newcomers. But it's not just about Bourbon. There's Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and American coverage, as well as cocktail trends, craft producers, glassware, you name it.

In keeping with the theme of these posts, Lew's new book provides the basic framework for tasting, buying, consuming, and enjoying your whiskey. I've never had so much fun getting back to basics. 

You'll want a copy.

-David Driscoll


Respect For Your Elders: Back to Basics

I'm not sure how many of you caught the piece I wrote about Glenmorangie 10 a little more than a week ago, but it apparently struck a nerve with a number of folks. A whole slough of people I haven't heard from in years emailed me to tell me how much they enjoyed it. It was nice to hear from some old friends. Yesterday, we used that entire blog post as a marketing email to our general whisky list andto my surprisepeople actually read it. Instead of calling our customer service line to simply order a bottle or two, we had people calling in just to voice their support for what we were doing: offering a great whisky for a great price.

That's really what success as a retailer depends upon; not blogging, or emailing, or being dashingly handsome (wink, wink). You can be a terrible writer, have zero social skills, and live in a cave under your store, but if you can offer good whisky for a good price, you're going to do alright (as long as you don't offer too good of a price and go into bankruptcy). In following with some of the themes I've been touching on lately—rising prices, customer burnout, and an unhealthy obsession with shiny new things—I figured I'd put my money where my mouth is. Why not get back to basics? Five years ago we could sell standard release brands with ease; it was the special edition whiskies we had to actually explain and convince our customers to consider. Today, it's the complete opposite. In this market we can't sell enough limited edition whiskies; to the point that the big brands are now actually struggling to sell their standard marks. Limited edition whiskies are the talk of the town. We stalk their very arrival. They're the only things the internet wants to talk about, which is why so much focus is put upon their acquisition—no matter the price. That's why I'm going to stop writing about them for a while. There's no function in that subject anymore.

Don't worry: I'll still tell you when new things come in. That's my job after all. But you don't need the detailed background of a whisky destined to sell out in two minutes. The commercial side of the internet has caught up with whisky. In the past, you needed bloggers to keep you informed. Today, the whisky companies send you an email long before their juice hits the states. We're at the point where informed customers often know more about new releases than I do! That's why it's the perfect time to revisit the classics. Isn't that why we still force kids to read Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck in high school? Because even though they've been read millions of times by previous classes, there's always a new group of youngsters waiting to be initiated? While the generation I started with back in 2007 has already read all of the literary whisky equivalents, there's a budding group of young drinkers who are still learning about what's what. Are we to teach them that the only things worth drinking today are Pappy and Port Ellen? That's a bad education; one lacking in the basic pillars of whiskydom, yet that's the message being sent.

So let's take a break from the hoopla. I'm going to at least. Let's revisit the classics.

-David Driscoll