Monday
Jul222013

The Case for Armagnac

Before you make any assumptions concerning what I'm about to write, this is not a column about how Bourbon drinkers should crossover to Armagnac. This is not a piece about how Armagnac is under-appreciated. This is certainly not an article addressing the many ways in which one should train themself to like something they do not. When I typed in the title, "The Case for Armagnac," I was thinking solely about the way things work in the booze business today. I was thinking about what it takes to start a distillery and the motivations behind doing so. I was imagining the endless parade of sales reps, ad men, business cards, and financial advisers who take up most of my work day. And then I thought about Armagnac and Gascony, a spirit with hardly any marketing from a place where booze is simply something else you do on the side. If you want to understand what drinking is like without the pretense, the competition, the collectability, and the pedantry, I think this is pretty much the last place on earth you can do it.

Diageo owns half of Scotland and the other half is divided between Beam, Pernod-Ricard, and LVMH. Kentucky becomes more profit-oriented by the minute, especially with the current shortage and the demand for more barrels creating a hoarding frenzy among collectors. Cognac has always been about money and image and it remains so today. Even rum is becoming more corporate with recent buyouts in Barbados and Jamaica. Of course, you can always go radical and embrace the craft spirits industry, but more and more producers I meet now are simply counting the days until someone buys them out. Very few are in it for the long haul. Now none of this profiteering, presented in a rather negative light by me, I know, means the booze doesn't taste good. We know it does. I'm merely pointing out that there is a place, with over a century's worth of booze in barrel, where you can taste serious, complex, mature spirit without a bunch of guys stepping over you to get the last bottle. A place free of guides, points, experts, and bloggers. This is a place where no one really thinks they're all that special simply because they have fifty year old brandy on the table. In fact, the people of Gascony are rather puzzled as to why we place so much value on something this basic.

You can geek out on Gascogne culture just as much as you can with any other spirits genre. In fact, doing so with Armagnac isn't even a charicature. You see guys at tastings, wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, trying to prove that they're more Scottish (and therefore more knowledgeable) than the rest of the bunch, but no one at Springbank or Glenfarclas is wearing a kilt. No one at Mount Gay is wearing a straw hat with a linen shirt decorated with palm trees, sipping rum out of a coconut. Still, these cartoonish images are what many feel embody a true love affair with booze. You have to go one step further than the average drinker to prove yourself an expert, moving that gigantic chip a bit further up the shoulder. You've got to "get into" Bourbon. You've got to read every Michael Jackson book, and quote the various experts of the moment. Yet, what does one do to show they love Armagnac? What does a true Gasconite even look like? Which romantic Armagnac ideal can we exploit to sell more bottles? I'm not sure. And that's a good thing!

If you dressed in overalls, work boots, put a plate of terrine and bread out on the table, and poured a small glass of Armagnac for your guests, it might seem like you're trying a bit too hard, but at least you wouldn't be exaggerating the reality of Gascony. This is honestly what Armagnac producers wear (because they are actual farmers doing other things besides distillation) and it's actually what they eat. We like to imagine our Scotsmen in kilts, but really they're just Diageo employees in khaki pants carrying a clipboard while they check the automated still. We like to picture our old friend Pappy smoking a cigar on the porch, decked out in a linen suit, but really it's just some Buffalo Trace guys wearing denim shirts, checking the fill levels before heading back to the office. In Gascony, the romantic imagery actually matches up with reality and we know this because no one is out there trying to sell us on it (except me right now, obviously). There are no billboards of Tariquet on our freeways, no color ads of rustic French farms within the pages of the Whisky Advocate. There are no corporations in Armagnac, buying up land and marking their territory, while gearing up for the next booze explosion. There are only people. Quiet, humble people with little to say and little to prove.

Now I'm not saying that authenticity makes for a better spirit. I'm not saying that farmers make better spirits than corporations. I'm merely saying that no one in Armagnac is acting like they're a small company when they're really a big one. No one in Armagnac is acting like anything. There is no marketing because no one has the time, money, or desire to do it. No one's trying to get rich, or become the next Tariquet (one of the largest producers in the region, yet still smaller than Kilchoman). If you don't like Armagnac, then you don't like Armagnac. This isn't a ploy to get you to embrace something that simply doesn't speak to you. It is, however, a notice that it's quite refreshing to leave all the bullshit behind every now and again and simply drink. Your mind can't be swayed by the latest Armagnac review because no one reviews Armagnac. You can't be baited into bulking up on the latest limited edition release because there's no shortage of supply. You won't have to prove your Armagnac knowledge at the office or on the golf course because no one will have any idea what you're talking about, and they definitely won't be impressed.

No one cares if you've got Darroze 20 open at home. Except maybe for Marc Darroze.

Armagnac is free from advertising. Free from marketing. Free of corporate suits. Free of 90 point reviews. Free of hustling and bustling. Free from forums, message boards, and blogs. Free of must-have-it limited edition releases that sell out in thirty seconds. Free of Diageo. Free of pundits and pedants. Free of caramel coloring and additives. Free! If you want to release yourself from the shackles of your own preconceived notions regarding booze, you need to take a trip to Gascony. You can start over there. Make a new life for yourself. Get back to basics. However, you've got to accept the fact that there's nothing cool about doing so. Drinking Armagnac is definitely not cool. It's not even ironically cool. Not even the hipsters will touch Armagnac.

Armagnac is the last bastion of pure spirit. It's there if you need it.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jul202013

Thinking About Selection

When I was a kid I often thought about how great it would be to own every Nintendo game ever made. All of them, there for the playing whenever I wanted them. Fifteen years later, when emulators were born, I had hundreds of classics at my fingertips on my laptop with a classic controller: Mario, Metroid, Castlevania, Zelda, you name it. Yet, I ended up mostly playing Mike Tyson's Punch Out over and over, simply because I couldn't make up my mind which game to play next.

This is the irony of selection. We think we want everything, yet when we get it we don't know what to do with it. When Napster first debuted during my junior year of college, I remember stockpiling MP3s like it was a full-time job. It was like a dream come true, hundreds of thousands of megabytes there for the taking. I could download albums I had always wanted, but didn't want to actually purchase (illegally, I know, but that's irrelevant for this conversation) just to check them out. I could put thousands and thousands of songs on a player and use it like my own personal jukebox, forever changing the way we would DJ our house parties back then. Today I have more than 5,000 records backed up on my hard drive, yet I still prefer to listen to the radio.

Why is it that I get more excited about hearing my favorite song at a local bar than I am in the comfort of my own house? I can YouTube any song at any time and listen to it on my iPhone, yet there's something special about experiencing that moment when it comes unexpectedly. I remember waiting around all day as a kid to see Cinderella's "Save Me" video on MTV. I would sit there for hours, hoping they'd play it. When it finally would appear I would go crazy, picking up an old tennis racquet that would serve as my fake electric guitar. These days I can watch that video at my leisure, anywhere I am in the world at anytime. While having that access can be a wonderful thing, if I were to randomly see that video on VH1 Classic today I would be far more excited.

It's this phenomenon that's on my mind right now as I eat my lunch and think about my reunion with friends tomorrow in Modesto. We'll be having an all-day party at my friend Eric's house, the site of many memorable nights from my high-school days, and I need to bring the booze. What to bring? We were all born in 1979, so maybe I should grab the 1979 Glenfarclas? Are we really going to drink whisky though? What about wine, should I bring Champagne? Some Bordeaux from the year we graduated? Maybe I should bring a whole case of different spirits that my friends can try and sample as the day progresses. There are so many things I want to share with them! How in the world can I choose just a few?

Ultimately, I know what I need to do, it's just a matter of doing it. I need to spend the day talking to my friends, not talking to my friends about booze. I need to just pick something good, keep it simple, and let the booze speak for itself. Bringing too many things would simply overload my friends' ability to enjoy themselves. We'd all feel pressured to try everything, getting drunk way too fast, and likely sick before the day is over. Limiting our options is definitely the best way to go.

There's a great part in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel Americanah where the main protagonist, Ifemelu, an imigrant from Nigeria, is working as a nanny while attending college in New York. She notices the sister of her boss asking her two-year old daughter if she wants a red, blue, or yellow balloon and the child starts crying when she can't make up her mind. Ifemelu thinks to herself, why even give the kid an option at all? Just give her a balloon! She'll be happy no matter which color she gets because in the end its still a balloon. Adichie writes that one of the great pleasures of childhood is not having to make decisions, but rather living in that bubble, free from responsibility and pressure. Yet more irony, right? As a child we might long to have grown-up options, but as an adult some of our greatest pleasures come from not having to think about these decisions.

What do you want to listen to? I don't know, just put something on the stereo. What do you want to eat? Surprise me. What do you want to drink? You pick it. I've found that many of my most memorable experiences with food and drink have been at the houses of colleagues or friends that planned out the menu for me. I didn't have to do anything but sit back and relax. That's what I'm going to do tomorrow. I'm going to pick a few wines and a bottle of whisky for us to enjoy and that's all there's going to be. No bar full of fifty options, no explaining to my friends why they might want one over the other. I'm just going to pour and that's it.

Sometimes having access to everything results in complete overload and there's nothing fun or fantastic about that.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jul192013

New K&L Exclusive Armagnac

Domaine du Miquer is finally here and I expect this producer to be one of the strongest players in our French spirits department for some time to come. These are both knockouts, classic in every way.

It’s been pretty well documented over the last few decades that many of the most complex and interesting Armagnacs have been distilled from Folle Blanche wine. Besides the rather stubborn varietal, Armagnac can also be stilled from Ugni Blanc, Baco, or Colombard, but Folle Blanche seems to be a very special grape for distillation. The problem, however, is that Folle Blanche is a much more difficult grape to grow, plus it’s not as valuable for wine production as Ugni Blanc and Colombard are. So if you’re into making wine as well as brandy, you’re more likely to grow Ugni Blanc or Colombard. If you’re into making durable, long-lived Armagnac, you’re probably growing Baco. If you’re interested in making tasty, esoteric, miniscule amounts of Armagnac that will only be appreciated by a handful of super-geeky, anal-retentive spirits nerds around the globe, then you’re probably making Armagnac from Folle Blanche. Unfortunately, there are not many producers who cater to us geeky types, so these selections are quite special for that reason.

A bit more info about Domaine du Miquer, you ask? Why sure!

Taken from the blog this past March:

Our next stop after Dupuy was another new face for K&L: an estate called Domaine du Miquer that is run by Jacques Lasserre. Jacques is a veteran of the business and for years was the distiller for many other producers in the region (remember than many Armagnac producers have no stills and hire other people to distill their wine). He knows the production from the vineyard to the bottle and you can tell it right away when you taste his brandy. They are polished and exquisite in quality. His crazy old still was made in 1900 and continues to create one masterpiece after another.

Both David and I expect Miquer to be a big player for K&L in 2013. There were a number of selections that interested us. Even though Jacques only has six hectares of fruit, with which only four are dedicated to distillation, he had tons of great booze. A 1986 Folle Blanche sample was incredibly refined and polished. We were hooked right off the bat. A 1993 showed beautiful aromas and wonderful hints of Blackjack and Big Red gum on the finish. A 1982 Baco was also stunning.

If all goes well we might take as many as five expressions from Miquer because they're so impressive. We can't really ask for better brandy to sell at K&L. Jacques was also a very nice guy who is the kind of person we want to be doing more business with.

1993 Domaine du Miquer K&L Exclusive Bas Armagnac $115.99 - The 1993 is absolutely stunning with a beautiful bouquet of warm baking spices and woody barrel notes. The finish has a vibrant Big Red cinnamon note and hint of anise that really gives it pep. This is a very special brandy that matches some of the best we have ever carried from producers like Darroze, Baraillon, and Ravignan.

1986 Domaine du Miquer K&L Exclusive Bas Armagnac $129.99 - The 1986 is rich, spicy, full of woody notes, but also the softer side of the grape. The Folle Blanche gives this brandy finesse and an elegance that is rarely seen with Armagnac these days.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jul182013

Everyone Loves a Story

I only drink whiskey for the flavor. That's the most important part. I mean, who cares about how it's made and who made it if it doesn't taste great? I don't care what kind of bottle, box, or package it comes in as long as the quality is there.

People love to say things like that. I think it's a nice idea, being such a purist when it comes to drinking that nothing else besides flavor drives your purchasing or preferences. The reality, however, is that the story behind a spirit will ultimately make or break most sales, even to the most knowledgeable enthusiasts. In fact, it's often the most passionate drinkers who are most susceptible to the most romantic storylines. I know this because I'm one of those people.

If all we cared about were skill and precision then we all would have rooted for Apollo Creed over Rocky. If all that concerned us were proficiency and focus then everyone's favorite band would be Rush, not Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. If simple pleasure was the only thing on our minds then we'd all be just as happy making love to a complete stranger in the dark. This is not reality, however. There are many other factors outside of quality that influence how we feel about people, places, and things.

For example, the 1945 Camut Calvados we tasted last year in Normandy was pretty amazing. However, the fact that it was the first vintage distilled after Normandy was liberated from Nazi control put that sip into an entirely different perspective. It's that amazing story, told to us by the Camut brothers about their grandfather, that literally brought a tear to my eyes as I was nosing the glass. Or look at the fact that we completely sold out of Elmer T. Lee Bourbon yesterday, as whiskey drinkers everywhere looked to honor the legendary distiller who saddly passed away this week at the age of 93. The namesake and the legacy of that man was what drove those sales - an outpour of emotion and the desire to raise a glass in memory.

That's why when I got another routine box of barrel samples in the mail yesterday from Four Roses, I wasn't chomping at the bit to go through them. Until I checked my inbox and found an email from master distiller Jim Rutledge telling me that he had gone to the warehouse and picked these samples out personally (hence the JR with the circle around it on each label). The last few cask selections we had received hadn't featured anything super exciting, so unfortunately I had gotten into the habit of telling my sales rep that we wouldn't be taking another barrel for the time being. This information had eventually reached Jim, so he took it upon himself to go down to the rickhouse and find me some barrels he thought would be extra special. That changed my entire outlook on that box of bottles sitting under my desk. Jim picked these out? Himself? Especially for K&L? Wow, that changes everything. I paid extra special attention to each sample this time around and thought about why Jim might have chosen each of them as I tasted.

When we eventually bring one (or more) of these Four Roses barrels into the store, the fact that Jim Rutledge picked out these samples will definitely carry more weight in the product description. Just like it does when Four Roses releases their Limited Edition single barrel each year. Ultimately, there's nothing like a good story to help us along with our enjoyment of life. Knowing why something is a little extra special is something we all appreciate, even if we like to say that we don't care as much as we do.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jul172013

The Rocket Returns Tomorrow

Anyone interested in tasting some free Ardbog while doing their best Slim Pickens impersonation should come by the Redwood City store tomorrow between 5 PM and 6:30. We'll see you there!

-David Driscoll