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Tuesday
Mar112014

Plight 2.0

You've gotta love the internet. I make a crappy little comic called Plight of the Whiskey Blogger and all of a sudden I have readers sending me their own versions of it. Graphic illustrator Scott Lafleur is a K&L customer and Spirits Blog reader. He sent me his take on the Whisky Expert character this weekend. He's waaaaaaaay better than me at this.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar102014

Weekend Observations

- The more I learn about the women's fashion industry, the more I find it resembles the booze business. My wife and I were shopping at the Nordstrom downtown when she saw some black Mary Jane flats by Miu Miu (a Prada spinoff). She asked to try them on, but they didn't have her size. We checked every other Nordstrom in the U.S. -- sold out. Possibly other stores? Nope. These particular shoes were "Nordstrom Exclusives" meaning the designer, in this case Miuccia Prada, had created them specifically for the retail chain. This trend is becoming more and more the norm in the women's retail fashion world: commissioning products in small quantities from exciting designers to add unique and interesting options unavailable to other competitors. Neiman Marcus might approach Kate Spade or Ted Baker and say: "Hey, we'd like to work together with you on an exclusive dress or jacket. What do you say?" Sound familiar? It's a model that's obviously working for both the retailer and the producer. The Miu Miu shoes were from the recent Spring release and they were already completely cleaned out.

- We spotted Suns center Emeka Okefor going for a stroll down Mission Street with his Ukranian teammate Alex Len. They were heading over the bridge to take on the Warriors later that evening. Man, are they tall!

- I'm really fascinated by curation right now. Museums don't really interest me these days, but I am always captivated by a beautiful layout. I'll look at art, but I want it presented in a way that makes it interesting and engaging (explain to me why this is important or groundbreaking while I'm taking it in, don't just give me a small card-sized descriptor). I'm finding better artistic curation in retail outlets as of late than I am in museums. The Bloomingdale's at the Westfield in San Francisco is one of the most incredible stores I've ever visited. It's huge, the layout is expansive and impeccable, and the music is atmospheric and super hip. The Anthropology on Market Street is the same. You don't need to buy anything to enjoy either of these places, just walk around and take in the view; enjoy the creativity they've put into each section and soak in the mood. I wish there was a more sensual way we could present the spirits at K&L -- a way that was fashion-forward and artistic, combining music and imagery, yet practical and easy-to-navigate. Like flying on Virgin America.

- Speaking of curation, the way in which we present wine and spirits to one another (in person, not in a retail outlet) has a big impact on how we enjoy those beverages. Too often in the United States will you find bottles taken completely out of context, stripping them of their intended usage and therefore their magic. Buying a bottle of red Burgundy to drink on the patio isn't going to maximize the flavor potential of that wine. Pouring a glass of single malt while you and your friends eat tacos and watch the game might be fun, but there's nothing particularly special going on. That's not to say that all experiences with alcohol need to be curated and memorable either, but like anything in life the details make all the difference. Taking the time to comb your hair right, tailor your pants, or shine your shoes can completely change your appearance. Taking the time to pick the right vegetables, light a candle, or decorate the dinner table with your finest glassware can heighten the experience of your meal. The right couch or painting on the wall can make or break the interior design of your living room. These details may appear effortless or minor, but they're not. Effortless chic isn't actually effortless. Drinking a glass of Ardbeg at Duffy's in the town of Bowmore will never be the same as drinking it at my house, but I can at least try to get the mood right. I wonder how many negative experiences with alcohol could have been more positive had it been presented differently?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar072014

Barton in Bottle

Come get some.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #25 Kentucky Bourbon $28.99 - (NOTE: This bottle will ship as a 1.5L sized bottle due to its size and shape). Sazerac's other distillery, the Barton facility in Bardstown, is not nearly as well-known as the Buffalo Trace side of things.  Ken Pierce, not Harlan Wheatley, is distilling over in Bardstown, making a high-rye Bourbon called 1792 Ridgemont -- a softer, smoother expression that's also bottled around Kentucky as Very Old Barton. While we can't get Very Old Barton here in CA, we can hand select barrels of Barton whiskey for the store and bottle them under the 1792 label. Our latest cask brings the red fruits and the soft banana right on the entry. The mid-palate evens out with creamy vanilla and the finish dances with lively oak spice. You might want to buy two of these because the first bottle's going to go faster than you think.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar062014

The New Guard

If you read through the vast array of prevalent whisky blogs and message boards, you'll eventually recognize a common thread weaving its way through the various posts: the idea that things aren't as good as they used to be in the world of Scottish single malt whisky. It's a growing complaint among consumers and it appears to be gaining more steam as of late -- the idea that standard brands are not providing the same bang for the buck they once did. Besides the numerous comments and posts that all of you are able to read online at any given time, I have access to a gigantic hub of consumer mail and opinion in addition to that. I get messages from people all day long that have nothing to do with K&L business, placing orders, or inquiring about bottles. Whisky fans everywhere simply send me their thoughts, their ideas, their triumphs, and their complaints about the modern day booze crisis -- to the tune of about 30-50 random emails a day. And that doesn't even account for the time I spend talking with people on the sales floor. I seem to be someone people want to vent to.

So when I say that there's consumer angst over the declining quality among major single malt producers, I'm not making it up. There are piles of email in my inbox right now asking for my opinion on various issues surrounding this idea.

"David, I bought a bottle of ______ last week. It's not as good as I remember it. Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary with this brand lately?"

Yes. I have. It's called global demand. It's stretching stocks of single malt whisky more thinly by the day and that squeeze is affecting the quality in your bottle. Everyone is noticing it and they're a bit unnerved by the idea.

I went to lunch today with one of my sales reps and we discussed this very topic while eating.

"The only advantage that brands have anymore over smaller single malt producers is pricing," I said. "Diageo can sell its single malt whiskies for less than Benriach or Kilchoman because of their scale -- they make more. But what happens when the prices start going up and the quality starts going down in the face of demand? Where's the advantage then? I'd rather pay a little more for better quality, wouldn't you?"

For years I've listened to old school single malt fans scoff at the pricing of the Kilchoman single malt whiskies. They are expensive, there's no doubt about it -- especially considering their youth.

"Why would I pay $100 for a 5 year old Kilchoman single cask when I can buy 16 year old Lagavulin for $65?"

That's a fair and reasonable question. However, are you talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2009 or from 2014? Because if you're talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2014, there's a very simple answer to that question: the Kilchoman tastes better. If you're talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2009, then you're talking about the past -- a past that big brands are relying on to help carry them through to the future, despite the fact the fact that things aren't quite as good as they used to be.

The two new casks of Kilchoman that I received today are better than the current releases from any Islay distillery we carry here at K&L. They're brighter, they're fruitier, they're smokier, they're more interesting, and they're more nuanced. They make you want to jump up and down, to shout, to pump your fist in the air and smile at the person tasting next to you. It's a feeling I haven't felt in some time while tasting Islay whisky -- the feeling of something electric and new, positive and optimistic.

Why are these two new casks so good? Because in these two Bourbon barrels you're getting a chance to taste the very best whisky that Kilchoman has to offer -- period. We went through their stocks and wound up with two cherries. We received that access because we've been loyal to Kilchoman since the very beginning, even when people thought their pricing was outrageous. In most current release expressions from larger brands and global portfolios, you're getting the very best whisky that those distilleries can offer to millions of people around the world in gigantic quantities. However, when you're looking to satiate millions of thirsty drinkers, can you really be at your very best? Can you really blend together incredibly nuanced and flavorful casks in the volume that it takes to satisfy demand in China, the UK, America, India, Europe, Japan and Brazil?

I think the answer to that question is currently in the bottle, and those bottles are currently being opened and reviewed by bloggers everywhere. What's the consensus? You tell me. Keep telling me. Keep sending me emails letting me know what you think. It's because of those emails and those complaints that we went out and found the best peated whisky we could possibly find. And, yes, it's expensive. But, after trying these bottles, not one of you will be sending me an email about how these whiskies don't deliver for the money. You'll be sending me an email asking, "Why doesn't more peated whisky taste as good as this?"

Except that we already know the answer to that question, don't we?

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #172 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - If there is one battle we're not willing to fight in the spirits world, it's the idea that "craft" whisky is better whisky. We don't think using quarter casks to mature whisky faster makes for better whisky. We don't think using organic grains or designer barrels make for better whisky either. What makes whisky better? Time. If you're not willing to let your whisky come around naturally, then you're not going to convince guys like David and me to support your stuff. Kilchoman, in my mind, is the one "craft" distillery that does it right. Their whisky is still young, but it's already light years beyond what we're seeing from standard Islay releases these days. There are reasons for this. They operate their still at a slow drip -that takes TIME. They only use standard size Bourbon and Sherry casks, which take TIME to mature. And, they hired John MacLellan, the former distiller for Bunnahabhain who has decades of experience from putting in TIME! And they keep getting better. This Bourbon cask #172 is so delicate in mouthfeel, yet bursting with white pepper, smoke, and fresh peat that it almost seems unreal. At 60% it tastes like 45% because it's in complete harmony with a small dose of butterscotch on the finish and then a lingering floral note. At only five years of age it's more flavorful, satisfying, and exciting than anything I've tasted from any Islay distillery over the past year. While others still look to the future, I think Kilchoman's time is now.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #74 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - This Bourbon cask #74 is zippy, lively, peppery, and bright with cinnamon red hots and bursts of sweet wood. It's like a mezcal made on Islay, but with more vanilla and sweetness. What's more amazing is the sheer drinkability at 59%. It's never hot, overpowering, or out of whack. This is one of the most vibrant and exciting whiskies I've tasted in years.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar062014

Dive In Head First (Think Later)

I remember my first production job in college. I did the videography on a commericial shoot in San Diego for a local TGI Fridays-type of restaurant  I won't mention the name of the company (because they're still in business), but the founder was the boyfriend of a girl I knew in the UCSD film department. Independent film and video production was hot in the late 90s. Swingers had just been released, Apple had just come out with the iMac DV (an affordable home video editing suite), and Hollywood was looking for the next big (cheap) indy darling. People were looking to get into the business, so my friend's boyfriend decided to invest tens of thousands of dollars into creating a production company. He created logos, shirts, bought expensive cameras, and created a website. There was only one problem: he didn't know anything about production. That's what he needed me and my friend for -- to teach him how to use all that stuff.

When the fever of a new phenomenon hits and the electricity is in the air, there are always a few people with extra money on their hands who look to dive into that excitement head first -- especially Americans. I mentioned this to Komal Samaroo, the chairman of DDL in Guyana, at dinner and he laughed out loud. "This is very true!" he exclaimed. Apparently Komal has been approached by a number of Americans over the past few years who were interested in buying or investing in the distillery. Some of them even flew out to visit. But after a few minutes of conversation it became clear that these romantic notions were perhaps a bit misguided. "I just tried El Dorado 12 last week for the first time and fell in love! I knew right then I needed to be a part of this business!" Or something like that.

"They didn't know anything about our history or our stills. They didn't know anything about the spirits business, but they were ready to offer millions!" Komal said.

There are people out there with extra cash on their hands looking to spend it on booze. Booze is hot, it's compelling, it's experiencing a huge renaissance and inspiring people everywhere to get involved in some shape or form. This captivating hysteria isn't just limited to deep-pocketed investors, either. There are guys opening distilleries who don't know how to distill. There are people spending thousands on Pappy who have never tried another Bourbon. To true spirits fans this type of behavior can be insulting because it demonstrates a lack of respect for the craft. It can't be that hard to distill something, right? Why start with something entry level when you can start with the best?

"Didn't that bother you?" I asked. "That people were attempting to purchase a historic distillery with centuries of tradition, yet they didn't know a thing about it?"

"Of course it bothered me," Komal said. "You want to purchase our brand, you're ready to invest millions, yet you don't know anything about us? What does that say about a person's judgement?"

I still get solicited at least once or twice a month by people who want to buy me lunch or take me out for a drink. I've stopped doing it because, once we get there, it's clear that what they're really looking for is unpaid consultation. "So, David, we're looking to build a distillery and we wanted to get your advice. What spirits should we make? What type of still should we buy? What do you know about rye whiskey?"

Seriously?

-David Driscoll