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Sunday
Feb092014

Retail Gossip

Judging from the feedback I hear from sales reps and brand vendors in the business, we're a pretty easy account to deal with for distribution companies – especially liquor. I wouldn't know for sure, however, because I've never worked for another retailer outside of K&L, and I don't even know anyone who works in another store. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we're never worried about the other guy. Personally, I have no idea what other shops are selling, what their prices are, or what special deals they're offering. I don't keep tabs on the competition and I don't have time to worry about anyone but ourselves (which is already enough to worry about).  All I know is based off of what I hear from the vendors who travel from store to store and they always tell me how relieved they are to finally be at K&L.

Sales reps like to gossip a little bit, so I'll usually pick up a fun tidbit about the Bay Area liquor industry while I'm putting in an order or tasting a new product. Apparently, the hot story right now on the scene is us: the K&L spirits department. And when I say "hot" I mean hot with anger, agitation, and annoyance. "You know everyone hates you, right?" one vendor told me the other day. "Me?" I said shocked. "I don't even know anyone! How do they know who I am and what did I ever do to them?" Another rep told me that every time he goes into a certain store they have our webpage up and they scream at him to match pricing while complaining about specialty items. "Are you serious?" I said, laughing out of disbelief. "It's terrible," he replied. One director of marketing told me last week that another store called me "the devil" while she was tasting with them. "How did that even come up?" I asked, half-smiling. "They always bring it up. You're the bane of their existence, offering an exciting lineup of new products at good prices, and it's making them upset," she said.

If some stores hate K&L because they're jealous, or because we're giving them stiff competition, then I'm totally fine with that! That just means we're doing our job well. However, if gaining more recognition from the consumer marketplace is going to piss people off, then I can't wait to see what happens later this year when David OG and I roll out a new super secret project. I'm actually picking him up at the airport in a few hours to start working on it and it's going to be interesting to see where it leads. If it works out like we hope it will, then I think you'll be really excited by the result. And if pushing your job to new limits means that people are going to hate you for it, then we're going to be the two most hated spirits buyers in the world when the news hits. We're going to be absolutely despised.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb072014

Second, Third, Fourth Waves

It keeps rolling in...

2003 Evan Williams K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #1072 Bourbon $26.99 - This monstrous cask of bourbon was the first that we popped after our tour of the Heaven Hill facility. Out of the cask this stuff was thick like syrup. While the proof has come down, the richness is still apparent. This is classic EWSB, strong on the maple, vanilla, and subtle warming spice. It's incredible how texturally different this is to our last barrel even with the exact same proof. Even though we didn't convince them to bottle it at cask strength, showing up in KY certainly has its benefits, they really rolled out a couple of gems for us. Only 144 bottles of this magnificent little whiskey will ever exist.

2003 Evan Williams K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #869 Bourbon $26.99Here we have another delightful cask coming from Heaven Hill. This one is coming in just under 10 years old, but it's got the complexity to make up for it. The nose is brimming with oak spice, minty sweetness, and an enchanting bouquet of dried fruits. On the palate what once seemed like a spice monster is much more subtle and balanced. Truly one of the most balanced casks of EW that we've come across. The palate isn't sugary per say, but we have absolutely no heat present and the soft oakiness is nearly overpowered by the persistent fruit. Proof that bourbon can be one of the world's great delicate spirits.

Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #43 Lot 4669 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 - Last October we toured Buffalo Trace distillery for the first time and got to select samples directly from the distillery. Getting to bottle our own selections from one of the nation's best and most-popular distilleries is a fantastic way for us to provide something unique and interesting for our loyal whiskey customers. Now that the word is out that Pappy Van Winkle is made at the Frankfort facility, tourists have begun flocking to Buffalo Trace to conduct their own whiskey pilgrimages. When we were there in the Fall the campus was a madhouse of Bourbon aficionados and die-hard enthusiasts. We were lucky to taste anything as the gift shop was completely sold out of everything except cream liqueur. Luckily, there were three solid, classic Buffalo Trace casks there for the taking and we snatched them up. The #43 barrel offered plenty of burnt sugar, toasted nuts, and barrel spice right on the nose, with more on the palate right afterward. The cask yielded a little more than 200 bottles and we're pumped to finally have them on our shelves.

Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #45 Lot 4669 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99  - The #45 was more herbaceous and full of bold rye flavor with plenty of wood spices on the finish. It's a more intense version of the standard formula with everything dialed up a bit. We're excited to have it all to ourselves!

Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #79 Lot 4320 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 - When we visited the Buffalo Trace distillery, we were struck by the historical nature of the distillery. No other distillery felt quite like the majestic brick warehouses that responsible for some of the countries greatest bourbons. While, the crowds were plentiful, hoping to get a glimpse of the new "home" of Pappy, we were more interested why Buffalo Trace was so special. It's clear that their standard line up offer the absolute most diverse and delicious values in American Whisky bar none. This cask #79 is brimming with spice and full of concentration in a way that could only come from a single barrel. There's a balance of richness and barrel spice that really carries through all the way to the finish.

And Faultline returns!!!!

Faultline Straight Bourbon Whiskey $39.99 - We've been doing gin and single malt for years, and now rum, so why not throw our hat in the Bourbon pool? One of the obstacles that kept us from making a Faultline Bourbon earlier was availability: the current demand has made the extra barrel a thing of the past. One of the only distilleries that would sell us a cask for a private label was the old LDI distillery in Indiana, but with the already overcrowded LDI market (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, High West, etc) we didn't think our product would be different enough, or of the quality we desired, for the Faultline name. That's when John Little from Smooth Ambler stepped in and said he'd be happy to help us do something special. If we were going to work with LDI casks, then we needed the capability to blend something special to taste - the specs wouldn't sell this baby. John had some incredible 10 year old low rye formula that we used in conjunction with some 7 year high rye. We kept tasting and tasting until we found the sweet spot at 100 proof. It's FAR better than I ever thought it would be. I hoped we could provide something fun and different, but the final whiskey is phenomenal. It's rich, with sweet fruit right on the entry, a full-bodied mid-palate, and a long, rich, spicy finish. It tastes like it came from Four Roses or somewhere fancy and at 50% it pops in all the right places. I hope we can make another batch like this because this Bourbon is the new king of K&L. Taste it if you don't believe me.

....and we're not done yet!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb062014

First Wave

The swells are growing and the tides are rising....the K&L Kentucky Bourbon onslaught is about to consume everything in its path. We're gearing up to take possession of the many, many barrels we picked out last fall while traveling to Louisville and Lexington. The first wave of this storm is now upon us. Above, you'll see us tasting Henry McKenna whiskey right from the cask at the Heaven Hill Bardstown facility. Below, you'll see the whiskey from that cask sitting inside of a bottle.

The first two McKenna barrels are ready to go -- numbers 1114 and 1115. When you're talking about ten year old, single barrel, 100 proof Bourbon from Heaven Hill, it's really tough to go wrong. They're almost identical in flavor having been aged in the same part of the warehouse together. Both have a creaminess and a potent herbaceousness from the rye content. Both finish with lovely baking spices and hints of charred oak. The #1114 has just a bit more pepper on the back end with another dash of rye for good measure. The #1115 is perhaps just a bit rounder on the palate with a creamer, tropical note before the spice comes back big on the finish.

As fewer and fewer whiskey labels continue to provide specifics about maturity and provenence, you can still count on Henry McKenna for quality, value, and transparency. You know it's from a single barrel, you know it's from Heaven Hill, and you know it's ten years old. And since it was selected by us here at K&L, you know it's good, too!

In stock now:

Henry McKenna K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #1114 Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $26.99

Henry McKenna K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #1115 Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $26.99

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb062014

Introducing Jardesca

My buddy Duggan McDonald, former San Francisco bartending superstar and current partner in Campo de Encanto pisco, stopped by last week to show me his newest project: a wine-based aperitif called Jardesca, made from California grapes and locally-grown herbs. "What a great idea," I said, "You know we're launching one too, right? We should work together." It seems great minds think alike. Dave Smith, from St. George, and I made a 100% California-based white wine aperitif last year, but we've yet to get our labels to the government, so our final product is sitting in a warehouse for the moment. Duggan's Jardesca, however, is ready to go right now! We're planning to do a few launch parties later this summer when the weather is more appropriate for white wine spritzers, but the Jardesca is so tasty you might want to make an exception now.

I love what white wine aperitifs can do in a cocktail and Duggan is a wizard with his mixing. He brought his bag of tricks to our tasting bar, beginning with fresh basil and lime. He muddled those two ingredients with some simple syrup, added some ice cubes, poured in about three ounces of Jardesca, and topped it off with some soda water. Poof! Cocktail heaven. Kyle and I were spinning. On it's own, the Jardesca is fresh and floral with plenty of snappy acidity. It can function in place of a normal dry vermouth as well, but I love it over ice with a twist.

We've got it in stock.

Jardesca California Aperitiva $26.99

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Feb052014

Rum Super Geekdom

Talking to Bryan Davis about spirits can sometimes be like an episode of NOVA or The Big Bang Theory. Not only is he incredibly passionate about his craft, he's also eager to share everything he knows about making spirits. To give you an example, look at this response to an email I wrote him earlier this week, asking about the production specs of his new Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum.

Hey David,

Everyone wants to talk about age, but in truth the barrel should only represent the final step that catalyzes a chain of chemical reactions and brings all the work together from each step of the spirit production process. 

To understand how I approach spirits is as follows.

Success =

Hgh density of long chained esters. + Benzaldehyde (a chemical that does not come out of the oak in quantity for a very long time under normal cellaring conditions). 

Failure =

- High density of free acids (hot spirits, that need to age longer to convert the acids to esters)

- Low density of acids or esters (light and boring spirits)

- High density of short-chained esters (smooth but only half finished with heavy solvent / paint thinner notes).

The beauty of making spirits is that each step presents an opportunity to intensify the density along the way. 

Basic distilled spirit chemistry 101:

- Esters (the aromas of fruits, flowers, and spices) are made from chemically bonding alcohols to acids.

- Short chained esters are made from chemically bonding one acid and one alcohol together.  They smell solvent like in high concentrations and fruity in low concentrations.  These are intermediaries in the spirit maturation process.  They will eventually form long chained esters in the cask. 

- Long chained esters (our goal) are made by bonding multiple acids of different types and alcohols together. 

To make esters you need acids and alcohols.  Since we are making distilled spirits alcohol is a given.  So where do the acids come from? 

There are two types of acids in distilled spirits:  Carboxylic acids and Phenolic acids and they can come from many places in the production process. 

- Yeast produce carboxylic acids during fermentation.  Primarily acetic acid but depending on strain many other acids are possible.  

- Bacteria produce carboxylic acids during fermentation, varying wildly depending on stain employed.    

- Toasted, burned, caramelized Lignin (a common polymer in all plant life) yields phenolic acids when burned (charred/toasted oak is a major source of this, but there are other sources in the process)

- Toasted, burned, caramelized Hemicellulose (the other common polymer in plant life) yields carboxylic acids and plant sugars (charred/toasted oak is a major source of this, but there are other sources in the process).

Now that we have covered the basics, it is time to being dissecting the entire process and trying to optimize each step to produce, first, the highest density of acids possible, then use our oak to both add new acids as well as catalyze the esterification process and convert all those acids into delicious long chained esters.

Step One… The Raw Material

Raw materials present an opportunity to gain precursor acids.  Burnt, caramelized, smoked, or toasted raw materials contain free acids which can do chemistry.  All the raw materials contain lignin and hemicellulose.  When the lignin or hemicellulose is burned it breaks down into free acids.  When the molasses are caramelized they release phenolic acids from the lignin in the sugar cane.  Toasting grains, roasting coffee, roasting nuts, all function on the same principal. 

Unlike roasting foods, in distilled spirits making we take things a big step forward and take the chemical products of the roasting and then put them back together in a new order that suits our desires (barrel aging). 

By choosing / making raw materials that have the right aromatic acids in them from the start we boost our overall end ester count in the process.  For the rum this means finding molasses that had a maximum amount of free phenolic acids without other bad tasting things that might pass through the still.

The key, for me, is not the terroir of the sugar cane, the key is the cooking process and the amount and characteristics of the phenolic compounds generated. 

Step Two… Dunder

Dunder is a mysterious substance added to the fermentation in high ester rum production.  Dunder is sometimes made from overripe fruits, rotten fruits, and sometimes a special soup of decomposing bats, and waste from the last distillation. 

Dunder is made in pits or caldrons and is sometimes ripened for up to a year before use.  Though it may sound like voodoo there is actually a good reason for this substance.  When the fruit, molasses waste, or bats undergo bacterial fermentation the bacteria produce carboxylic acids as a byproduct.  These acids are responsible for the "rotting smell" but remember we are going to chemically bond them to acids later to make esters.  The final esters will smell and taste completely different from the acids they are made from. 

A carefully made “dunder” can yield more carboxylic acid than many years in a barrel.  In my case this means overripe bananas which are a component of the yeast starter.   

Fermentation

Yeast make carboxylic acids.  Yeast also make short-chained esters from free acids present in our raw materials and “dunder.” 

Yeast make acids to inhibit bacteria growth.  It is a defense mechanism for them.  If you want them to make more acid than usual you need to first select a yeast strain that makes more acids than normal.  You can also stimulate the process by stressing the yeast into a defense posture.  This can be accomplished by introducing controlled amounts of bacteria (see dudnder).  This is also done, by manipulating the biochemistry of the yeast.  In my case depriving them of nitrogen to create weak cell walls (another way of stressing them).   

Getting the yeast to then convert those acids, and the dunder acids into esters is a clever trick.  The yeast make esters as a means of removing alcohol from the solution.  It’s a defense mechanism to prevent them from dying of alcohol poisoning.  Again under the right stress conditions we can force them to convert a significant portion of the free acids into esters.  properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.

Optimizing the fermentation is not about mimicking the cask aging process.  It is about going into the cask with a big dose of the carboxylic acids and esters.  The logic works like this, if you have a big dose of acids and esters going into the cask you don’t have to wait from them to leach out of the oak.  Furthermore, you can control which esters your making far more carefully through fermentation and raw materials selection, than you can by charing oak and waiting to see what the wood gives you.

When you approach spirits making this way, the time on oak is mostly about transforming the short-chained esters from the fermentation into complex esters.  

Distillation

There are two approaches to distillation.  The more common approach, called high rectification, is to ferment with a lot of bad stuff in the mix and then use the still to clean the booze up.  Some people also choose to ferment very neutral booze and rely on the barrel to do all the work.  This is the bubble plate pot / column strategy. 

The other strategy is to manage the fermentation carefully so that you can distill without plates and capture as much of the fermentation character as possible.  This is a low rectification pot still strategy, and it is the one I favor because I have tight control over my fermentation and raw material selection.   

If we had the right yeast, and the perfect dunder, and a perfect fermentation, it would all be ruined by excessive rectification.  Our goal is to distill as much of the good stuff into the resulting spirit, with the alcohol, through low rectification.

Oak

It is all about the char.  Oak on its own is chemically stable.  It is only through the charring / toasting process that the lignin and hemicellulose in the oak become unstable yielding carboxylic acids, wood sugars, and phenolic acids.  The acids coming from the oak are not only adding building blocks for ester making, they are also catalysts triggering the ester formation in the barrel. 

Furthermore as the cask grows very old the lignin begins to decompose into the spirit yielding the all important holy grail of benzoic acid and benzaldehyde.  These compounds are responsible for the sweet, "wet wood" character of the very oldest spirits. 

We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.          

After that it is about manipulating the environment to make the catalyst from the oak do its job.  I won't disclose all my secrets but in truth the aging process should be seen as the last step in a long line of process decisions that create a given spirit. 

While it is true that you need the aging to complete the reactions and make the long-chained esters.  Honestly, in the industry, far too much attention is paid to this final step, and not enough attention is paid to all the decisions that lead up to the aging as a final columniation.  

P.S. The oak is Oloroso sherry seasoned New American Oak. 

I think that clears it up, Bryan! Thanks for the detailed response!

-David Driscoll