A Fine Balance

I have learned a great deal from working with the public. I have been presented with generosity when it was least expected, found humility where it was largely undue, and received a genuine kindness from strangers just when I had started to believe that true courtesy was a thing of the past. I have had numerous handshakes and hugs bestowed upon me. I have also been yelled at, demoralized, called a "racist bigot" when I didn't offer one man the refund he was after, and even challenged to a fist fight in the K&L parking lot. I have finished some days with my head in my hands, my patience worn down to its bitter nub, my faith in humanity in ruins. At other times, I have rejoiced in the compassionate nature of our customers and their incredible care for what we do as a retailer, wondering what I could have done in a past life to make my current situation so fortunate. Working with the public, every single day, year after year, is a reminder of everything that's humanly possible in life—from the worst, most-insensitive characteristics of man, to the most-redeeming, unappreciated surprises we often overlook. In the end, what we achieve is a fine balance.

In Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance the true potential for both suffering and joy are presented in an epic and awe-inspiring tale of life in India during the 20th century. It's a novel that has been praised as "utterly Dickensian" in its realistic and honest portrayal of poverty and the struggle humanity faces in its woe (although not being a huge fan of David Copperfield myself, I can say that A Fine Balance is much less tedious). It's a story that will arouse in you a storm of emotions and force you to examine your own behavior as a result. You will not walk away from this book the person you were before.

What most amazes me about Mistry's writing is his acute awareness of how anger is often misplaced due to a lack of understanding; how someone's attitude or actions might rub you the wrong way, yet you have no idea what that person has suffered or experienced to make them so (and if you did know you might not have been so upset or judgmental). It's that awareness—that ability to put yourself in the shoes of anotherthat Mistry poetically serves his readers in A Fine Balance. Taking that extra step—pausing for reflection rather than reaction—is what makes for good writing. Hell, it's what makes for a good human being (and actually for good customer service as well). It's the fragile foundation of what dealing with the public is based upon and it can easily crumble if you're not properly equipped to handle its challenges.

A Fine Balance is a firm reminder of how cruel the world can really be, and all you can hope to do in the face of it. It should be required reading for anyone who leaves their home and interacts with the outside world.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Journal Podcast #31 – Elisabetta & Antonella Nonino


I was taking a look back at the K&L Spirits Journal archive and I realized that we had a gaping hole in our subject matter—I'd covered Scotland, France, the United States, the Caribbean, and even Mexico, but I'd never spoken to anyone about the rich distilling traditions of Italy. Given my recent penchant for amaro and grappa (actually an old penchant that's recently resurfaced) I really wanted to talk to someone knowledgeable concerning this topic. My first thought was immediately the Nonino family—the most-respected distiller of fine grappa and amari liqueurs in all of Italy.

When I mentioned this idea to our Italian wine buyer Greg St. Clair, he said to me, "You need to make this one a video podcast. Have you ever seen the Nonino sisters?"

Yes, of course, I had. They're absolutely beautiful. But don't let their good looks fool you. These women are the brains and the brawn behind the entire Nonino empire; a dynamic portfolio of high-quality distillates and one of the few old-world operations to aptly anticipate the cocktail movement and embrace it with open arms (click here to visit their informative website). Their products are not only top-notch, but the labeling is also stylish, modern, and classy—offering a sophistication and intelligence that matches their carefully-crafted flavor. The Nonino sisters—and their spirits—are the total package.

Elisabetta, Antonella, & Cristina Nonino with a bottle of their Chardonnay grappa

On Thursday morning (early because of the time difference—hence my rather scratchy, unenergetic voice) I sat down with Elisabetta and Antonella Nonino for a lovely phone conversation about Italian spirits. Listen to us talk about amaro history, the excitement of the mixology scene, and what makes the Nonino products more elegant and delicious than any other Italian spirit on the market.

You can download this episode of the Spirits Journal podcast here or on our Apple iTunes page. Previous episodes can be found in our podcast archive located on the right hand margin of the page. You can also listen via our embedded Flash player above.

-David Driscoll


That's Amaro

“Amaro” means bitter in Italian and it’s the word used to describe a category of spirits that uses bitter roots, flowers, or barks in conjunction with sugar and a base alcohol (usually grain spirit, but sometimes wine or brandy) to create a flavored liqueur. The recent renaissance of amari like Campari has created a bitter resurrgence in the cocktail world, with bartenders raising the bar far beyond simple staples like a Negroni or a Black Manhattan. Whereas Campari, Cynar, and newer products like Gran Classico are meant specifically for cocktails (I think you'd be reaching for the toothpaste if you drank Campari straight up), traditional amari are meant for sipping after dinner; they're digestivos made with medicinal herbs to help ease your stomach after a big meal. 

For more than one hundred years, different areas of Italy have been producing regional versions of amari; typically from herbs, roots, and botanicals found in that particular locale. Just like Tuscany is known for Sangiovese, and Piedmonte is famed for its Nebbiolo, each region of Italy has its own special recipe (usually heavily-guarded and top secret) for an amaro. I've personally been cutting back on my brown booze consumption as of late, instead opting for a shot of Nonino or Montenegro before bedtime. Let's take a look at our current selection that continues to grow as more and more Italian amari are imported:

LiguriaAmaro Di S. Maria al Monte $36.99 – First created by the monks of the Santa Maria monastery near Florence, the recipe was sold to a Mr. Vignale in 1911, who began producing it for the Liguarian region. The ingredients are 100% natural with absolutely no artificial flavors or colors: Chinese rhubarb, China root, gentian root, orange peel, angelica, juniper, muscat nut, saffron, plus many more herbs are used to create the flavor profile.

BolognaAmaro Montenegro $26.99First produced in 1885 by Bolognan citizen Stanislao Cobianchi, who traveled through the Principality of Montenegro he was struck by the extraordinary digestive powers of a local drink known as Karik. Returning to Italy, Stanislao cloistered himself away in a liquoreria of the Piemont where, after learning the secrets of distillation, he was able to reproduce the flavors of the drink once tasted in Montenegro. Returning to Bologna as an accomplished master of his trade, Stanislao opened a small liquor store and subsequently a distillery in order to produce and market his Amaro Montenegro, made with over 40 different herbs.

Friuli – Nonino Quintessentia Amaro $44.99 – From Distillatori Nonino in Italy's Friuli. This amaro is a grape distillate (brandy) infused with herbs and aged in barrique, which creates a more delicate and round amaro due to the higher quality base. It's also barrel-aged, adding extra richness.

SicilyAverna Amaro Siciliano $29.99Produced in Caltanissetta, Sicily, Averna is named after its inventor, Salvatore Averna, who invented the recipe in 1868. Herbs, roots and citrus rinds are allowed to soak in the base liquor before caramel is added. 

LombardiaLazzaroni Amaro $25.99 – Located in the town or Sarrono, in the Lombardian province of Varese, Lazzaroni has been producing traditional aperitivos, digestivos, and extracts based on guarded family recipes since 1851. Made from a special selection of herbs, plants, roots, and berries from the Alps.

Lombardia – Braulio Amaro Alpino $34.99 – Created in Bormio in 1875 by Francesco Peloni, a pharmacist who specialized in the field of medicinal aromatic herbs, Braulio is made with thirteen fresh herbs sourced from the Valtellina mountain region, including gentian, juniper, peppermint, star anise, wormwood, bitter orange and yarrow. After being infused with alcohol, it is then matured in Slavonian oak for two years, fully integrating the flavors and lending additional complexity. 

Piedmonte Cardamaro Amaro $18.99This secret family recipe was developed over the last century by the Bosca family using a wine base of Moscato, making it more like a vermouth.  Cardoon, blessed thistle and several other botanicals are infused into the base with a bit of sugar added.

BasilicataLucano Amaro $24.99This traditional Amaro from the far flung Basilicata region is made in the most traditional manner.  Using only natural botanicals and following a hundred year old family recipe, the secret ingredient that differentiates Lucano is a closely guarded family secret, but the recipe includes Roman absinthe, wormwood, Clary sage, musk yarrow, holy thistle, sweet orange, gentian, and aloe.

MilanFernet Branca $21.99Fernet Branca is an Italian amaro developed in 1845. The family's secret recipe still has never been disclosed, but what they can tell you is that it is a combination of 27 different herbs picked in four continents and aged for more than a year in oak casks. Fernet is also a specific type of amaro, now considered an entirely different subgroup of more minty, medicinal-flavored liqueurs.

MarcheVarnelli Amaro Sibilla $51.99From Italy's Varnelli family, a producer from the Marche region that has been distilling since 1868. It was created in 1868 by the herbalist Girolamo Varnelli. According to his recipe, the ingredients are an infusion of herbs and roots from Monti Sibillini made on wood fire, pure honey from Monti Sibillini, and alcohol. These ingredients, once blended, have to be decanted and aged for several months.

Varnelli Amaro Dell'Erborista $61.99Rhubarb, dried orange peel, cloves, gentian root, and more are used to take the Sibilla to a new level of bitterness. This is a cloudy and unfiltered spirit that is quite supple, but bitter as bitter can be on the finish.

And this is just a brief overview! There are about ten more I didn't list and there are five more samples sitting on my desk for approval. I can't get enough of this stuff. Every family with its own secret recipe, all the herbs and medicinal properties, and the variety of flavor.....I love it.

-David Driscoll


How Things Change

When we visited the Signatory warehouse last March, I left thinking that our Balmenach and Benrinnes casks were going to be the best-received from this first wave of whiskies. Experience has taught me, however, that things often change when the bottles actually arrive (which is why I'm always in a hurry to open them up and spend a few days tasting through them again). The Balmenach is still hung up in customs, so I haven't been able to check back on that one. The Benrinnes (now in stock, by the way) is just as good as I remembered (maybe even better) and I think we did well in hyping it as a sleeper hit. It's so elegant and ethereal in its flavor and the layers continue to unpeel, like an onion, with vanilla, then fruit, then lovely flavors of sweet barley and, yes, that little hint of sweet tea I remembered.

The whisky that completely caught me off guard this morning, however, was the 2002 Bowmore (also in stock as of now). My colleague Jeff Garneau apparently felt the same way, as he approached me earlier today and said, "WOW! That Bowmore is out of this world." Part of the reason I don't remember the soft and flowing flavors of this Bowmore cask is because the whisky has indeed changed since we tasted it in Pitlochry. This was one of two casks (the Glenlivet 16 being the other) that we chose to have bottled at 46%. Therefore, this is the first time we've tasted the whisky since it's been reduced—and MAN is it good.

Bowmore is always a tricky whisky to sell; mainly because its reputation garners a high price tag, yet the style and quality of the single cask selection can be all over the map. It can be really peaty, or only slightly smoky. Sometimes it can taste like lavender, and sometimes like a dirty engine. It can be sherried and decadent, or light and easy. This 11 year old hogshead cask, however, is my favorite type of Bowmore cask: it's oily, supple, and round with a load of fat fruit in the mid-palate and a heavy dose of smokestack on the backend. It's hypnotic and awe-inspiring whisky, reminiscent of some of my early Bowmore tastings when we first visited the distillery back in 2010. It's soooo much better than I remember it tasting.

More on the other casks soon!

-David Driscoll


A New Hope

Many of us in the industry had been hearing rumors about a single malt whisky coming out of the Pacific Northwest—one that supposedly tasted like its Scottish counterparts. The local demand was apparently outrageous (akin to what Bay Area residents feel towards St. George distillery) and the small releases were selling out faster than the distillery could bottle them. The reviews were solid, the feedback genuine, and the excitement was palpable—depending on who you talked to. The distillery was called Westland and, supposedly, their single malt whiskey was the real deal; not something wildly-different, radical, or new-makey—just plain delicious.

We were all very intrigued. Of course, we wouldn't know anything for sure until we tasted it.

Sometime later this bottle (pictured above) appeared on my desk. Westland had signed on with a California distributor and their whiskey was finally going to be sold statewide; I was finally getting my chance to taste this heralded elixir. The price wasn't going to be inexpensive (around $70, I was told), but the quality was for once going to back up the hype (again, I was told). After years and years of beery, crafty, "interesting", immature, "promising" American single malt whiskey dominating the marketplace, was this the moment I had been waiting for? Was Westland going to be the one domestic distillery to stop fucking around with gimmicky experimentation and make something delicious we could all get behind as fans of single malt whisky? Was their American Single Malt Whiskey going to change the face of the domestic market, offering consumers something double-distilled from malted barley on both a wash and spirit still at their own facility—just like actual Scottish distilleries do—and not simply a hybrid spirit distilled from brewer's mash and run through an alembic column still?


That's right, folks—Seattle's Westland distillery is the "new hope" we've been looking for in the battle for microdistillery quality. The whiskey is indeed delicious, and the hype well-deserved—the Westland American Single Malt is a landmark release for American single malt whiskey. Made of five different types of roasted barley, the flavors are familiar yet not exactly Scottish in nature. There's much more new wood infiltrating the palate, but it's nothing like you'd expect from a Bourbon or rye whiskey. There's absolutely no question—from the first whiff on the nose, to the moment it hits your tongue—that you're drinking single malt whiskey. The soft-fruited flavors of a classic Highland expression come racing in immediately, bolstered by a wave of vanilla from the new oak. The richness maintains its composure all the way to the finish, which is more dominated by the wood and not quite as impressive as the entry. All in all, it's not an entirely mindblowing experience, but it is pretty impressive juice given what we've been subjected to for the last few years.

But then something happens—you keep drinking it and it starts to grow on you; like a song you keep hearing on the radio or a movie on TBS every night that you watch repeatedly. You start craving the Westland—you want that extra dose of new oak that the Scottish selections on your bar don't quite provide. You start thinking about what would happen if more Scottish distilleries aged their malts in new oak, and the lovely combination of fruit, dark cocoa, and vanilla begins to call your name as you sleep. My take on the Westland after having an open bottle for a few weeks is much more heartfelt than it was after my first few sips (which is why spending time with a bottle is so important). What started as simply a positive and mildly-exciting experience has now grown into a more-affectionate relationship.

Had I tasted the Westland American Single Malt five months ago, it would definitely be—without a doubt—the best American single malt whisky I've ever tasted. But as Yoda tells Ben Kenobi in Return of the Jedi: "There is another."

As of right now we have the Westland in stock, so you can try it out for yourselves. If you're searching for exciting new whiskies of quality, this is definitely something you're going to want to check out. In a few weeks, I'll be back to tell you about the other upcoming American single malt that really impressed me recently—and that one will only be sold at K&L.

There is reason to be hopeful about the future. The Luke and Leia of American Single Malt whisky are finally upon us.

-David Driscoll