Kentucky: Day 1 - Headed for Ken-tuck-ee

There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everyone back in the boat. If I've tried to cultivate anything it's been that. I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I don't care what shape it takes. These old people I talk to, if you could have told them that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speaking a language they couldn't even understand, well, they just flat out wouldn't have believed you. But what if you'd of told them it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it don't tell you how it got that way. And it don't tell you nothin' about how it's fixin' to get neither. 

If you've ever seen the movie No Country For Old Men, you don't really need to read the book. I just finished reading it on the plane for the fun of it, because I like Cormac McCarthy as a writer, but the book and the movie are pretty much identical to one another. That quote above is from Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, and it's in both versions of the story. I identify with those words greatly -- not just the self-description given, but also with the idea that as we age we're often unprepared for the changes ahead of us. Not only do we not anticipate them, but we're not happy about them either. In essence, that's the gist of the story. You think you've seen it all, but there's always the potential for more. And Anton Chigurh is the face of it (Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning role in the movie).

We're headed for Dallas at the moment, where we'll have an hour to kill before we board the flight to Louisville. Having just finished the novel, I'm pondering the parallel in the current narrative to Kentucky's thriving Bourbon industry. If you would have told Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle fifty years ago that his name would become synonymous with a whiskey so coveted that thieves were willing to risk breaking into the distillery, stealing a huge portion of what was bottled, and attempting to sell that whiskey for three times the retail value on the black market, do you think he would have believed it? Do you think Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge ever imagined retailers having to raffle off his special selections and that accounts would call him, bitching and screaming about not getting their fair share of the allocation? Do you think anyone in Kentucky would have believed you if you had told them by the year 2010 people around the world would be taking pictures of their products, portraying them like trophies, creating cellars full of the choicest collections, and yearning for Bourbon whiskey at such a level that their own distilleries would be unable to supply the insatiable demand?

I don't think so. As Sheriff Bell said, "they just flat out wouldn't have believed you."

The revival of enthusiasm concerning Kentucky whiskey has created a fanaticism for the liquid that I have to believe outshines any other period in history. I've read about previous spells of Bourbon hysteria, about speakeasies and bootleggers, and the trade of barrels down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. But unlike today those periods were mainly focused on providing consumers with something tasty to drink. In the past, I have to think that if the barrel made it down to Louisiana safely the mission would have been considered successful. Today's needs are not necessarily based on consumption, however. There's plenty of Bourbon to be drunk. Hell, I think Jim Beam alone can make enough whiskey for most communities to fortify their needs. Today's desires are about connoisseurship, but also about self-indulgence. There's an excitement created when someone lets you in on the inner secrets of the whiskey world -- the idea that there are richer, rarer, more pleasurable experiences possible for consuming a glass of Bourbon. As soon as that door is opened it's difficult to go back through.

When I started working with the spirits at K&L (a job no one wanted back then), I was totally captivated with the Bourbon selection. Not because the bottles were famous, collectable, or highly-desired (because they weren't at that time), but because they seemed so romantic -- so quintessentially Kentuckian. The forest stenograph depicted on the Black Maple Hill bottle looked so quaint and peaceful. The cigar nestled in the mouth of the Pappy reminded me of a real-life Colonel Sanders. Back then these whiskies were just sitting on our shelves and I would look at them for hours each day as I walked the liquor aisle. What were these whiskies? Why were they more expensive than the others? What did age do to the flavor of Bourbon whiskey? I remember shelling out for a bottle of Vintage 17 and loving it. I remember getting my first bottle of Willett 20 and closing my eyes as I took in the richness and spice. Man, was that exciting to me. I remember trying to convey that passion to other customers as they pondered which selection to purchase. I didn't really know anything about whiskey as a whole, but I knew how excited I was about Bourbon.

Today there's little semblance of that time left within me. 

Part of it was I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just don't feel that way no more. I don't know what I do feel like. I feel like them old people I was talking about. Which ain't going to get better neither. I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I don't have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin I might not hold with the way I once did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I don't know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before.

Back in the day I used to get the question from customers, "What's a special Bourbon that I could give my father as a gift this Christmas?" and I would light up. "I've got all kinds of options!"  I would say, half-running over to the Bourbon shelf, brimming with the light of the newly initiated. These days I've got plenty of tasty Bourbon, but the special ones are more trouble than they're worth. These days I spend most of my time explaining to people why they can't get a bottle of Stagg, or Weller Larue, or the 2013 Limited Small Batch from Four Roses. And I just mostly ignore the requests for Pappy anymore. I'm disappointed in what the Bourbon experience has developed into for me personally, not because of the rabid demand (I love talking to people about booze), but because of the anger, the anxiety, and the dissatisfaction I see in people's faces and hear in their voices. It's Pappy or nothing for many consumers because they don't really care about whiskey, or Kentucky, or understanding what makes a bottle of Bourbon so enjoyable and exhilarating. It's mostly about the hunt and what they're willing to do to win. When you legitimately care about booze, when it's of the utmost importance to your daily life, that mentality is so off-putting that it's hard to keep putting on a smile on the sales floor. I'm losing my smile, as Shawn Michaels once said.

Yet, here I am on a plane headed towards Dallas, where I will board a connecting plane to Kentucky. I'm hoping that my first visit to Bourbon country will reinvigorate me as my previous trips to Scotland and France have done for my enjoyment of single malt and brandy. I'm hoping that tonight, somewhere in Louisville, I can find something beautiful about Bourbon that overpowers the status quo of trophy hunting and reminds me that people and places are ultimately what matter. Most importantly, I'm hoping that -- if I do indeed find what I'm looking for -- I can capture it, take a photo of it, and use my keyboard to convey it in words. I know a good number of K&L customers who are rather sad about the current state of Kentucky whiskey. The scarcity of beloved bottles, the buy-now-or-forever-be-doomed-to-wonder state of affairs. Like Sheriff Bell, I've realized that -- as much as I'd like to -- there's nothing I can do to change that. 

Maybe I can explain it, however. And maybe along the way I can learn to appreciate what we have rather than long for what we don't.

-David Driscoll


Making Time for John

Speaking of making time, I made some time to have lunch with John Glaser on my day off today. Luckily, John was willing to make some time for me as well. John is one of the true nice guys in this business and we usually try to make sure we see each other when I'm there (in London) or he's here. We had lunch at The Cavalier near the mall downtown on Market and talked about our current projects.

While sadly there won't be a Flaming Heart release this year, fans of Compass Box peated whisky are still in for a treat. John will be releasing a tenth anniversary release of the Peat Monster featuring older whiskies in the marriage. I had a chance to taste it today and you can really pick out the Laphroaig. John told me there were various Laphroaig whiskies, ranging from 7 to 11 years old if I remember correctly, as well as some older peated Ardmore malts, about 15 and 16 years of age. These are interwoven with smoky Caol Ila, smoky Ledaig, and a bit of Clynelish. There's also a dash of Spice Tree (Clynelish aged in new French oak) tossed in for good measure.

It also has a bitchingly awesome label.

John is expecting the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary to clock in at around $99.99 retail, so make some room in your budget for the upcoming release. He also expressed interest in our 1979 Faultline Blended whisky because it appears John stumbled upon some similar casks, but even older in age. He took a 33 year old cask of blended whisky and married it with a cask of 40 year old blended whisky to create a new expression he's calling The General. Look for that one early next year.

We're off to Kentucky tomorrow. This time, however, we'll have K&L co-owner Brian Zucker along for the ride. He has no idea what's about to hit him.

-David Driscoll


What Do You Make Time For?

To expand on a pet peeve of mine I mentioned recently (people who say, "I don't have time to drink bad whisky"), I'm wondering what people do make time for? Because it seems to me like saying one doesn't have time to do something is usually a pretty silly thing to say (unless you have kids because then you are simply at their beck and call). Not that we should go out of our way to drink terrible whisky, but if one wants to understand spirits appreciation in general you have to take the bad with the good. Plus, I'm not even sure there is such a thing as bad and good, but rather simply what one likes and what one doesn't like (I've had people tell me our Glenlochy cask is one of the best whiskies they've ever tasted. I've also had people tell me it's one of the most boring whiskies they've ever tasted). Not everyone can like everything.

But now I'm getting off track.

Here are some of my favorites:

"I don't have time to exercise." Or maybe you just don't want to go to bed early and then get up early to hit the gym before work.

"I don't have time to dress up and worry about how I look." Or perhaps you're not interested, or you don't know how and you therefore resent people who do.

"I don't have time to watch TV." Say the people who spend an hour browsing the internet, looking at the same five sites over and over again.

"I don't have time to cook." I often get up and cook in the morning so that I don't have to do it later that night. It's about making time, not having it.

But often that's really what "I don't have time..." means. It means the person saying that doesn't personally want to make time and is looking for a way to justify not doing so. It's almost a slight, or a knock on the person who is willing to make time. There's a reason 24 Hour Fitness exists. So that you can literally go exercise whenever you want, or whenever you can make the time to do so. Most things in life that are important to us are about making an effort. A friend comes into town, so you make the effort to free up your evening for dinner. If there's a band playing you want to go see, you might sneak out of work a bit early. We all make time for some things in life. Even the most busy of us.

Of course, there are people who are very busy, busting their behinds, working three jobs to support their families, barely stopping to eat and sleep. But we're not talking about those people. We're talking about childless, single occupation folks who simply are "too busy" to do the things we happen to care about -- the people who make us feel guilty about our passion. In my case, my passion for booze is something other people often roll their eyes at. "I don't have time to waste thinking so carefully about what I drink. I just drink and that's that." But you do have time to be discerning. Anyone does. There's a difference between not having time and not caring. So let's just call it what it is.

You don't care? Great, there's no need to tell me. But I do. So shut up.

-David Driscoll


Photo of the Day: Oban

Back in 2012, David and I made the trek over to Scotland's isolated west coast and the town of Oban. The drive along the A85 was one of the prettiest we've taken in the country. The tour of the distillery was fantastic. The whisky we tasted there was spectacular. And after we left the distillery we hiked up the hill behind it and were treated to a lovely sunset view looking west out towards the Isle of Mull. 

It started to rain just after I snapped this photo and we headed back into town for a warm meal. Oban is the type of place that drives a man to drink -- not because it's desolate or boring, but rather because it's so beautiful that you can't help but have a dram while you take it all in.

-David Driscoll


Knick Knacks/Updates

There's a lot going on in the booze industry at this time of year. The Fall allocations get released. The mighty collectable Bourbons hit the shelves (or the raffle in our case). People start thinking about buying their loved ones a special bottle or two. And things really start to ramp up in our retail locations.

I'm already seeing a big head start for this year's holiday season. There are more orders everyday in our queue and more emails in my inbox. And we're only mid-way through October. We're looking good right now as far as preparation goes. I've got all my important, high-volume spirits items re-enforced and ready, with plenty of reserve bottles filling up every nook and cranny of the warehouse. We've got our two biggest drops of K&L exclusive whisk(e)y already processed and on the shelves. It's looking good right now. I'm very optimistic today after getting the entire store clean and tidy last night. I feel refreshed and ready, like you feel after you wash all the dishes and vacuum in your house on Sunday. Everything just looks nicer and that feeling of satisfaction sustains you through the afternoon.

Here are some tidbits you might be interested in:

- Four Roses 125th Anniversary has come and gone. We got our allocation. Ran our raffle. That's it. I didn't try it, but I'm sure it's amazing: a marriage of one 18 year old cask with two 13 year olds.

- Diageo and I are continuing to work together in the name of better booze business. We just brought the Talisker 18 back in stock and it's $129.99 -- lowest price in the state from what I can find online. I just tasted the recent batch and it's just as good as it always is. This was a benchmark whisky for me for many years. I still really love it, despite the higher price. Perspective always helps. Now that Mac 18 is $200 and Yamazaki is $155, I don't feel as bad.

- We're expecting our Glendronach and Benriach casks to hit the store in another week or two. Anyone who loves peated whisky might want to pick up the Benriach before we end the pre-order pricing. I think it's the second best cask we found this year, after the Jura.

- We're off to Kentucky this Tuesday. Expect a whole week of live blogging with photos. We got Diageo to open up Stitzel Weller, so that should be a fun day of pictures.

- Speaking of Bourbon, our Faultline Bourbon is selling much faster than I expected (but, hey, it's also much better tasting that I expected). It's proof that flavor is king ultimately. If we said it tasted it great and it didn't we'd be in trouble, of course. I called John Little and he's working on a second batch that will be identical to the first. We hope that'll get here before Xmas.

- The second batch of Fuenteseca tequila (also identical to the first) should be here within the next few weeks as well. We're not taking pre-orders, but rather we're going to just take it in and let it fly. I've been really proud of the public response and honored by the chance to involve myself in this project. I'm excited another 600 people will get to try it.

- I've heard some people saying they think the Pappy theft was just clever marketing. As if the Van Winkles needed more people lusting after their whiskey. If there's one brand that needs less marketing and excitement, it's the Pappy products.

- I recently re-tasted the Armorik single malt whiskies from France and was very impressed. They've made some changes at the Bretagne distillery and it's really turned this whisky around. The son-in-law of the owner, David Roussier, has taken over the cask selection and blending operations, as well as the sourcing of the barrels. I think the new versions are right up there with Yamazaki 12 and some of the lighter Japanese whiskies. The new 2002 vintage they plan on releasing soon is very good. I tasted my small sample again last night to make sure I wasn't hallucinating the first time around. We've got the revamped Classic Whisky (aged almost 7 years in refilled American Bourbon casks, and finished in Oloroso Sherry casks for three months - $49.99) back on the shelf in Redwood City and I am eagerly anticipating the new vintage release. This is one of the most impressive and fastest brand revivals I have ever experienced. I was feeling very, very sarcastic going into this meeting (I told their importer Christine I didn't believe her when she said they were better now), but that's why you have to taste everything. You can't know unless you taste. I'm glad I did!

- If you're a Spanish brandy or sherried rum lover (heck, any kind of sherry lover), you might be very interested in some of Nicolas Palazzi's new sherry-aged spirits. Working in partnership with Equipos Navazos (the Pappy Van Winkle of the sherry world, if there were such a thing) we've already been tricking out some of the Oloroso-aged Spanish brandy (not cheap at $70 for a 375ml, but utterly divine). Equipos Navazos is a group of bottlers that make extremely high quality, single barrel, unfiltered sherry. The fact that he's using their used barrels is insane and very exciting to us Sherry fans. Keep your eyes peeled for the rum.

Is the full moon affecting anyone else? I felt like I was having weird dreams and crazy nostalgic memories all night long. Maybe that was the booze though. And the stress. And that tab of LSD that Jim Barr slipped into my wine glass at our staff tasting.

-David Driscoll